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Massage Today
June, 2007, Vol. 07, Issue 06

Show Me Your Outcome Competencies

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

Alfonso Bedoya (as Gold Hat): We are Federales ... you know, the mounted police.

Humphrey Bogart (as Fred C. Dobbs): If you're the police, where are your badges?

Bedoya: Badges!? We ain't got no badges.

We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!

- "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,"1 1948

In early 1984, I spent a month at the Esalen Institute practicing core shamanic methods in a small group led by Michael Harner, author of The Way of the Shaman2 and founder of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies. During sessions, Michael always was the model of focus and professionalism. Outside of the sessions, however, he was animated and social. And at dinner, we never had a problem figuring out where our group's table was, with Michael's laughter that could be heard across any crowded dinner hall. Often, the laughter came in recounting some scene from his favorite movie, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Thus, we came to know the opening quote quite well. I also was given a model of being flexible and learned to shift my personal presentation to fit the needs of the context. That flexibility has been a "competency" of some of the best teachers I've had the privilege to learn from, which leads me to the real theme of this column. With apologies to Dobbs and Gold Hat, if you are the bearers of "high standards," where are your outcome competencies?

My fellow columnist, Ralph Stephens, and I both like to shine light on where we feel massage training and entry requirements fall short. In the inimitable words of baseball player and manager Yogi Berra, however, "Our similarities are different."3 For me, another Berra quote succinctly captures the root of the problem: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." The licensing and certification of massage practitioners likely has been lowering their competence.

It's not so much the licensing itself as it is how licensing has interacted with mainstreaming and training. At one time, teaching massage resembled teaching martial arts, a system of tacit knowledge conveyed from expert to student. The expert may not have said a lot, but they knew how to look at you while you practiced and would keep you at it as long as they felt there was "something missing." Consider that system to be history, now that we have explicitly defined entry requirements. Explicit requirements don't add to a tacit system; they replace it. You get what you explicitly value. The catch is that we haven't defined the outcomes we value; only the total hours and some blocks of hours in vaguely defined subject areas. Career colleges and community colleges teach to what we defined. Students self-select for their ability to match our explicit requirements. We are getting what we asked for, as long as graduates meet the entry requirements. You expected something else, perhaps?

Don't complain about getting what you asked for; do the work of defining the outcomes comprising what you want. Here's the recipe: Insist on differentiating between "high requirements" and "high standards." Standards lead to observable outcomes while requirements don't have to. Define a job specification for an "entry-level practitioner." Define all of the contexts in which you believe the job is done. For each context, break the performance into tasks. Get feedback from the stakeholders in each context. For each task, create a list of required observable competencies or, if covert, competency indicators. Define the needed proficiency levels. Get more feedback. Merge the individual lists of competencies into a master list of competencies, taking the highest proficiency level at which each occurs. Implement a plan to identify applicant learning gaps and teach them what they aren't doing. Assess the results, and modify definitions and teaching methods to obtain the outcomes you want. Reward yourself for creating something that meets specific goals for stakeholders and is a clear guide to schools and students in reaching them. Then go back and assess the results again. The beauty of this method is that all levels are explicit. If you compare your competency standards with someone else's, you can track down the exact source of differences.

The best resource I've come across for going through all of this is a set of books authored by Robert F. Mager called The New Mager Six-Pack.4 I'm of the opinion that no one should be allowed to talk about standards without first being required to demonstrate an understanding of what's in those books. Consider it an entry-level requirement for a "standard discusser" position. The books are clear, readable and filled with examples.

Your efforts, should you accept this mission, won't be alone. New resources to do information handling are coming from the venues of technology and distance learning. (I recently blogged about this: "Guidelines, Learning Objects, & Competency Definitions."5) The Massage Therapy Foundation's Best Practices Committee is actively working on an open and transparent creation process for evidence-based guidelines. At a March meeting of the committee, I co-located with Whitney Lowe in the physical world. Whitney has embodied a lot of the outcome-based concepts in an online clinical reasoning course.6 The course uses an open-source educational framework that supports working through case studies, first as small groups and then as individuals. I particularly like that the environment provides built-in discussion forums to teach students the ability to solve problems by interacting with mentors and peers; a refreshing walk away from the idea of pre-canned answers for everything. Finally, I've been following my own project to create a library of massage competency definitions.7 I'm grateful to a number of people on different massage e-mail lists for their contributions. You'll find their names next to the competencies they suggested.

While I've been discussing massage training, the same process works for personal and business goals as well. Define where you want to be. Define what being there looks like and what skills you are using. Set up a plan to close the learning and experience gaps. Implement that plan and you'll be heading where you want to go. Remember to enjoy the journey and the people you meet along the path.


  1. Houston J. Film adaptation of B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948.
  2. Harner M. Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper.
  3. Yogi Berra quotes: For those who like to read off the beaten track, Yogi Berra's statements remind me of the Sufi stories of Nasrudin, the wise fool. Idries Shaw has written several books of Sufi teaching stories, including those about Nasrudin. See
  4. Mager RF. The New Mager Six-Pack, 3rd ed. 1997 Center for Effective Performance.
  5. Grant KE. Guidelines, Learning Objects, & Competency Definitions. 2007a
  6.  Lowe W. Online Course in Clinical Reasoning. 2007
  7. Grant KE. Massage Competency Definition Library. 2007b

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.


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