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This week’s blog  explores the value in fine tuning behavioural competencies in the workplace for STEM businesses. Could a company specific competency framework improve the recruitment and selection process or, is it more effective for SMEs to use a generic framework to build their teams?

We may be familiar with the terms competence and competency, but what do we really mean when we are using them? For industrial or business psychologists, there is an important distinction, with competence referring to functional skills, whilst competency refers to behaviours. In the 1980’s, a study by the American Management Association embedded the concept of behaviours and performance as competencies in characteristics which were causally linked with “effective or superior performance in a job” (Bolden & Gosling, 2006). In the race to remain competitive, inimitable and leaders in excellence, organisations drove their energy into devising their “core competence”. This would enable the organisation to leverage a complex blend of knowledge base, people, skill sets and technology in order to stay competitive in the market sector (Le Deist & Winterton, 2005).

Putting it into practice…

All seems well and good in theory, but what does this mean in practice for owner managed businesses, developing their own intellectual property and managing recruitment strategies on what may be a very modest budget? Well, we can start by taking a lesson from the market leaders of the 1990’s and 2000’s who were in search of the optimum design for team dynamics and recruitment strategies. The tension rose between management strategists who advocated bespoke competences, which were specific to the company and in many instances, unique. However, Human Resource Design literature opposed that position in favour of a well crafted, generic model which identified common behaviours found in most roles and that could be easily transferred within posts and between organisations. The critical question is, can a generic framework with this level of appeal and transferability really help organisations to stay competitive in their marketplace?

Cookie cutter workplaces…

One of the main criticisms facing the competency framework approach is the assumption that a common set of capabilities are essential, regardless of the person, setting or role being recruited for. Equally, they rely on evidence from past performance and don’t take into account potential for the future. Nonetheless, the competency framework continues to expand its influence acorss organisations, spanning not only management, but leadership and the wider employee population.  But as Bolden & Gosling (2006) argue, the sting in tail of behavioural competencies used this widely concerns their tendency to “disguise and embed” certain assumptions surrounding the work in question, rather than challenging and exposing those elements taken for granted in management and leadership.

Conform or perform?

If we’re going to get specific about the behaviours which have been previously linked to successful performance in a similar role, then the danger is that we are inviting new employees to conform to a set of expectations, reducing their capacity to personalise and craft the role. Likewise, this can have considerable implications for leaders, whose previous experience may have brought success to their organisation, but a clash of culture and practice in the new organisation could seriously limit their capacity to influence productivity, performance and morale.

Perhaps the optimum framework in competency mapping, for leaders in the first instance, can be found in breaking down the competencies across a selection of categories. Takey & Carvalho (2015), found evidence to support this approach in the engineering setting where competencies were clustered across project management, personal, technical, context and business processes. This structured and detailed map returned the sense of ownership to individuals involved in the research, raising engagement and adoption of the framework. Maybe their most significant finding and recommendation in this study, is that competencies increase in complexity on a sliding scale according to where the role is positioned in technical performance levels. So, for the STEM sector, a bespoke approach to competency mapping could be enhanced by a thorough assessment process.

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Bolden, R., & Gosling, J. (2006) Leadership competencies: Time to change the tune? Leadership 2(2) 147-163

Le Deist, F. D., & Winterton, J. (2005). What is competence? Human Resource Development International.

Takey, S. M., & Carvalho, M. M. de. (2015). Competency mapping in project management: An action research study in an engineering company. International Journal of Project Management33(4), 784–796.

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