The HR Juggler

Why Do We Promote Compatibility Rather Than Capability?

Posted on: November 20, 2011

The title of this blog post comes from Neil Morrison, an HR professional with a gift for provoking debate and discussion and blogger extraordinaire. If you need further proof of either of these points, you should really check out his change-effect blog.

Compatibility or capability…which do organisations really value most highly? And, as HR, how effective are we in challenging the reasons behind certain individuals being promoted and others being overlooked? Do we ourselves become quite institutionalised in the organisations we work in, the decisions we validate, the values that we share and the behaviours we  encourage? At what price the continuation of the status quo?

Last week a close friend was talking to me about his career and his reasons for looking for roles outside his current organisation. This is a huge deal for him as he has worked for his current employer for 15 years and is immensely loyal and hard-working, as well as talented and capable. His recent projects have involved his team saving his company over a million pounds, so you would imagine that he would feel valued and optimistic about his future there. However, in reality, the most senior manager in his team was thanked, celebrated and recognised, but none of the employees actually involved in the work of the project received a single word of thanks. My friend’s perception was that the popular people get promoted, whilst those that are not in the ‘in-crowd’ are forgotten, overlooked and systematically neglected. Compatibility to the organisation rather than capability.

But does any organisation really want capability at the expense of compatibility and can that ever truly work? At least some of that question must boil down to what we understand by compatibility.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines compatible as follows –

  • (of two things) able to exist or occur together without problems or conflict
  • (of two people) able to have a harmonious relationship

In my view, organisations and senior management teams don’t have to be harmonious or devoid of conflict and issues to be effective. In order to successfully bring change to an organisation and for it to continuously improve its effectiveness and commercial success, employees must robustly challenge themselves and others at the most senior level; an activity and mindset that HR professionals must absolutely be part of, in order to be valuable to the organisation they work in and their own profession. Otherwise, what is the point of us?

There has to be a balance here though and capability at the expense of any degree of organisational compatibility can fail spectacularly.  If  individuals are so at odds with the culture of an organisation, which is not ready or willing to ever change, then those individuals will find it near impossible to succeed.

In truth, it is probably too simplistic to view promotion on a simple either/or basis and that the correct balance of compatibility and capability depends upon where an organisation is and what it is aiming to achieve. However, all organisations and all HR professionals would do well to guard against promoting candidates who are high on compatibility and low on capability, as this will surely be a far greater risk than the reverse.

I’ve enjoyed blogging on this topic…plenty of food for thought and lots more questions than answers. I’d love to know your views.


18 Responses to "Why Do We Promote Compatibility Rather Than Capability?"

[…] to organisations it doesn’t always seem to hold. I’ve just finished reading an interesting post from Alison Chisnell, which is well worth a read on why organisations hire for compatibility rather […]

I would definitely recommend readong Rob’s article too, as it adds to some of the lines of argument I’ve been exploring here

Alison, I LOVE this post, I think it is incredibly well written and articulate. I wish I had an answer to this, i don’t. But I do think the issue of compatibility versus capability is one that is going to go on and on…consider it the new black!

Thanks Neil, that means a lot. It was a great title to ponder on, so thanks too for suggesting it.

Another great bog post. The charity I work for is attempting to address this by promoting innovation and ‘valuing leadership through what is said and done rather then by level of seniority’ as key values. Our new behavioural appraisal framework will measure employees’ ability to constructively question the status quo. By this time next year we should be able to measure how this is working… fingers crossed!

Thanks for taking the time to comment Joe. Sounds great and I will be interested to hear how that goes. Good luck 🙂


This is the perfect direction and enlightened leadership from the C suite of your organisation. Indicating the employee-centred management espoused by Vineet Nayar and his colleagues at HCL.

Benefits will include higher retention, motivation and general well-being.

Best wishes for the journey.

Great post Alison. I think we are moving into an era where the scenario you recounted will become less frequent, due to the fact that it is becoming harder to ignore this kind of thing. It is becoming less and less acceptable and employees are finding their voice. Its becoming more acceptable to speak out about it.

