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What is a competency?

what is a competency

Competencies are behaviour patterns, based on acquired knowledge, skills and attitudes, which a person needs to bring to a job in order to carry out certain key tasks with competence.

TO DESCRIBE a competency even further it should state specific behaviors meaning it clearly states how a person should get something done. A competency should be Measurable, in line with the corporate culture and should not overlap with other competencies.

Competency Example : Airport Security Employee

Key Task : Checks boarding passes, tickets and permits in order to detect fraud and ensure airline and airport security

Competency :
• Questions passengers and staff courteously but assertively
• Recognises validity of all tickets, boarding passes and other airport permits for travel or access to  terminals

• Averages 80% on the checklist of agreed courteous and  assertive behaviours made by observer
• 90% accuracy of recognition during spot check by manager.

How to describe a specific competency ?
The best way to describe a specific competency is to analyze and display it in an ASK model (Identify the Attitudes,Skills & Knowledge needed to successfully do the job)

• Example for Immigration officer
Competency  : Questions passengers and staff courteously but assertively
Key task        : Check passports, boarding passes and permites

The most common definitions of a competency in recent years are:

“An underlying characteristic of an individual that is causally related to criterion-referenced effective and/or superior performance in a job or situation”

“A characteristic and measurable pattern of behaviors, knowledge and skill that contributes to superior job performance”

Or, more simply:

A competency describes the behavior or actions that can be seen when a job is being done well.

Competency evaluation levels:
Level 1 Developing: Checks documents in a perfunctory manner. Question people impersonally without warmth or politeness
Level 2 Operational: Same as level one but with personal eye contact and politeness
Level 3 Strong: Checks documents, asks questions with a smile and addresses people as “sir” or “Madam”
Level 4 Excellent: Creates a warm “Moment of truth”-  treats each individual as a special and valued customer. Enquires about their journey and engage in brief friendly conversation.


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Competency check
A competency check is a way of identifying the gaps in an individual’s competence at performing their key tasks. The competency check will help you find out who needs what development in the areas which have been highlighted in your training needs investigation.

Lets do a competency check on our Airport security employee

Key Task: Check Boarding passes and permits

Competency Importance to the job

Level1: Developing?
Level2: Operational?
Level4: Excellent?

Questions passengers  courteously but assertively    
Recognises Validity of all tickets, boarding passes and permits    

Lets look at another competency check Example: Team Leader

Key task: Facilitates team meeting

Competency Importance to the job

Level1: Developing?
Level2: Operational?
Level4: Excellent?

Suggests meeting agenda and processes for problem solving and decision making    
Listen actively by checking understanding and agreement of others    

So what’s the difference between Knowledge, Skill and Competency?

Knowledge Information that has to be learned and is recalled to carry out a job.

Example : A person can know how to use a particular piece of computer software – but not necessarily be able to do it.

Skill The application of that knowledge in a practical way to achieve a result.

Example : continuing the above example, the person may be able to use a keyboard and by doing so apply their knowledge of the software and produce a document.

Competency The application of that skill in a way that results in work done to a specified standard. Most importantly, the  competency will be defined so that it includes a number of statements describing how well the job must be done.

Example : The person can use their knowledge and skill of the software to produce a letter in the company format, with no mistakes and within a given time.


Depending on its purpose and preferences, an organisation may create a set of competencies (collectively known as a competency framework) using a number of different types of competency.

Typically it might contain:

Core competencies
Those that support the declared mission and values, and are usually applicable to all jobs in the organisation.

Common competencies
Those other (non-core) competencies with a common definition, for use in certain jobs across the whole organisation (Example:  influencing, strategic awareness, leadership).

Technical or job-specific competencies
Those that are applicable to a particular group or ‘family’ of jobs (eg, territory planning, software programming).

Some organisations only use core competencies, others use core and common, and yet others use all three types.


The format or appearance of a competency will depend on many factors – what type it is, how many competencies there are in the framework, the individual preference of the writer etc.

Some competencies are very simple in their layout and others are quite detailed. The common factors in any competency format are:

The title or label for the competency (eg, teamwork, customer focus, creativity)

A number of statements or behavioural indicators that explain what the desired performance or effective behaviour looks like, and there will usually be a brief definition of what the label means – it may be a generic definition or one created by, and specific to, the organization.

Here is a sample competency:

Title: Teamwork
Definition: This competency concerns the effective and supportive relationships within a team and how the members work together to achieve common goals.

Behavioural indicators (of effective behaviour):

  Establishes and maintains good working relationships; is co-operative and helps when needed
  Actively contributes; gets involved; volunteers
  Respects the effort and time of others; is punctual for meetings
  Shares own knowledge and expertise to help others
  Asks for help from other team members when necessary
  Listens to colleagues and recognize their knowledge and skill

Is this what competences look like in your organisation? Perhaps they are a bit more detailed…


Some organisations expand the amount of information included in the competency. For example:

Negative indicators: these show the sort of behavior that the organisation does NOT want to see (sometimes called ineffective behaviour)

Outstanding: these indicators show what extra a person would need to be doing to be excellent or outstanding in the competency; it often defines the role model.

Levels: where a group of jobs require an increasing degree of a competency as the ‘seniority’, responsibility or complexity level increases (NB: This is not necessarily the same as grade or level within the organisation structure) Whilst these may make a competency look complicated on first inspection, they are only variations on the simple theme.

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