Job postings site them. Human resource professionals talk about them. But what exactly are competencies—just the current vernacular for knowledge and skills or personality traits? And more importantly, why should we care? How can they benefit us?
In a word—simplification! Competencies give us objective language to move from what are often unclear, unfocused and challenging performance reviews to positive, productive development discussions. They also offer us the reliability and ease of measuring actual on-the-job results rather than trying to predict desired results from information available through traditional sources. Allow me to explain.
The Genesis of Competencies
We’ve all heard the stories—an award-winning college graduate who couldn’t translate theory into practice on the job; a senior journeyman who struggled in a supervisory position; a top sales achiever who decreased organizational results by alienating co-workers. Why are these situations so prevalent?
For years, managers laboured with long lists of knowledge, skills and attributes needed for a position. But in 1973, a Harvard professor named David McClelland published a seminal paper titled ‘Testing for competence rather than for intelligence’. In it, he argued that aptitude and intelligence tests are not all that valid, and that instead, organizations should test for competencies like leadership and interpersonal skills that he referred to as “clusters of life outcomes”, i.e. groupings of desired behaviours—observable behavioural results.
Based on McLelland’s work, we can describe competencies as demonstrated behaviours—what we DO, rather than simply what we KNOW. More specifically, they are what we consistently do to produce positive results, even under pressure.
Simply put, competencies are groupings of related, observable behaviours that generate positive results at work, and in our every day lives.
Behaviours are formed by a combination of our knowledge, skills and attributes (inherent abilities, beliefs and attitudes).
Attributes are at the heart of every behaviour because they determine not only how we prefer to operate naturally, but how we choose to apply our acquired knowledge and skills.
The Entegrys Omelette Theory
Another way to understand this relationship is with the analogy of an omelette.
KSAs are the ingredients we use to build competencies just as eggs, milk and butter are the basic ingredients we use to create omelettes.
Individually, they have their own distinctive characteristics, but they meld and transform into a uniquely different entity when combined and heated.
When we measure knowledge, skills and attributes individually, we’re measuring inputs. When we assess competencies, we are assessing observable outputs.
Measured separately, knowledge, skills and attributes are not as effective predictors
of on-the-job success as consistently demonstrated behaviours are.
Why should this matter to you?
Considering outputs, or results, rather than inputs has a significant impact on the way employees can be assessed, as well as on what employers might look for, evaluate and test in potential employees. We can’t accurately predict what outputs KSAs will produce because we don’t know which ingredients will be used, in what proportions or how they will be combined.
Competencies provide organizations with a more holistic, uniform and defensible approach to defining work requirements and measuring how well the behaviours (outputs) an individual consistently demonstrates match job requirements. Competencies also help individuals recognize their strengths and the transferability of those strengths to other jobs based on behaviours they’ve demonstrated in their current and recent jobs.
When managers are able to clearly describe the desired outputs, that sharper focus enhances the likelihood of success for both parties. It enables the employee to know what is expected (and not) and to target the appropriate behaviours, building confidence and performance results.
How are competencies used?
McClelland’s paper began a movement that has changed the way we manage and develop performance. Slowly organizations began making the shift from testing for what an employee “can do” to looking for evidence of important clusters of behaviours (competencies) they already demonstrate. It is now common place to see position descriptions and job postings list not only educational, but also competency requirements. And generally, the most successful employees are the ones who best demonstrate the required competencies.
In fact, a competency approach has proven to be so much more reliable than knowledge and personality testing that the saying, “Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour”, has become a rule of thumb in the workplace.
Competencies help both managers and employees focus on key behaviours that correlate with success on the job. Therefore, they are particularly useful for:
- Performance Management-defining, reinforcing and developing performance expectations. The clearer expectations are, the more likely employees are able to achieve them, which fosters higher employee engagement and morale.
- Training-targeting the development of behaviours for employee success in the job and for the best ROI with limited training budgets.
- Career & Succession Planning-identifying strengths and development needs for future key positions.
- Staffing-defining the behavours you need the successful candidate to demonstrate in the job.
As you can imagine, there are a myriad of competencies that influence our success at work. But we only need to assess the most critical competencies—those that have the greatest impact on success in a specific job—to determine one’s fit and progress in a job. Popular ones in position descriptions include communication, teamwork, client service, etc.
Successful competency-based approaches to employee management and development include three basic building blocks:
3. Competency Assessment Tools
enable managers to quickly and reliably assess how someone matches the job requirements. These might be in-house guides used for job interviews and performance discussions, or online tools available for purchase, or a combination.
2. Job Profiles
identify the job standard, i.e. which competencies are critical and what level of expertise is needed in each critical competency. For example, all customer service staff require competency in client service, but those in senior roles will need a higher level of expertise to deal effectively with more challenging situations.
Managers gain by having a job profile for each key position. As with assessment tools, job profiles can be developed in-house, but if you are purchasing online assessments, job profiles will be an integral part of the tool.
1. A Competency Dictionary
defines which behaviours are grouped within each competency. Because they are the heart of every competency-based HR process, it is critical that the behaviours defined within each competency are valid and defensible representations of that competency. As with job profiles, these can be developed in-house, but that won’t be required if you are purchasing online assessment tools.
Watch for our future blogs to learn more about these three building blocks—how you can develop them in-house; what to be aware of when you are purchasing them; the pros and cons of in-house versus purchased.
Test drive the Entegrys Focus tools with a FREE self-assessment in a Front Line Supervisor role at
Each blog in this series is designed to provide a basic understanding of competencies, their benefits and the essentials of valid and defensible competency-based human resource processes.
Check back for more articles in this series at www.entegrys.com/blog/.