How to Leverage Competency Models in Reviews

Competency models allow management and HR to identify gaps in employee skill sets, align employee behavior with corporate goals, and determine whether an employee is ready for a promotion. 

What are Competency Models?

A competency model is a collection of behaviors employees must possess to be successful in their role or at a specific task. Competency models are more nuanced than job descriptions, as they provide an understanding not only of what the employee does but how he or she does it. A job description lists the tasks and functions performed in a specific role, whereas a competency model identifies the behavior, skills, and knowledge necessary to complete those functions.

Examples of Competency Model Systems

While HR teams are responsible for creating competency models, they don’t have to create them entirely from scratch. They can draw inspiration from existing competency model systems. Two of the most famous examples are the Lominger competency model and the CliftonStrengths assessment system. 

The Lominger competency model is a talent management system that assesses 67 competencies focused on basic leadership and talent management. Examples of Lominger competencies include:

  • action-oriented,
  • approachability,
  • building effective teams,
  • business acumen, and 
  • career ambition.

In contrast, the CliftonStrengths assessment measures 177 competencies and provides an overview of each employee’s behavioral preferences and skills. It asks employees to choose between two potential self-descriptors to measure each competency.

Types of Competencies

Competency models should be crafted to suit the behavior, needed skills, and knowledge required to succeed in a wide range of situations. Examples of competencies include:

  • Core Competencies: the skills and technical expertise required to work in an organization, regardless of position or job role. Creative thinking, conflict resolution skills, and effective communication may be core competencies.
  • Organizational Competencies: behaviors that match the company’s culture, such as customer-driven attitudes, risk-taking, and ambition.
  • Technical Competencies: the skills and knowledge needed to perform a specific task. 
  • Behavioral Competencies: personality-based competencies that often lead to success, such as initiative, adaptability, stress management, and decisiveness. 
  • Functional Competencies: behaviors that produce specific results within a particular setting. Functional competencies are similar to traditional job skills, such as an accountant’s ability to perform financial analysis or a warehouse worker’s safety precautions.
  • Leadership/Managerial Competencies: behaviors needed to manage and lead teams, such as the ability to inspire others, solve problems, delegate tasks, and manage time. 

HR Competency Models and Performance Reviews

To incorporate competencies into performance reviews, HR teams first create competency models for all positions. Managers need to fully understand each position and each position’s competency model to provide helpful and impactful feedback during reviews. Managers then use the competencies to identify employees’ strengths and weaknesses based on specific behaviors.

A competency model review begins with the manager defining competencies to the employee. The manager should provide examples of what behaviors are needed, what they look like, and how they affect job success. Doing so allows the manager to set expectations for the review.

Once the employee indicates he or she understands the behaviors under review, the manager should provide feedback and work with the employee to create action plans that address areas where competencies are not met. HR teams can help by providing a competency rubric such as the one below.

CompetencyExceeds standardMeets StandardApproaches StandardDoes Not Reach Standard
Communicates well with coworkers

Takes responsibility for mistakes

Seeks the help of managers or mentors as needed

Takes on a leadership role in team projects

Completes assigned work promptly

Demonstrates creative problem solving

Note: The point of the rubric is not to assign a score to the employee. Instead, it is a tool used to establish how well employee behavior meets the corresponding competency model. 

Benefits of Competency Models in Performance Reviews

Basing performance reviews on competencies helps managers determine how employee behavior influences task completion and job success. Doing so also allows managers to base feedback not on goal achievement but on behavior. Consider the difference between these two feedback examples:

  • Goal Achievement: “You failed to meet the 85% increase in customer  satisfaction responses.”
  • Competency Feedback: “I think you can meet the 85% benchmark if you focus on improving your communication and time management competencies.”

By focusing on improving behavior, rather than task failure, competency-based feedback sounds less judgemental and is less likely to result in a defensive employee. 

Competency model performance reviews also encourage managerial coaching, inviting the employee to take part in creating an action plan to increase overall performance. 

The ultimate goal of competency model performance reviews is establishing an ongoing manager/employee conversation about improving specific competencies and applying them to job tasks.

From a manager’s perspective, competency performance reviews help clarify performance standards while providing a solid base from which to help employees develop their skills. For employees, competency models help identify and address weak areas in their professional development, increasing their worth as employees and moving them closer to attaining career goals.

Interpreting HR Competency Model Reviews

Like any robust performance management system, competency models are never set in stone. Competency models should guide performance reviews, and they can be adjusted if performance reviews reveal a disconnect between the competency model and actual employee behavior. Depending on the results of your HR team’s analysis of  competency review data, you’ll find yourself moving forward in one of three ways: 

  • Employees score well for competencies and achieve job goals, indicating you’ve hit the sweet spot between aligned competencies and objectives. Continue to monitor performance reviews, fine-tuning competencies to match goals even more accurately.
  • Employees meet competencies but do not achieve end goals, indicating competency models need revising as they are not resulting in success. 
  • Employees achieve goals but rank low on competencies. Revise your competency model to reflect the behaviors currently used to achieve success.

Used correctly, HR competency models can inform talent decisions throughout an employee’s work life, from recruiting and training to selecting employees for promotions and transfers.