competence versus performance

Untangling the concepts of  ‘Competency and Performance’

Like much of the language of Human Resources the terms ‘Competency’ and ‘Performance’  have no commonly accepted meanings in practice.

Common Usage

competency soup

‘Competency’  is sometimes defined as  a particular knowledge or skill  standard to be achieved.

More frequently it is defined as part of a behavioral repertoire – a set of behaviors that successful people demonstrate.   It is assumed these behaviors have led to their success.

If the first assumption is true it follows that if others adopt the same set of  behaviors then they too will be successful.

The term ‘Competency’ is also often used interchangeably with the term ‘Competence’.  

In the performance management context ‘Performance’ usually means work activities and behaviours – much the same meaning as a competency.  Competencies are very often part of a performance appraisal, so the concepts of Competency and Performance seem to be overlapping.

A popular approach is to say that tasks describe what is to be done and competencies describe how those tasks should be done.   Or that there are task behaviors and  citizenship behaviors often termed ‘soft skills’.

It has been pointed out that the lack of commonly accepted terminology means that organisations  “build and integrate HRM systems on a bed of shifting sand” 1

Competency and Performance are not the same

The confusion stems from the use of  the same terminology for both contexts.    Competencies are often defined as ‘behaviors’ and  assessed by ‘performance’ indicators.

When competency terminology is changed so that competencies have ‘descriptors’ and ‘standards’ that are ‘ met’  ,  ‘not met’ or  ‘needs development’  the confusion disappears.

What is a competency?

A competency is a particular aspect of knowledge and/or a distinct skill.   Skills are a series of procedural steps or actions.    They are used to complete tasks in the workplace.  A task may require a bundle of knowledge and skills.  Systematic job analysis is used to determine the knowledge and skills needed to complete a task successfully.

What is performance ?

Most organizations try to align individual performance with organizational purpose and strategies.    In order to do this the definition of ‘performance’ should include the results that will contribute.

However ‘Expected Performance’ in job descriptions is usually defined as a list of tasks,  rather than the outputs of those tasks.    Just performing a task will not necessarily produce the results that the organization is looking for.

As an example ‘ Provide help desk services’ is a task – but this says nothing about the desirable outputs.

Due to the poor quality of most job descriptions most performance management systems are not based on the individual’s job role.  Even though the individual’s job is at the heart of the contract between worker and employer.

Instead most performance management systems use ‘management by objectives’.     ‘SMART’ goals  have to be written at least annually, creating unnecessary administrative workload.

Another problem is that the SMART goals are also often poor quality.  Many are  defined as tasks rather than measurable outcomes.

It is better to define performance in terms of both tasks and their expected outcomes, in a job description that is a living document.

What is the link between competency and performance?

A useful approach is to use systems thinking.  To view individual workplace performance from the perspective of a system.

A system has inputs, processes and outputs.  It operates in an environment. It has a control or feedback mechanism.


From this perspective the inputs to individual workplace performance are job expectations – expected tasks and results.    Competencies are the knowledge and skills needed to deliver on the job expectations.

The most common reason for poor performance is that  expectations are not clear.  The second most common reason is lack of matching competencies.


Work activities are the process part of the system.

work performance model


Outputs are the results of those work activities.  Performance.  It is better to define performance as outputs because just doing a task does not guarantee a successful result.


Work activities take place in an environment where there are procedures, colleagues, tools and information.  All of these must be set up to support successful performance.   Yet very often there are problems that are significant barriers to success.

Feedback and Control

Feedback and control mechanisms provide the information needed for a person or system to be self correcting.   The third most common cause of poor performance is lack of feedback. A common staff complaint.


Sparrow, P. (1995). Organisational Competencies: A Valid Approach for the Future? International Journal of
Selection and Assessment 3,3, 168-177

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