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Competency-based Interviews Predict Job Success

Newsletter • volume 1 • number 13

We explore Harvard behavioral scientist D. C. McClelland's work on competency and predicting job performance based on people who are clearly successful in their jobs.

A competency is defined as any underlying characteristic that differentiates between superior and average performers. McClelland identifies five types of competencies: motives, traits, self-concept, knowledge, and behavioral skills. Some companies today refer to all competencies as "success factors."

Competencies of top performers have more long-term endurance than job tasks or duties which change rapidly. Selecting for and/or improving individual competencies can help an organization achieve its strategic objectives. Because some competencies like entrepreneurial are difficult to teach or develop, it is more cost effective to hire people who already possess the required characteristics.

Identifying competencies needed in a specific job requires assessing the job's outstanding performers (usually the top 10%) to determine what characteristics make them so effective. The assessment goal is to learn the ways in which these "stars" differ from average performers.

McClelland identifies three steps for identifying competencies:

1. Research the job components.
A focus group of job experts (prior incumbents) develops a list of what they believe are the competencies of both average and star performers. A "best estimate" inventory of competencies that star performers are most likely to possess is created. Today many companies will use a 360-degree performance review to determine job competencies. Incumbents, as well as their subordinates, peers and supervisors are all interviewed to determine competencies of top performers.

2. Study current performers.
Average and top performers are studied to identify the critical competencies that separate stars from average performers. McClelland suggests using Behavioral Event Interviews (BEIs) for these studies.

Behavioral Event Interviews are recorded, 2-2 1/2 hour interviews that specially trained interviewers conduct with 8-12 stars and 8-12 average performers. (See adjoining article, the Behavioral Event Interview, for more on BEIs.)

Analysis of the interview transcripts yields two lists: The first is a list of star competencies; the second describes competencies held by both star and average performers (which become minimum job requirements). The technical competencies are listed separately.

3. Develop and validate the Job Competency Model.
A competency model is created from BEI transcripts to describe superior performers. Each competency is then described in terms of specific behavioral indicators. If one competency is "flexibility," a behavioral indicator would be: "Can shift to another task and still complete current one."

After the competency model has been developed, it must be validated. This means repeating the research by conducting another set of Behavioral Event Interviews with 24 average and 24 star performers.

There are a number of less time-consuming and rigorous ways to identify required competencies. One variation is to collect in written form the critical behavioral stories rather than use a face-to-face Behavioral Event Interview. Another way is to overlay an existing or generic competency model on a job within your organization. Finally, a generic list of competencies can be used as a menu by an employee and his/her manager to identify competencies required for exemplary job performance.

Competencies thus represent the characteristics or behavioral qualities to look for in candidates being interviewed. Forty-eight behavioral qualities or competencies are used in Management Team Consultant's competency-based behavioral interviewing training ­ Effective Interviewing! and Interviewing Today's Workforce. Each of these forty-eight competencies is further defined with five behavioral indicators which give on-the-job examples of how a behavioral quality or competency is applied. These behavioral indicators have been drawn from work performed for high-profile client organizations over the years.