Liam Healy & Associates

chartered occupational psychologists

Competencies : A Discussion


Most selection systems are now competency or behaviourally based. Competencies are rapidly emerging as the future of occupational assessment and much of our selection system design work now revolves around their use. This is based on the principle that the best way of predicting job success is to identify the behaviours required in a job,  and then give an individual tasks to do that are representative of the types of behaviour they might have to do in a particular job (job simulations) or direct samples of the activities that are carried out in that job (work samples).

We have developed  a master competency model which can be customised to make it relevant to specific organisations and industrial sectors. We use this model to  produce  organisationally specific competency models as well as exercises to measure individual competencies. There are a number of reasons why the use of competencies has been increasing in popularity -

  • Jobs are increasingly being described in terms of the skills required to do them rather than simply in terms of the tasks or psychological processes involved.
  • Organisations are unhappy with the lack of consistency in recruitment and development.
  • The traditional fixed boundaries between different jobs are dissolving.
  • The traditional hierarchical structures within organisations are disappearing.
  • There has been a definite decrease in the stability, certainty and predictability of jobs.
  • Competencies are often cheaper and more user friendly to implement than psychometric assessment.

The correct identification of the competencies involved in a particular job is the most crucial part of the design of selection or development system, and it is essential they are clearly specified using a structured and defensible job analysis technique. A vague or inaccurate idea of the competencies required will guarantee failure.

Unfortunately a thorough analysis of the target job can be a difficult process and is something that many organisations fail to do effectively because of the time and difficulty involved. A selection system may be very good at selecting people against a particular set of competencies but if those competencies are not job relevant then it has failed in its purpose. An accurate competency list which can be factored into training, appraisal and development is one way of achieving an integrated human resources strategy. The entire process can be couched in competency terms from the initial advertisement designed to attract suitably qualified individuals and design of a competency based application form, to the subsequent structuring of assessment and development tools.

Defining a competency is not a straightforward process. The term ‘competency’ was first coined by Boyzatis in his 1982 book 'The Competent Manager'.  But while competency was one of the all time great buzz-words of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s no single accepted definition of what it actually means ever emerged. Boyzatis suggested a competency is ‘an underlying characteristic of a person’ which could be ‘a motive, trait, skill, aspect of one’s self-image or social role, or a body of knowledge which he or she uses,’ while Hornby and Thomas (1989) focused on managerial competencies and offered ‘the knowledge skills, and qualities of effective managers or leaders’ as a definition.

While we can arrive at a broad understanding of what a competency is, it is worth noting that in many cases the competencies measured in assessment centres are in fact clusters of behaviours such as ‘leadership’ which are often referred to as competencies in their own right. Whichever definition we choose to accept we would do well to take note of Randell’s (1989) assertion that competencies are nothing more than ‘glorious human skills’. Woodruffe describes the situation where we might describe an individual as being ‘self-confident’, however we can only say they are self-confident because they behave in a self-confident manner. In this case we are using the self-confident behaviour to infer a self-confidence trait.

In fact the individual is likely to behave self-confidently because they have had a number of personal successes and not because they have a self-confidence trait. In essence, a trait is not an explanation of behaviour, simply a description of it. This might lead us to propose a working definition of a competency as an 'observable behaviour'.

Single versus Composite Competencies

It is important to realise that we can identify different levels of competencies. Single competencies are person focused and describe the behaviours that are required of an individual if they are to be able to perform adequately in a job. An area of competence, or composite competency on the other hand is more job focused in that it tends to describe the tasks and outputs required in a job e.g. 'create business strategy'. In both cases the emphasis is on observable behaviour.

Identifying Competencies

When producing the competency list it is very important to distinguish between competencies which are composite in nature such as 'leadership', and those which represent single behavioural competencies such as 'receptive to ideas'. Failure to do this is the root cause of much confusion in competency design. For instance, consider the case where 'leadership' and 'receptive to ideas' were both identified as competencies. If an individual were to demonstrate the behaviour of 'receptive to ideas' during assessment, then both that competency and leadership would need to be marked. This produces unnecessary duplication within the competency list and results in competencies like 'leadership' being incompletely or inconsistently assessed because of the different levels of analysis that exist.

It is clear that there is a considerable overlap between different competency lists. Certainly, many lists will include competencies which are not applicable to particular jobs or particular levels within a certain job type. The task for the psychologist is to contextualise such general lists for organisational relevance. It is always inadvisable to simply apply a generic list without any job analysis.

