ATD Blog

What Is a Competency?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Sign up for the Talent Management Newsletter!

When talking about competency models, I’m often asked the same series of questions: “What is a competency? How do I explain it to others?”  

Defining Competency 

An easy definition of competency is that it is something you need to be able to do well in a specific job role.

The term "competence" came into vogue following R.W. White’s 1959 Psychological Review article, “Motivation Reconsidered: The Concept of Competence.” White explains that because people are intrinsically motivated to achieve competence, having competency models enables organizations to tap into our own desire to achieve proficiency. (See figure to the right.)

In order to demonstrate competence, workers must be able to perform certain tasks or skills with a required level of proficiency.  A competency is broken down into specific skills or tasks. Next, each skill or task can be described in terms of what it looks like—specific behaviors at different levels of proficiency.  To achieve competence in a particular job, a person should be able to perform various tasks or skills at a target proficiency level. (see figure below.)

A competency model encompasses all the competencies, tasks and skills, behavioral examples, and proficiency requirements for a particular job. It focuses on factors the organization has marked “critical” to achieving the corporate strategy.  


While all of this seems obvious to Talent Development and L&D professionals, it is often difficult to explain to those outside of our field. In other words, when I ask a group of salespeople or supply chain managers about the required competencies for their roles, I typically get a bunch of blank stares. 

A Different Approach: Categories 

Let’s consider a different way to describe “competency.”  I ask people to describe the “categories” of things that employees need to be able to do. Suddenly, the intangible seems tangible, and everyone can articulate what they need to do. 

For example, if you ask a sales person about the categories of things they do, they will probably say account management, opportunity management, and administrative tasks. Or, if you ask a supply chain manager to outline their categories of tasks or behaviors, they will probably say supply chain management, people management, and coordination with other functions.   

Once you have these categories, you can have a conversation with high performers, asking them: “Tell me everything you do in your job that is related to people management.” This is where you can start to nail down the requisite skills for that role to succeed.  

If one of those skills is related to career development, you can ask, “If you must facilitate career development discussions, what do you think it should look like? How often do you do it? How do you integrate it into your processes?” This is where you begin extracting best practices, which are simply examples of how to demonstrate proficiency in a particular skill. 


Putting Competencies to Work for You 

If you want to dialogue with leaders or line employees about competencies or generate support for building competency models in your organization, use language that everyone understands. Ask people about the “categories” or big buckets of things they need to do in their job. I believe you’ll find that you can generate a lot more support for your competency initiatives. You can use the table below to help you get started. 



For more insight, check out my archived ATD webcast, "Develop an Actionable  Competency Model in Weeks!"


About the Author

Cheryl Lasse is SkillDirector’s managing partner. Her goal is helping people and companies achieve their potential. Cheryl has extensive experience with competency model development and implementation, and enjoys sharing her knowledge and passion with others. Check out the LinkedIn group Competency Models For Professional Development.

She believes people are intrinsically motivated to excel, if they are given access to a competency model for their role, the opportunity to assess themselves against that model, and personalized learning to help them close gaps and meet aspirational goals. This philosophy has been embodied in the Self-Directed Learning Engine, the engine behind the ATD Skill Tracker.

Cheryl has a strong background in consulting, marketing, and sales, mostly in technology companies, where training has played a chief role throughout her career. She holds bachelor’s degrees from Syracuse University in computer science and HR, and an MBA from the University of South Florida.

Sign In to Post a Comment
Streamline your performance evaluation process in the most effective manner by customizing review periods, assessment templates, employee competencies, and workflows. Personalize the appraisal process to suit your business with
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Competency is Category for layman ...... beauty is in simplicity .
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.