Competencies: Management Funda; V4 Issue 4


Your HR department has published a competency manual comprising of competencies for various roles for your company. You have seen it. It looks nice and sounds ‘very important’. But you just cannot imagine how you are going to use it. Before you dismiss ‘Competencies’ as HR mumbo jumbo with no conceivable value to you do read this article. In this article an attempt has been made to familiarize you with some basic concepts related to ‘Competencies’.

What are Competencies?

A competency is an underlying characteristic of an individual ie., it is a fairly deep and enduring part of a person’s personality. It can predict behavior in a wide variety of situations and job tasks. What is important for you to understand is that a competency is related to effective/superior performance in a job.  This means if you know the competencies required for a role, you can select, develop and manage people based on an understanding of these competencies. Following are the 5 types of competency-characteristics:

  1. Motives: they “drive, direct and select” behavior toward certain actions or goals and away from others. E.g. Achievement-oriented people consistently set challenging goals for themselves.
  2. Traits: are physical characteristics and consistent responses to situations or information.  E.g. Good eyesight is a physical trait competency of combat pilots.
  3. Self-concept: a person’s attitudes, values, or self-image E.g. Self-confidence, a person’s belief that he/she can be effective in almost any situation is part of that person’s concept of self.
  4. Knowledge: information that a person has in specific content areas.  However, knowledge at best predicts what someone “can” do not what he/she “will” do E.g. A surgeon’s knowledge of nerves in the human body.
  5. Skill: the ability to perform a certain physical or mental task.  Mental or cognitive skill-competencies include analytical thinking (processing knowledge and data, determining cause and effect, organizing data and plans) and conceptual thinking (recognizing patterns in complex data).

As the figure above illustrates knowledge and skill competencies tend to be visible and relatively surface characteristics of people whereas self-concept, trait and motive competencies are more hidden, “deeper” and central in the personality. 

Competencies are contextual. They are related to the organization, the function, the role, the level and the timing. Hence competencies developed in one context cannot be generalized to another. A competency with the same name can mean different things in two different companies. 

Example of a Competency
Each Competency has a narrative definition with a few behavioural indicators ie., ways of demonstrating the competency in the job. Behavioural indicators indicate the existence of a competency in a person.

A competency manual contains the definitions of several competencies applicable to different roles in the organization. These competencies could be of different types. The combination of these types of competencies is called a competency framework. For instance in one of the companies in the auto sector there are 7 common competencies called leadership competencies applicable to all employee for e.g., Customer Focus, 1 competency applicable to auto sector viz., Auto Passion and 3 to 4 functional competencies applicable to each unique role for e.g., Business Planning. Thus a person has 11 to 12 competencies to focus on.

Utilizing Competencies

For starters you need to have a thorough understanding of the Competency framework in your company. Then understand the competencies relevant for your role and if relevant, for the roles that report into you. Based on this understanding you can be more effective in the following:-

  • Self Development: You can follow these steps for developing yourself using competencies.
    a. Recognize competency exists and is important to do job well
    b. Understand what the competency is and how to use it/ do it
    c. Get feedback on own level of competence vis-à-vis superior performer
    d. Practice in realistic simulations and get coaching feedback
    e. Set goals and develop action plans for how you are going to use new competency behaviors in real jobs.
    f. Get follow up support from mentors, managers, trainers.

  • Career Growth: Competencies can help you chart your career growth. Look at the competencies for the next level of role or roles that you are interested in taking up. Plan to demonstrate those competencies. Also work on developing those competencies.

  • Selection: When hiring, assess the competencies of the candidates vis-à-vis the competencies required by the role. Surface knowledge and skill competencies are relatively easy to develop. Hence it is more cost-effective to train employees in these and recruit people with the required core motive and trait competencies.

  • Performance Management: Competencies differentiate a superior performer from an average one especially in complex jobs and in higher level technical, managerial, professional jobs. So when trying to determine midyear course corrections during a performance cycle, consider assessing whether the lack of competencies is hampering performance.

  • Training/Development: You can facilitate the development of your subordinates by helping them follow the steps given for “Self Development”.


Competencies are not very easy to understand. But once we do understand them, it gives clarity on a lot of people issues and provides some very effective solutions to the challenges encountered in selecting, developing, and managing people. All the best for building competencies for yourself and your team members!


  • Spencer, L M and Spencer, S M , 1993, ‘Competency at Work, Models for Superior Performance’, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  • Rao, T.V, ‘Certificate Program in Competency Mapping’, T V Rao Learning Systems Pvt. Ltd.
  • ‘Workitect’s Competency Dictionary’