How to use behavioural competencies at work

By Anthony Wolny | 17th September 2018 | 12 min read

The concept of using behavioural competencies within the workplace is a fairly modern phenomenon – widely credited as first being introduced to businesses during the 1970’s, at the time they provided a revolutionary and compelling way to help to assess, develop and manage people, against a strict backdrop of set criteria.

They proved to be extremely effective at highlighting skills gaps within businesses, allowing employers to develop focused recruitment, learning, training, and development programmes that added real company value. It can be argued that their use is just as important today, as the Harvard Business Review states that only an estimated 20 percent of the wider workforce possess the skills needed to fill 60 percent of future jobs.

However, as the world of work continues to evolve, and with the increasing challenges of an ever-changing, uncertain business environment, many employers are unsure as to whether the use of behavioural competencies still deserve their place within modern HR systems and recruitment strategies.

What are behavioural competencies?

Essentially, competencies refer to the behaviours that employees must possess or display in order to perform in a job role to a high standard.

Their main aim is to act as a key performance indicator from a business to an individual in their area of expertise, and against their expected level of performance. They should provide employees with an indication, or wider mapping system of the behaviours and actions that will be valued, praised and rewarded within individual organisations.

By setting goals, targets and measurements against employee behaviour and performance, they most commonly exist within wider performance management frameworks for managers and supervisors.

What is the difference between competences and competencies?

You may have heard of these two very similar words in a business context, but it is not advisable to get too bogged down in conflicting definitions. Many companies use the terms interchangeably, and without any problem, but there are subtle variations between the two terms:

  • Compentences: This term commonly refers to broader ideas that cover performance outputs as well as behaviour inputs, and normally relate to a system or policy of minimum standards that that employees must possess or learn in order to competently perform in their job roles.
  • Competencies: The use of this term normally focuses on the personal qualities or inputs of an individual employee. These are defined as the skills or technical attributes that people must have or learn in order to develop effectively within their role.

When was the term first introduced to business?

Originally trialled by several big businesses in the 1970’s, the broad idea of behavioural competencies became embedded in mainstream company policy during the 1980’s. This was mainly attributed to a response to increasingly complex organisational change, and a resulting drive for higher performance and output levels.

In the years since, competency frameworks have become an increasingly accepted part of modern HR, and Learning and Development practice. A 2017 report conducted by the CIPD on resourcing and talent planning revealed that competency-based interviews are the most popular method of application selection.

Do they have any basic principles?

As all business organisations operate in different spheres, and have unique aims, goals and strategies, companies must identify and develop the particular competencies that suit their personal circumstances. However, there are some broad ideas and themes that tend to be included in most frameworks in one way or another – these include:

  • Knowing and understanding the wider business goals and strategy
  • Communicating effectively
  • Embracing change when necessary
  • Focusing on personal and team goals
  • Committing to self-development within a role
  • Showing leadership characteristics
  • Working within a team
  • Showing creativity
  • Being able to effectively plan and organise
  • Operate under fair and equal principles in all workplace duties

Why are they used in business?

Behavioural competencies are used in UK businesses for a variety of purposes and reasons – an effective framework is recognised as having a positive effect on across a wide range of human resource management, and all learning and development activities within a company. They are seen as a key way to achieve positive organisational performance and growth through a programme of measuring and reviewing each employee’s capability and potential.

According to research from the CIPD, most employer’s use behavioural competency frameworks to achieve the following goals:

  • Consistency across company recruitment processes
  • Balanced performance reviews and reward schemes
  • Enhanced employee effectiveness
  • Greater organisational growth and profit
  • Better analysis of training needs
  • Enhanced career development and management

Can they be used at all business levels?

Behavioural competencies are commonly used at every level within Uk businesses. Traditionally, early use of competency frameworks tended to focus mainly on performance management and the development of employees, and so were mainly applicable to more senior members of staff.

However, as time has gone on, and business scope and development has expanded, so too have the capabilities of competency frameworks. At all levels of business, they can provide a solid backdrop against which to develop a common workplace ‘language,’ implement a fair and objective recruitment policy, track and assess staff development, and scrutinise staff potential in relation to promotion opportunities and succession planning.

Of course, the way you develop differing competence frameworks will inevitably differ depending on staff level, and the associated skills, talents and behavioural needs that sit alongside different roles, but you will likely have some ‘core’ values that will apply to all employees at every level. Developing a strong core framework should ease the process considerably when you look to adapt it in future.

How do I develop a competency framework?

Developing a competency framework needn’t be too intimidating or time-consuming, especially if you can break the process down into different components. The most important point to remember is that you should only include competency areas that are measurable – not being able to effectively track a behavioural competency will ensure that its use becomes obsolete eventually.

Aim for no more than 10 competencies per workplace role, and try to group them so that they make for as cohesive reading as possible. Stacking competencies against different areas should help to ensure that they are easily deciphered and understood by both managers and employees alike. You could add to this by including definitions and examples of each competency, particularly where they refer to different levels of performance that be expected from each of the behaviours.

Another crucial aspect of all competency frameworks is the degree of detail that is leveraged against it. If your framework information is too broad, it is likely that it will fail to provide adequate guidance to employees as to what you would expect from them, and for managers to fully comprehend the benchmarks against which they should assess employees.

Competencies that you may like to include could refer to:

  • Individual competencies – Including personal qualities such as decision-making, analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Interpersonal competencies – Referring to behaviours such as an ability to work in a team, communication skills, telephone manner, and ability to recognise diverse opinions
  • Motivational competencies – Attributing to the ability to motivate, encourage, support and lead by example
  • Managerial competencies – Including areas such as leadership skills, strategic planning, managing people and maintaining positive attitudes
  • Technical competencies – Encompassing data analysis skills, problem-solving abilities, technological knowledge and data entry

How do I know if my competency framework is fit for purpose?

Your main competency framework will likely be completely unique to the needs and requirements of your business, but there are some guidelines against which you can measure its effectiveness and impact:

  • Communicate the ideas behind it – You must ascertain if employees understand why such a framework is needed. Making sure that they understand how behaviours contribute to personal and organisational success is key here.
  • Identify key attributes – Make sure that your framework fits with your wider business goals and strategy. Identifying individual efforts that can add towards a greater goal should be your ultimate aim.
  • Drum up internal support – Your current company culture must support the aims and concept of the framework. Gaining the buy-in of directors and senior management figures will contribute greatly to the successful implementation of your framework
  • Change attitudes first – Support managers to recognise root problems, before they act on a perceived lack of success against competencies. You cannot improve behaviour without understanding any root causes behind it
  • Keep it simple – Ensure that language and structure are kept as simplistic as possible, allowing for minimal ambiguity. If an area is too long or complicated within the framework, it is highly likely that it will not be utilised effectively.
  • Place an emphasis on training – Make sure that all managers understand how your framework should be used. It is a vitally important tool, and the key to its success is understanding its potential and the core values that lie behind it.

With lots of employees to look after within an organisation it pays to look at ways of alleviating some of the workload. Smaller business can use the power of IRIS HR Pro our cloud HR software which has optional talent management software to help with training and development. For large business HR software we have training management software for IRIS cascade HRi.