Competence vs. Competency: Here's What You Need to Know

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 20, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Managers often discuss the competence and competencies necessary for their employees to succeed. Many organizations use these terms together, so it's common for professionals to think they have the same meaning. Learning the difference between the terms competence and competency can help you determine which is necessary to improve your performance in the workplace. In this article, we compare competence versus competency, list the stages of competence, show how you can use the stages to develop your skills, and share the types of competencies.

Competence vs. competency

If you're comparing competence versus competency, it's helpful to understand that competence focuses on an individual's skill, while competency refers to their behaviour. Competence refers to a person's capability of performing a specific task. They use these skills and knowledge to accomplish their tasks, and the organization can measure the outcome. Organizations typically refer to the measurement of this outcome as the individual's competence, which is why competence is skill-based. There are specific characteristics that can define a person's competence. These include leadership, communication, time management, and decision-making skills.

Related: What Are Competencies? (With Examples and a Guide)

Competency combines knowledge, skills, attributes, and behaviours that help individuals perform their tasks or activities successfully. Organizations typically define competency as on-the-job behaviours they desire to see in their employees or workforce. They're essential behavioural skills and traits that allow the organization to achieve its goals. These skills can include analytical thinking or reporting skills. In the workplace, both competence and competency refer to an individual's abilities. Both are vital to an organization's and an individual's performance.

Related: 8 Professional Skills to Explore (With Definition and Tips)

Four stages of competence

The four stages of competence are a part of the states that an individual goes through when progressing from incompetence to competence of a specific skill. These phases show that an individual doesn't know in advance how little they are capable of or how little they know when it comes to a specific skill. When individuals recognize their incompetence, they can start gaining new skills and consciously using them. Eventually, they're able to learn to use these skills without thinking about it.

Organizations also call this model the conscious competence matrix, conscious competence learning model, conscious competence ladder, and learning matrix. When organizations understand this model, they're able to create training programs. These programs can better recognize their employees' learning requirements and create learning objectives that align with their learning curve. The following provides more details about the four stages of competence:

1. Unconscious incompetence

Before completing a new activity, an individual may not know what they're doing. They can lack the skills, knowledge, and capability to fulfil a specific task during this stage correctly. The stage of unconscious incompetence can last for years. To learn a new skill, it's essential that the individual recognize their inability to perform a skill properly. Afterwards, they're able to progress to the next level of competence.

Here's an example:

A secondary student starts working as a shelf stacker at a supermarket. The store manager asks the student to fill the milk bottles in the store's dairy section. The employee goes to the storage rooms, brings the milk to the shelf, and begins stacking. They don't know the rules about placing new milk at the back of the shelf so that customers can buy the older milk first. They stack the shelf, and the manager tells them they didn't do it correctly.

2. Conscious incompetence

This stage begins when an individual develops an awareness of the skills they don't know yet or cannot perform. During conscious incompetence, the individual recognizes they haven't mastered a skill or are not performing a specific activity properly. Recognizing this incompetence is vital. That way, the individual can train and gain a higher level of competence. People can often get stuck on this stage for a long time. How long depends on their motivation to acknowledge and learn new skills they may need.

Here's an example of conscious incompetence that continues the example from above:

After learning about their mistake, the supermarket employee notices there are other functions of the job they can't do yet because they don't have the experience or knowledge. They want to learn and can do their best to learn the necessary skills quickly. To achieve this, they work with a coach who has experience. Being assertive is an important aspect. If the employee has questions or is unsure of anything, the coach can help them.

3. Conscious competence

This is the stage where an individual begins to learn. During the conscious competence stage, an individual actively works to improve a specific skill but is still new. They're able to try new lessons, fail, try again, and get better. Competence may grow slowly, and there's a long way before the new skill becomes a part of an individual's routine. Perseverance is essential during this stage.

Here's an example of conscious competence:

In stage three, the supermarket employee starts to develop new skills. They receive training to help them become more efficient at the supermarket. As they progress, they learn all the information they require. This learning continues until the only way to improve their competence is through repetitive practice.

4. Unconscious competence

As individuals continue learning and working, they can reach the unconscious competence stage. During this stage, they no longer think about the activities they're capable of performing successfully. Unlike the earlier stages of this process, it doesn't take long to reach unconscious competence. This is able to happen quickly thanks to the repetition of the activity.

Here's an example of unconscious competence:

Now the supermarket employee has the necessary skills and competence to perform their job effectively. Thanks to their dedication, they can complete the various tasks without thinking about them. They no longer question their actions when performing their duties.

Related: What Is a Level of Competency? (With Improvement Strategies)

How you can use the four stages of competence to develop skills

Knowing the stage you're in when learning a skill provides you with an opportunity to find the relevant training and internalize new information. This can help you move to the next stage of your skill development. For example, if you're in stage two, you might consult someone who has experience in developing skills. These people know the process of learning the skill you're working on and provide you with the help you require.

Understanding that the learning process has different stages can also help you build patience when developing a new skill. Try paying attention to the learning process and not let your emotions impede your progression. Being aware of the stages can also help increase your sense of motivation. You can pay attention to where you are in the four stages without worrying how long it can take to get to the next stages. The process can be rewarding as you see that you're making progress towards learning a new skill, which may inspire you to keep learning.

Types of competencies

Competencies enable an organization's staff to understand the behaviour and level of performance that the organization expects to achieve its goals. Competencies also give individuals an idea of the behaviours that an organization recognizes, appreciates, and rewards. Each individual has their own set of traits, skills, attributes, and behaviours that make them suitable for a position. The following describes the major categories of competencies an individual can cultivate:

Behavioural competencies

Behavioural competencies encompass an employee's soft skills and behaviour traits that an organization expects. Many organizations require these competencies regardless of the job role. These basic human skills help individuals survive in a collaborative and competitive organizational environment. They're also vital to an individual's performance within an organization. These basic competencies include compassion, creativity, self-awareness, originality, ambition, self-motivation, time management, and career aspirations.

Related: 15 Professional Characteristics for the Workplace

Leadership competencies

Leadership is a necessary skill for senior positions and team handling. There's a long list of competencies a leader can possess to be efficient in their role. Organizations can have many personality or behavioural trait requirements for their leadership roles. Some essential basic competencies for an employee while in a leadership position can align with five important aspects, such as integrity, conceptual skills, communication skills, impact and influence, and business acumen. Business acumen is exceptionally vital because a leader who is good at managing their employees is an excellent communicator but lacks business or industry knowledge isn't successful.

Related: How to Write a Communication Skills Resume (With Examples)

Functional competencies

Functional competencies are specific to a job type, industry, or department. Organizations endure various challenges to grow and survive because of the market's ever-changing demands. Each organization requires specific competencies that can help achieve success. Functional competencies are essential to the success of any organization because they focus on technical know-how, subject knowledge, and other factors an organization requires to function. An organization expects its employees to have relevant skills that align with their position within its hierarchy.

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