Ah, another buzz word to incorporate into your lunch-time conversation with business colleagues? Maybe not. If buzz words are simply jargon or empty chatter, then the discussion of competencies is definitely not in those categories.
A solid understanding of work place competencies can actually support your success at work. If you don’t understand work place competencies, be prepared to experience some frustration or even performance lags in your work. The concept is that important.
So how do we define competencies? It’s actually pretty straight-forward, although not simple. Competencies are the characteristics needed to succeed in a particular job or assignment. Relevant competencies for a job or task are identified by observing incumbent employees who are regarded as excellent performers in the job or task in question.
For example, if the target job is Production Supervisor, then outstanding Production Supervisors are observed. Their characteristics are noted. The kinds of knowledge they possess is noted. A profile is drawn, and the competencies that contribute to that profile are identified. Interview questions are then crafted to determine which candidates demonstrate mastery of the competencies displayed by successful incumbents in similar positions.
There are literally dozens and dozens of work place competencies, as you can imagine. The trick is to define them and then to determine which ones are relevant to the job in question. Let’s start with some examples of competencies. You see them every time you look at job ads or postings. Attention to detail, ability to work under pressure, good interpersonal skills, excellent presentation skills, ability to motivate others, and managing conflicting priorities are all examples of competencies. As you may have realized, possession of job competencies can be pretty difficult to evaluate. We will come back to that later.
In addition to competencies like those listed previously, job postings or ads also list skill sets such as knowledge of environmental regulations, ability to type 60 words a minute, certification in a particular skill, or possession of a particular degree. Skill sets are different than competencies. Both are very important. But as you can see, evaluation of whether skill sets are possessed by an employee is pretty objective. Diplomas, certifications, or skills tests are used to demonstrate job skills necessary for the job. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy (but not impossible) to evaluate possession of necessary job competencies.
So why should we bother to wrestle with competencies when it’s relatively difficult to evaluate them? Think for a minute about employees with whom you may have had trouble in the past. Was the trouble or performance lag in the areas of skill sets? These would be employees who couldn’t drive a fork lift, who couldn’t spell, who couldn’t operate the machinery they need to operate in their jobs. Or, were the short falls with things like getting along with others, finishing tasks on time, or taking initiative? Most job performance problems are related to failure at competency-related performance rather than skill-set related performance. That’s why, even though it’s not easy, you must concentrate on evaluating competencies.
So how is this evaluation done? If you are hiring that Production Superintendent we mentioned earlier, you probably know you need someone who knows manufacturing processes similar to yours, who has similar experience, and perhaps who understands a balance sheet. But you also need someone who can motivate others, who can handle pressure and who perhaps has some trouble-shooting expertise. The way you find out if your candidate possesses command of these competencies is to ask. Simple? Not exactly. Let’s imagine you are interviewing a person who wants the job you have open and you ask him, “Are you good at working under pressure?” Unless he is a fool, he will say yes! And you still don’t know what skills he has in that area.
Evaluating competencies must be done by asking behavioral questions. A far better interview question for your candidate would have been, “Tell me about time when you had to meet a production deadline under pressure. What were the circumstances and what did you do? What were the results?” See the difference? In the first question, you are inviting the candidate to simply go along with you. In the second, you are giving the candidate a chance to demonstrate his mastery of the competency you know is essential to his success in your job. Much better for both of you!
In the job you currently have, how do you know what competencies are relevant? Think about what you do every day. If you are expected to field and solve customer complaints, then needed competencies might be the ability to work under stress and conflict resolution. If you are a receivables clerk, attention to detail will be critical. So why are these thoughts worth considering? If you are not aware of what the required competencies are in your position, you will have trouble performing well in that position. If you don’t possess the required competencies, you probably are not happy in the job, and you may well not be doing a good job.
So in a current position, take a look at the content of your job and the expectations of your job. Make sure you actually do possess the identified competencies. If you are looking for a job or for a person to fill an open job, concentrate on identifying the needed competencies and developing questions which will elicit testimony as to whether or not those competencies are possessed by your candidates—or by you if you are the job seeker. Your awareness of job competencies is not simply knowing one of the latest buzz words. It’s your key to your own success and to finding the employees you need to support your success.