What is a Competency?

A competency is an underlying characteristic of an individual, which can be shown to predict Superior or Effective performance in a job; and Indicates a way of behaving or thinking, generalizing across situations, and enduring for a reasonably long period of time.

There are five types of characteristics:

  • Skills: e.g., active listening
  • Knowledge: e.g., electronics, conflict resolution methods
  • Self-Concept (attitude or value): e.g., team vs. personal achievement, occupational preference
  • Trait: e.g., stamina
  • Motive: e.g., achievement motivation

Implications for talent management and development

Some types are more visible than others – like sections of an iceberg. The type of competency has practical implications for talent management and development. Knowledge and skill competencies tend to be visible, and relatively surface, characteristics of people. Self-concept, trait, and motive competencies are more hidden “deeper”, and central to a person’s personality.


Surface knowledge and skill competencies are relatively easy to develop; training is the most cost-effective way to secure these employee abilities. “Core” motive and trait competencies are hard to assess and develop; it is most cost-effective to select for these characteristics. Self-image, self-concept competencies, such as self-confidence can be changed, albeit with more time and difficulty; these attributes are most cost effectively addressed by training, by psychological counseling, and/or with positive developmental job assignments.


 An Example of a Competency


Definition: The ability to keep functioning effectively when under pressure and/or experiencing rapidly changing or uncertain conditions, and to maintain self-control in the face of hostility or provocation.

Observable behaviors

  1. Remains calm under stress
  2. Can effectively handle several problems or tasks at once
  3. Controls his/her response when criticized, attacked or provoked
  4. Maintains a sense of humor under difficult circumstances
  5. Manages own behavior to prevent or reduce feelings of stress
  6. Quickly adjusts and constructively reacts to unforeseen circumstances and setbacks
  7. Modifies behavior to remain effective in different organizations and cultures

Learn more about competencies and competency models by reading Competence At Work by Lyle and Signe Spencer, visiting Workitect’s “About Competency Models” web page and our Research, White Papers, Articles, and Case Study section.

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The Multiple Jobs Approach to Building Competency Models

Group of Multiethnic Diverse Mixed Occupation PeopleIn the Multiple Jobs Approach, competency models are developed simultaneously for a set of jobs (e.g., all professional jobs in marketing; all R&D jobs, or all the job in a small organization).

Use of Building Block Competencies

To ensure consistency among these competency models, the first main step is to identify a set of building block competencies from which each competency model will be constructed. One source of building block competencies is a generic competency dictionary: a distillation of commonly occurring competencies and their behavioral indicators into an organized, conceptually clear set of competencies. These generic competency dictionaries can be obtained from consulting firms that specialize in competency modeling and adapted to fit the organization’s language and culture.

Generic competency dictionaries typically focus on non-technical competencies. If the competency models need to include technical skills and knowledge, as is often the case, a set of relevant technical skill/knowledge competencies can be identified with the help of subject matter experts within the organization.

Identification and Use of Competency Levels

When building competency models with the Multiple Jobs Approach, it is often useful to identify and distinguish different levels of a competency. For example, a first-level management competency model might need to include a basic level of planning skill, but a project management competency model would require a higher level of planning skill. A competency model for nurses might include a basic level of understanding of cardiac knowledge, but the competency model for a cardiologist would specify a higher level of this skill.

When defining competency levels, one approach is to establish a set of levels with general definitions that are used for every competency. Usually, there are three or four levels, as in the following table.

Level General Definition
Basic Has the level of skill expected after completion of an introductory training program or course; can perform tasks requiring a limited range of skills; work must be closely supervised.
Intermediate Has the level of skill expected after significant and varied work experience in the area or completion of several courses; can perform task requiring a broad range of skills; work requires limited supervision.
Advanced Has the level of skill expected after extensive experience or completion of many courses; can solve highly challenging problems and serve as an expert resource.

Some organizations use a set of general levels like these, but develop different definitions of these levels for each competency.

The use of competency levels makes it possible to distinguish the requirements of different jobs. Levels are also useful in performance assessment and appraisal. For example, a manager preparing a performance appraisal can use the competency levels to assess an employee on each of the competencies identified for the employee’s job. The use of competency levels also facilitates matching employee assessments with job requirements for internal selection or for career planning.

Use of Core Competencies

In applying the Multiple Jobs Approach, some companies establish a core set of competencies for all of the jobs or for all of the jobs within a job family, such as R & D. For example, an organization might decide that the competency model for every job should include Results Orientation, Flexibility, and Customer Orientation. The IT Department might identify additional competencies required in all of its jobs. The competency model for a particular job within the IT Department would include the core competencies for the organization, the competencies for all IT Department jobs, plus several job-specific competencies. This approach can lead to large competency models with 16 or more competencies.

When the Multiple Jobs Approach is Appropriate

1. Whenever competency models are needed for several jobs within an organization. The approach is especially useful when it is important to specify technical skill/knowledge requirements.

2. When HR staff plan to apply the competency models for career planning and succession planning, which involve matching employee assessments to the requirements of multiple jobs.

3. Because the administrative management of multiple competency models can be complex, many good technological solutions have been developed for this purpose. Some involve purchasing or leasing software, while others involve purchasing a license to use web-based applications that reside on third party servers. Technology facilitates competency assessment, development planning, and internal selection.

Advantages of the Multiple Jobs Approach

1. The competency models developed from it cover many jobs in an organization, thus achieving a broad impact.

2. Because there are different competency models for different jobs, this approach also facilitates HR tasks such as internal selection, career planning, and selection planning, which require matching employee profiles to job requirements. This approach also simplifies comparison of the requirements of different jobs.

3. Because this approach involves using a common set of building block competencies, these building block competencies can become a common conceptual framework for talking about the requirements of different jobs. Using this common framework, HR staff can develop a training curriculum and other developmental experiences which are applicable across jobs.

Disadvantages of the Multiple Jobs Approach

1. This approach is inherently complex, because it involves working with many different competency models. Managing the use of multiple competency models can be complex for HR staff, unless they use one of the competency management software applications designed for this purpose.

2. The complexity of the Multiple Jobs Approach makes it harder to explain and communicate to staff.

One of three approaches used by Workitect to create job competency models. Other approaches are the Single Job model and One-Size-Fits-All model.

Taught in the Building Competency Models certification workshop.

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