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Experience: Please do not equate with competence!

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It is a common misconception that if you do something long enough, you will get better over time. But can it really be that simple, and competence automatically increases with more experience? Unfortunately not, because even years of experience does not necessarily lead to greater knowledge and better skills - especially not if the time has not been used to learn new things. We show why you cannot basically equate experience and competence and how you can still benefit from your experience and develop further ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Definition: When do we speak of experiences?

It is so easy to say: “I have had good / bad experiences with it.” - How often do you have to try something in order to be able to speak of experiences? For example, anyone who tests a new product and is dissatisfied with it will probably speak of a bad experience. It is obvious that this description cannot simply be transferred to professional life. Just because someone has done something once does not mean that he is automatically attributed experience. Viewed in this way, there is a very broad interpretation of the term and a very narrow one, which probably comes closer to competence. Obviously you have to gain a lot of experience in certain areas in order to be able to speak to yourself.

The Duden defines experience as one knowledge gained through practical work or by repeating a thing. Experience is equated with routine here. A Experience that makes someone smartercan be referred to as experience. Third, in philosophy, knowledge is referred to as experience, what goes through Intuition, perception, sensation lets win. Closely related to this is the phrase “find out something”. Synonym for experience (English = experience) or experiences some speak of:

➠ education
➠ wealth of experience
➠ proficiency
➠ knowledge
➠ know-how
➠ Knowledge of human nature
➠ practice
➠ security
➠ exercise
➠ knowledge

To regret your own experiences is to hold back your own development. (Oscar Wilde)

What is the difference between experience and competence?

Experience and skills are often used synonymously. But experience says nothing about how you carry out this work - as the quote from Kurt Tucholsky says so aptly? Experience doesn't mean anything. You can do your thing badly for 35 years. A routine can develop through daily use, but the competence does not change over the years.

Many think that competence grows over time. Closer to this would be: Experience comes with time. What you have learned during this time is decisive for the competence. You are responsible for competence - and above all its growth - keyword: lifelong learning. Anyone who remains inactive and waits has no additional skills to show at the end. Only those who do more than they can already have more competence later on.

How does the equation work?

The equation of experience and competence has concrete effects on employees and companies. In job advertisements, employers specifically look for new employees with professional experience. Young professionals in particular are regularly confronted with the permission paradox: No job without experience, no experience without a job. Companies hope to save time on training. However, they overlook two things:

Experienced employees are not always more competent

Long work experience is often equated - especially by older colleagues - with greater competence. But that's not always the case. In some areas, young colleagues have greater knowledge and understanding in some areas, even though they are not trusted to do so. Applicants don't get a chance to prove their skills and efforts end in job rejection.

You don't automatically learn from your experience

People tend to overestimate themselves, which means that their own competence is often ranked above average. Nevertheless, you should question whether you are only referring to your experience or whether you have actually expanded your knowledge and skills.

Of course, competence cannot always replace experience:

  • Dealing with customers
    Even the greatest competence when it comes to talking to customers does not help if you suddenly have to deal with a difficult customer. A colleague who already has experience with it, however, knows what to do in this situation.
  • Processes in the company
    Experienced employees develop a feeling for the things that are going on at your employer. They know how to deal with problems and often have important contacts with management.

Experience as an argument for leadership?

And it gets even better. In general, especially for managers, it is assumed that experiences turn a person into a good manager. The business psychologists Uwe Peter Kanning and Philipp Fricke investigated the extent to which experiences as a manager automatically make a person competent. For their study they prepared potential analyzes of 814 employees of a large German company. It was evaluated who already has management experience and who does not. The employees volunteered to take part in an assessment center. Nine criteria were used to assess leadership ability:

➠ Decision-making ability
➠ self-reflection
➠ Communication skills
➠ Conflict management
➠ Ability to cooperate
➠ Leadership skills
➠ Organizational skills
➠ Problem solving ability
➠ Persuasiveness

66.2 percent of the participants already had management experience. It was therefore expected in advance that they would perform significantly better in the typical tasks of an AC - i.e. role plays, group discussions and the like - than those test persons who had no experience in management matters. Puff cake! All common assumptions were taken to absurdity. The results in brief:

It was completely irrelevant whether someone already had experience in leadership or not. On the contrary: The point of leadership skills was significantly better for beginners than for old hands.

Team size
The size of the team did not bring any advantage either: Those who had led large teams in the past did not do better than those with small teams.

Experience is often attributed to time and age. With regard to leadership performance, the study found: the older the test person, the worse their leadership performance in the assessment center.

A bitter pill for men: the women performed better than the men in all areas - even though their proportion of the test subjects was so small; just 14.4 percent were women.

The explanation: Apparently, even HR professionals quickly equate experience with knowledge, knowledge of human nature and competence. Many applicants' descriptions of themselves turn out to be nothing more than empty phrases. A lack of self-reflection and the typically human trait of blaming others for failures in performance favor this. On the other hand, according to the scientists, only this helps:

  • For employees: Regular feedback systems that encourage exchange and critical self-examination.
  • For applicants: Do not reject every application immediately just because you have no experience in managerial responsibility. In addition, intelligence tests can clearly demonstrate how capable the respective person is.

3 effective tips for more competence

You can largely determine for yourself whether you will succeed in converting your experience into competence. The prerequisite for this is self-knowledge and the motivation to develop further over time. With these three tips you will actually develop new skills instead of just gaining experience:

Stay open to new ideas.
Even after several years, stay open to new approaches and don't get lost in routines. To do this, you should question previous approaches and be ready to try new things.

Learn about it.
Experience means that you can move safely in an area. To gain proficiency, you need to venture out and learn new things. This way, you will learn new skills that will actually increase your competency. And learning in this case also means gaining experience by applying learning by doing. Take a playful approach - just try it out, dare to do something and see what happens.

Don't be afraid of making mistakes.
The right path can be found precisely through setbacks and the knowledge gained from them. Those who only stick to what they already know out of fear cannot develop competence.

Competence grows in the learning zone

The following graphic illustrates the zones in which we move:

Those who are in the comfort zone can have a lot of experience in many areas. The knowledge required for everyday work is available and applied. Advantage: As long as the workload remains the same, there is little stress to be expected, the routine gives security. Disadvantage: No challenges of an intellectual nature lull perfectly, but give no opportunity for personal or professional growth. At some point it can become what feels like a hamster wheel.

This means that at some point you have to leave your comfort zone in order to be able to gain new experiences - namely in the learning zone. Further training, new tasks and challenges as well as thinking outside the box can help. Even areas that cause panic at first glance - for many people this includes unfamiliar or embarrassing situations - can be valuable: For example, if you experience that a lot disappears afterwards. The final exam wasn't that bad, the first time freehand cycling worked out better than expected.

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[Photo credit: Branislav Nenin by]