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A simple guide to the difference between strengths and competencies

How to recruit amazing!

Think of a task you do every day at work that’s important to the effective delivery of your job. Perhaps it’s building relationships with customers. Or writing job descriptions. You might enjoy this activity or hate it. Either way it needs doing and doing well in order for you to be successful in your role.

Now think about a task that you really enjoy. Perhaps you’re quite new to it and there are things about it you don’t fully understand but you’re chomping at the bit to learn more. You’d happily do it for hours if given half the chance. In fact – you love it so much you can’t not do it!

One of these is a competency and one is a strength. Can you tell the difference?

Despite the attention strengths have been getting over the last few years, there’s still a fair amount of confusion about what strengths are and how they differ to competencies.

So, here’s my simple guide to the difference between strengths and competencies.

A competency is something you do in order to deliver your role successfully

It could be skills-based like writing or coding. Or it could be a more intangible behaviour like negotiation or responding to people’s emotional needs.

Understanding the competencies required to do a job effectively is hugely important – the first critical step to ensuring you recruit the right person for the role. Because there is a direct correlation between competency and performance.

For instance, to be an effective trainer you need to be able to present well. If you can’t present well, you’ll struggle to be a good trainer.

So in order to recruit the right person for your trainer role, you would look to measure candidates’ ability to present.

The difficulty is, the competencies we look for in job candidates are rarely things that get taught in schools.

People don’t come to interview bearing a certificate for competency in negotiation or customer service or teamwork.

That’s why we create a competency framework; a way of articulating what behaviours we need to see in a role so that we can measure against these behaviours.

When recruiting a software developer, for instance, you might want to know that they can use Javascript or C++. But that’s easy to measure – you can test for that. A competency-based approach adds value when you’re looking for behaviour that’s less easily measured – when you’re after, perhaps, a customer-facing software developer, someone who’ll need to be able to build rapport with your customers. Your competency framework will help you consider what good looks like in a role and how you’re going to measure that in your candidates.

But what about attitude, motivation, passion?

A competency is just something you do in a role – do it well and you’ll perform the job well. But motivation and attitude don’t come into it. It’s immaterial whether you enjoy doing it or not.

Strengths are different.

A strength is something that you enjoy, that you’re interested in, that engages you and you are naturally good at

You tend to be good at this activity because your interest in it motivates you to become better at it. You are drawn to it.

But it is more than something you’re inherently good at. You’ve learnt to be good at it because of your interest and engagement in it.

Strengths originate in sports psychology. When looking at how to improve performance, sports psychologists realised that if an athlete wasn’t interested in a sport there was no way they’d become better at it.

Top athletes are so good at their sport because they’re so passionate about it. Their love of their particular sport drives their performance.

This idea soon spread beyond the sports world into the world of work. At the same time as people like Seligman were defining the influence of values on performance, the strengths model started to give business psychology the structure and the language it needed to measure motivation.

And it changed everything. Instead of ‘fixing’ people – working on their weaknesses to improve performance – strengths enabled us to begin to examine how we recruit and develop amazing people in the first place. 

To get amazing people we have to look at what they love doing, not just what they can do

After all, you can teach people how to do a job, help them to develop the skills they need to do it successfully. But you can’t teach interest or passion for the job – and without that, they’re only ever going to be half-hearted about it. If you want full engagement, full commitment, high performance, people have got to love it too!

That’s why strengths are proving so popular in the graduate recruitment market. Typically graduates don’t have an awful lot of experience – making it difficult to measure their competency. But what they do have is potential. Strengths give employers the structure to be able to measure that potential as strengths are so natural, they occur outside of the workplace and often before we even reach the workplace. Think of the child that enjoys being team captain – they’re likely to have a leading strength, or the child that loves taking things apart – they’re likely to have a critical thinking strength.

Competencies and strengths are not interchangeable

You can’t just swap one approach out and another in without rethinking your end-to-end people strategy.

Why? Recruiting for strengths rather than for competencies changes the conversation at every stage of the employee journey. It changes the way you measure and reward performance, how you manage and how you develop your staff, even how teams work together.

Moving from a competency-based approach to a strengths one requires a complete mindshift – in what you do and how you think. It requires a change of culture.

The difference between what competencies and strengths are might be straightforward – the difference between what you can do and what you love doing – but moving from one approach to the other is somewhat more revolutionary.

But never fear! The Work Brighter blog is here to help you navigate this revolutionary approach! In my next blog, we’ll explore the implications of embracing a strengths-based solution – from considering whether it’s right for your organisation in the first place to the practical steps you need to take to make it work.

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