21st century competencies for managing in the arts

Here’s a summary of the findings of a research project I worked on with Mission Models Money in 2009/10, that sought to deepen understanding of the competencies that equip people working in the UK arts & heritage sector to thrive in challenging conditions of 21st century life. The full report can be read here.

We identified around 80 competencies, qualities and attributes (CQAs) developed from a literature review and tested in interviews and an online survey with arts professionals. This list is not meant to definitive and one could argue for others to be added or some re-worded. The aim was not to create absolutes but to describe the sorts of competencies needed. Our focus was not on subject specialist know-how or specific professional skills but on ways of being and doing that help people in fast-changing, complex and uncertain environments.

The survey results show that our sample had some notable and distinctive strengths in some competencies, but it was also significantly weaker in other areas.

Relative strengths (compared to overall response to other CQAs)

  • Pattern recognition & making connections between things
  • Motivating oneself; taking responsibility for oneself & for one’s role in what’s happening; using one’s initiative
  • Appreciating the value of diversity
  • Being passionate & committed to things one gets involved with

Relative weaknesses (compared to overall response to other CQAs)

  • Handling conflict; challenging others in supportive ways; willingness to hold others to account; drawing own boundaries and rules of engagement;
  • Coping with ambiguity; working with emergent strategy; spontaneous decision- making; working at level of detail
  • Telling compelling stories
  • Taking time to reflect; accepting oneself
  • Reaching win-win solutions with others
  • Helping others feel comfortable with change
  • Actively caring for nature & the environment
  • Communicating effectively with web 2.0/social media
  • Knowing when to move on

On the whole, our sample saw the relevance of 80 competencies, qualities and attributes (CQAs) to them getting great results at work, and also believed themselves to possess them to some degree.

But it is not merely whether people think these CQAs are important or think they possess them but whether they can actually use them to perform at their best and achieve great results at work.

People draw on their CQAs in different combinations and extents in different situations, and as we discovered in the research, people’s ability to do this well is influenced by a variety of factors not entirely within their control. Some of these factors relate to personal contexts (e.g. state of health or personal life), some to work contexts (e.g. the culture of the workplace) and some to the wider world (e.g. social trends, political agendas and funding priorities) that influence the environments that individuals and organisations operate within.

Emerging as perhaps of most importance is the issue of people having the confidence to use these CQAs in their work. Confidence was cited unprompted by a third of survey respondents as a factor affecting their ability to draw on their competencies to good effect. In interpreting the data, we found confidence may play a role in explaining the results various ways. It featured to such an extent that we wondered whether it signalled a systemic issue of extreme fragility of confidence if not under-confidence in the arts and cultural sector. Self-confidence is at the forefront of a growing body of thinking about organisation behaviour, and according to recent research is increasingly being identified as one factor that ‘carries some to achievement and, when missing, causes others to fail, or even fail to try’, affecting performance by impacting on motivation, perceptions and thought patterns. Other recurring themes in the data included:

  • Confronting issues and handling conflict (immediately, preferably face-to- face, and with on-going communication)
  • Working cultures that enable people and the CQAs to develop and flourish, with mutual trust and respect, empowerment
  • Doing reality checks (gathering information and feedback from multiple perspectives to ensure sense-making is accurate and weak signals are detected)
  • Creating clarity but without oversimplifying (e.g. in purpose and direction, in structures, roles and relationships, and in communicating with others)

Together with self-confidence, they appear to be so essential that without them, thriving in complexity and uncertainty would be much harder to achieve.

The sample as a whole has positive results for wellbeing in relation to state of physical and mental health, satisfaction with life, experience of ‘flow’ at work, feeling ‘in one’s element’ and engaging in free play (for more on this see my post on thriving at work) However, those with the highest self-perceived possession of the CQAs also have a significantly higher incidence of wellbeing than the sample as a whole and than those with the lowest perceived possession, which lends support to our hypothesis that the ways of being and doing encapsulated by our list of CQAs do help people navigate their way through the complexity of 21st century life with more grace and greater positive impact on one’s own state of mind.

Although we would question the sector’s sense of responsibility and commitment to addressing its impact on nature and natural resources (the data suggests that this may be being perceived by many as ‘someone else’s problem’), it would seem that in general the arts and cultural sector seems to have all the competencies, qualities and attributes it needs for thriving within it, it just doesn’t always access them or use them to good effect.

This is encouraging. However, research shows that both competencies and self-confidence can be developed but that these developments can erode without continuous nurturing, so we would caution against complacency.

The research discussed in the full report can be used to support personal/professional or organisational development; and to inform the design and delivery of policy interventions and professional development opportunities.

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