Unfortunately, organisations are often very myopic in what success means or looks like – we all know of the stories of the employee who delivers on something, meets target and so on, but who also causes carnage on the way. Often the collateral damage is ignored in the light of profit or target achievement, yet the ‘cost’ of the damage is way higher.

Not much will change in the short term, but it is changing. This hidden cost is becoming less so, and ultimately, when its supported by a rising chorus of voices, cannot be ignored. I hope your colleague finds his way.

Excellentt post. On a smaller scale, its often why brainstorming and groupthink fail – despite all the talk of the benefits of collaboration, groups can often tend towards – and mutually reinforce – a single line of thought at the expense of others, especially where particpants have a similar “weltanschauung”.
Lets hear it for Ovid – “here I am Barbarian, for men understand me not”…..

It’s certainly an interesting question. We’ve found in our business that the exec team are not afraid to cull those who aren’t compatible with the direction of the business. They then promote those with capability so that the company can move in the direction they’re hoping for. Is this a bad thing? The company is doing well, the people at the top are being successful and we’re forging a collaborative culture as a result.

I’m sure there are hiccups I don’t hear about, and there are other levels where this doesn’t happen so effectively. I think you’re last point about where the organisation is and what they want to achieve is the salient point here.

Very thought provoking, and being someone who would like to think we don’t always need to compromise on one or the other but find a way of ensuring we have both. Surely one without the other is automatically doomed to failure, either by never being recognised or appreciated by your peers/senior managers or by being able to charm your way to the top without actually doing anything, and when your area is thoroughly reviewed or the spot light directed there it is likely to fall over like a well constructed house of cards.

Capability I would hope you can train and support with development. But if you are never going to be able to work with other people in your organisation, get things moving and have a support network I fear that all your hard work and endeavours are likely to be short lived. It begs the question are there any true one man shows around in business anymore, everyone seems so involved in all aspects HR and Finance are no longer bolt ons locked away in an end office, only to be spoke when things are going wrong.

From this blog, I now take on the fact that it is therefore everyone’s responsibility to make an effort and support compatibility, which in all essence is really ensuring you treat everyone with dignity and respect and value all contributions, especially those different from your own.

I’ve been mulling this post since last night… slow thinker I know.

My gut feel was that compatibility actually is a capability. I’m not trying to be “cute” but it’s a perspective we could take. The issue I think that was being alluded to was promotion based on association rather than compatibility or capability. I think this distinction is important.

In most cases, organisations don’t promote people. People do. Socially, how do choose the people we want to associate with? Compatibility. What do we tend to do with people we choose to associate with? We keep on doing it.

So perhaps we need to answer why we would choose to behave differently in the workplace than outside of it?

For the record I’m meritocratic but it feels there’s more here about how humans behave despite the workplace.

Interesting discussion – thanks!

Thanks, Alison. Thought-provoking post. But I do wonder how he managed to survive fifteen years in the organization if he was so low on compatibility!

Hi Devika, thanks for stopping by to comment. I guess compatibility isn’t always black and white – he clearly isn’t completely incompatible with the organisation, but is concerned that the senior management value compatability higher than capability when it comes to promotion.

Lots of food for thought 🙂

Thanks for all your comments on the post – I’m delighted that it’s got people thinking and your comments have given me a huge amount to mull over too.

The new black? Perhaps. Its certainly a debate that looks like it has a fair way to run…!

Alison – a really good post (writing as well as content). I have also seen something similar going on recruitment – where compatibility or recrtuiting someone “like us” (or even worse – someone “not quite as good as us”) can be more important (or perhaps just easier?) than recruiting the right capability to meet organisational needs. The result can be “same-old-same-old” at best, or shrinking organisational capability at worst.

Let’s hope (and drive for) for more widespread and enlightened managers and HR in recruitment as well as promotion activity.

Keep up the great blog posts,

Colin W

Thanks so much Colin, great points well made.

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