Central to the derivation of the competencies required in a particular job is job analysis which the glossary of training terms defines as 'a systematic analysis of the behaviour required to carry out a task with a view to identifying areas of difficulty’.

Job analysis is not a single technique but an approach which can involve a range of different techniques, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. It seems obvious that the job in question must be properly investigated before the competencies required to perform it successfully can be determined. Often, however this does not happen, or is seen as unnecessary, usually because of the time and effort involved but frequently because managers think that they themselves are the best judges of what a particular job involves. Fowler (1992) describes an assessment centre which was run for the purpose of identifying sales executives; it was assumed that sociability was a key competency required for job success and the exercises were designed to assess this. It was later discovered that sociability was in fact irrelevant to sales success and that the competencies that should have been assessed were independence and persistence. This demonstrates the dangers of giving in to the temptation of producing a list of competencies that you think are required in a particular job rather than those which actually are.

Once the key behaviours in a job have been identified they become the basis of the criteria to be predicted. This allows the assessment tools subsequently used in the assessment centre to be structured, that is, directly related to the competencies shown to determine effective job performance. Almost always, the job holders themselves are central to the process but frequently it may involve peers, subordinates, superiors or even customers. The involvement of senior managers especially can often pay dividends from the point of view of gaining commitment and fostering a sense of ownership thereby ensuring that senior personnel buy in to the project. Key themes involved in securing the commitment of senior managers during the competency derivation process include:

  • Involvement of managers and staff in the competency framework design.
  • Familiarisation with competencies and the behavioural assessment process.
  • Application of the framework to solve pressing business/organisational issues.
  • Review of the competency framework on a regular basis as corporate strategy develops.

The benefits of an organisationally-specific competency model include:

  • The specification of a visible set of agreed standards.
  • It can act as a model for improving all aspects of recruitment and development.
  • It specifies what selectors should be assessing in candidates.
  • It provides the basis for the design of all assessment activity.
  • It removes the subjectivity and personal bias from assessment and performance evaluation.
  • It facilitates the evaluation of validity, reliability, fairness and cost benefits.
  • It gives a sense of ownership of the competency list.
  • It describes competencies in language that is relevant to the organisation.

While it is important to be clear on the distinction between specific behavioural competencies and areas of competence one must remember that competencies are only descriptions of behaviour and that if a competency is too general then it may be impossible to accurately assess the specific behaviours involved. It is generally better to work at a more detailed level when designing the job analysis in order to allow the organisation of related competencies into groups under a common heading at a later date, than to design the job analysis to work at that level from the start and find later that the competencies are too general to be of any use.

It is also important to be clear about the nature of the competencies which are to be assessed. If a job involves competencies that are mundane, and which everybody is likely to possess, then there is no point in including them. Similarly, if the target job involves a training period for successful candidates then it would not be wise to use competencies that take time to develop.

Instead the competencies that emerge should be described in terms of potential. For instance, if a number of existing managers are applying for a job then one might reasonably expect them to have a developed a competency like organisational skill to some degree, and to be able to demonstrate this. If however, a number of graduates are being assessed for the same position, then it would be unfair to expect them to have the same level of organisational skill. In this case the focus would be on their potential to develop organisational skill with appropriate training.

Competencies should also be observable. Remember that things like self-awareness are not directly observable, and because they can only be inferred from behaviour, confusion is likely to arise when it comes to assessors deciding how they should assess them. In a desire to be comprehensive there is also a great temptation to produce long lists of competencies, but this can be self-defeating. Some competency lists can run to thirty or more, in cases such as this it is almost always possible, and certainly advisable, to remove some of the less important ones and cluster the remainder together under more general headings.

A usual number of competencies is 6-12, and most assessment centres tend to use around this number. In addition to making the system as simple as possible by keeping the number of competencies to a minimum, it is also important to use descriptive terminology that is as unambiguous as possible, it might even be advisable to avoid using the word ‘competencies’ at all in order to avoid confusing assessors.


  • Competencies are those skills required to perform adequately in a given job.
  • Competencies are directly observable behaviours.
  • We can differentiate between single and composite competencies.
  • While competencies are more valid when they are organisationally specific, there are a number of generic models available for use as a starting point.
  • Competencies are derived through job analysis.
  • No single method of job analysis is likely to be sufficient, it is more usual to use a battery of techniques to ensure a comprehensive and accurate coverage of the competencies required in a particular job.
  • Competencies should - be comprehensive, user friendly, useful , discrete, and small in number (6 to 12 maximum). They should also reflect the organisation’s culture, be applicable to different job levels and types across the organisation, and be used as an aid to decision making, not to make decisions.

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