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.

Perhaps the idea of being a DJ appeals. What are some of the technical skills you would need?


Mixer Operation

  • Scratch Mixer
  • Club mixer
    • Mixes dance beats while one song ends and another begins.
    • Uses the equalizer to emphasise sounds, tracks and instruments.
    • Harmonises between two tracks.
  • General mixer


How about teachers?  What are some of the competencies they would need?

  • Establish learning outcomes.
  • Plan and structure course content.
  • Create engaging learning materials.
  • Develop tests to measure student knowledge.

Computer Programmer

These are some of the competencies you might need to be a software developer (computer programmer):

  • Programming
    • Web application development
      • ASP.net
        • Web forms
          • Page life-cycle
        • MVC
        • MVVM
      • Python
      • Ruby on Rails
    • Desktop application development
    • Mobile application development


And let’s not forget about our friends in HR, here’s some of the competencies they would need:

  • HR Policies
  • HR Strategy
  • Attraction, recruitment and selection
  • Workforce planning
  • Retention
  • Performance management
    • Design an annual performance cycle
    • Develop leader support materials
    • Create a library of KPIs aligned to organisational goals
    • Identify learning resources for various roles.

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).

Diamond image


Competency based assessment

Building capabilities

Every job requires a specific set of knowledge and skills. And this varies depending on the type and complexity of the job. Competency assessment is all about providing a way of building the skills and knowledge people need to perform their current job.

Competencies are great

7 reasons competencies are great

Wondering if or why you should use competencies? We think so!

Read our handy guide to discover more.

Competency assessment

Competency Assessment Software

Our competency assessment software will help you profile your workforce and find your best people.

Tools for HR, senior management and team leaders.