What is a competency?

By the end of this article you’ll have a great understanding of what “competency” means.  You’ll see some sample competencies to build your understanding.  In the process we’ll also reveal the answer to the question of what HR and cat burglars have in common.  Please keep in mind though that our knowledge about cat burglars comes solely from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 movie, To Catch a Thief.

What is the definition of competencies?

It is the ability to do a task effectively.  The knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to get a job done.

The two types of competencies

There are two broad types of competencies:

  • Behavioural
  • Functional

A combination of both is almost always required to be effective.

Behavioural competencies

Behavioural competencies are often called soft skills.  They define not just the ability to do something, but how it is done.  Often they also describe a way of doing things in relation to other people.  This is particularly true of leadership competencies.

To help you understand behavioural competencies, here are some that Cary Grant displayed as John Robie, the cat burglar:

  • Is suave and sophisticated
  • Uses romance and seduction
  • Differentiates between high and low value jewels
  • Displays stealth and deception to evade capture
  • Remains cool under pressure

Leaving behind the world of jewel thieves for a moment, what if you just received a promotion and you were now a first level manager in an organisation.  What are some of the leadership behaviours that you would need?  There are many, but a few would be:

  • Defines clear standards and measures for individual and team performance.
  • Plans are developed in accordance with the organisation’s objectives.
  • Provides regular and specific performance feedback.

Because behavioural competencies are innately subjective, they must be observable.

Functional competencies

Functional competencies are often referred to as technical skills or competencies. They simply mean the ability to perform some technical task. Things like operating machinery, performing double entry accounting, making a dress or designing a hyperloop.

There’s nothing like some examples to help develop an understanding.  So let’s take a look at some sample competencies here.

Competency levels

Without giving away the ending to the movie To Catch a Thief, clearly someone was a master cat burglar.  Able to operate on their own, mastermind a strategy and act with considerable experience.

Competency levels are useful because they help to differentiate between people who have a basic skill and those who are experts.  Let’s say we define five levels.  At level 1 a person is a complete novice and can only work under direction or by following detailed instructions.  At level 5 a person is an expert and can work with complete autonomy on strategic or complex tasks.  As you progress from level 1 to level 5, the degree of expertise increases along with a decrease in the amount of supervision and instruction needed.

Our mastermind in To Catch a Thief would be a level 5.

A final word …

We hope this article has helped simplify some of the important concepts you need to know about competencies.

So what do HR and cat burglars have in common?  They both need to be good at identifying high value gems (talented people in the case of HR).

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