A brief guide to competencies, what they are, and how to use them 

Imagine you are preparing to interview a candidate, what attributes or qualities are you looking to identify, what skills do you expect to improve your organisation?

Competencies are the behaviours that enable employees to act effectively in their position. They encompass the knowledge, skills, and personal characteristics that distinguish capability. Understanding competencies helps determine and measure organisational success and individual performance.
There are two broad types of competencies: behavioural and functional competencies.

Behavioural competencies are known as the ‘soft skills’. Soft skills underlie many key performance indicators and describe ‘how’ someone approaches a task or problem.  These are innately subjective and built up over time. They can include competencies such as: self-management, communication, customer-orientation, strategic thinking, confidence, professionalism, stress management, and integrity.

In sales roles, the behavioural competency ‘customer-orientation’ is highly valued. This competency ensures that the needs of the consumer are always first in the eyes of employees. However it can be difficult to define whether a person is ‘customer-oriented’.  

Functional competencies are known as the technical skills. Technical skills are specific to departments or types of job, and are required to fulfil employee duties and responsibilities.

A functional competency in an IT role might be to operate pivot tables in an Excel spreadsheet, or to consolidate accounts in a Finance Accountant role.

An effective workforce possesses both behavioural and functional competencies. Both support an organisation’s strategic advantage in achieving its mission and vision against competitors.
Problematically, the modern educational system produces graduates that have academic credentials, but lack the competencies to effectively adapt to the changing world of work. John Taylor Gatto, an educational historian, warned that graduates aren’t taught the necessary competencies that maximise corporate advantage. He cited the Harvard Business School, which provides 10 essential qualities that employees need to succeed in the rapidly shifting work environment.
  1. The ability to define problems without a guide.
  2. The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.
  3. The ability to quickly assimilate needed data from masses of irrelevant information.
  4. The ability to work in teams without guidance.
  5. The ability to work absolutely alone.
  6. The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.
  7. The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.
  8. The ability to discuss ideas with an eye toward application.
  9. The ability to think inductively, deductively and dialectically.
  10. The ability to attack problems heuristically.
Organisations should strive to identify and foster these qualities in their employees. These abilities are examples of the ‘soft skill competencies’ that drive organisational value. For instance, ’The ability to work in teams without guidance’, aligns with the conscientiousness self-management competency described below, and predicts organisational success. Paired with more functional role training, the organisational benefits of these soft skills skyrocket.

Understanding competencies is the first step that allows savvy HR managers to get the best out of their staff. It is however, only half the battle. We also need to how to effectively use them.

Now that we know what competencies are, how do we use them?

Before you can begin to use competencies in your organisation, a competency model needs to be developed. A competency model is a diagnostic tool designed by selecting the core skills that are required for someone to be successful in their organisation and position.

The scale model approach is a popular method that organises competencies on a scale. This can help hiring managers better discriminate between individuals’ relative strengths and weaknesses. To do this we select competencies to test and rate individuals on a scale of how well they appear to possess it. Possible scales might rate competencies from 1 to 10, or compare candidates to company averages. For the 10 behavioural competencies we just outlined, we could easily create a competency scale model that compares candidates against employees, or averages across the organisation. A comparison with a company’s average ensures organisational growth, as candidate competencies can be aligned with organisational goals.

How would a HR manager use competencies at work?

HR managers should use competencies to align future candidates with the business’s strategic objectives. Matching competencies and roles allows the measurement of performance and productivity, and the development of a human resource strategy.
  • Recruitment, Training, and Development
Using diagnostic tools in the recruitment, training, and development of employees is a means of ensuring staff are capable workers. An early assessment of competencies will identify the areas where a candidate excels, and has room to improve. This helps to ensure consistency in recruitment, and provides objective measures of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. It also provides a legal defence against recruitment processes being challenged when they are not linked with required standards and are not consistently applied across candidates. When new employees are on-boarded, HR managers can develop training schemes designed to improve specific competencies.
  • Setting Clear Behavioural Expectations
Knowing employee strengths and weaknesses means that they can be directed to areas in which they can best contribute their skills within an organisation. A smart HR manager will promote and reinforce positive behaviours that are consistent with the organisational mission and culture. Employees are likely to become more consistent and are more likely to adhere to the behavioural expectations presented by management.
  • Simplifying HR Operations
When competencies are measured, HR can quickly react to organisational demands, such as skill-gaps and development needs. Organisational programs can be devised to maximise their return on investment.
  • Happy and Valued Employees are Productive and Cost-Effective
Employees are generally happier and feel more fulfilled when their competencies match their positions, ensuring that they are more engaged with their responsibilities and goals. Likewise, the feelings of value and recognition are improved in positions paired with a person’s competencies, acting as a further motivator for performance.

Using competencies within the workplace provides numerous advantages for HR managers. Their appropriate use will ensure more productive, efficient, and co-operative organisations.

Sometimes competencies are clearly personality based. For example, in health-care environments, empathy and compassion will clearly positively impact the patient experience.

When competencies are personality-based, a personality questionnaire will efficiently and inexpensively provide a scaled competency assessment.

The Business Personality Reflections® is one personality questionnaire that measures business-related competencies to assist in selection and personal development decisions. Developed by Psych Press, this assessment contains 70 personality scales that can be tailored to any organisation’s needs. Below is more information about the Business Personality Reflections® Self-Management Scale. 

Self-Management or Conscientiousness

Self-Management is described as the ability to work in a productive, efficient, and goal-orientated manner. It requires persistence, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility. The Self-Management scale in the Business Personality Reflections® questionnaire measures the capacity of individuals to adopt and work towards organisational goals. Individuals who score highly on this factor are likely to be dedicated, proficient, and organised. Employees who have self-management characteristics present a sizable competitive advantage as they will multi-task, show self-discipline, and strive harder than others to help the organisation succeed.

The results of various studies and meta-analyses (Barrick & Mount, 1991; Hough, Eaton, Dunnette, Kamp & McCloy, 1990; Salgado, 1997; Tett, Jackson & Rothstein, 1991; Vinchur, Schippmann, Sweizer & Roth, 1998) showed that various big five personality dimensions are related to job performance. Barrick and Mount (1991) and Salgado (1997) found that conscientiousness is one of the best predictors of job performance in the USA and Europe. De Fruyt and Mervielde (1999), Tokar and Subich (1997), Schneider (1999) and Vinchur et al. (1998) concluded that Extraversion and Conscientiousness predict job performance in various occupations. (Bolding added) (Cited from Rothmann & Coetzer, 2003).

Self-management can also counteract the effects of social loafing, which damages team performance. Social loafers put in less effort on group tasks because they believe they can hide laziness within crowds, but self-managed employees have the skills to compensate and ensure deliverables arrive on time.
A sample item for the self-management factor that you may see on our questionnaires could be “I make decisions quickly and effectively.”

You might consider using self-management scales in your recruiting and development processes if:

· You don’t have the time or resources to be ‘looking over shoulders’.

· Tasks require a degree of quick decision-making or perfection.

· New employee should be delivering value shortly after being hired.

· You have several tasks with ‘ambiguous’ goals, time frames or boundaries.

Organisations need employees with self-management skills to perform well. Find and develop the right people for your organisational to maintain your competitive advantage.

If you were interested in learning more about the self-management scale, or the Business Personality Reflections® Personality questionnaire please simply enquire now for a free trial.