Skills Versus Competencies

Apr 09, 2013

“A competency is more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilising psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context.” [1]

“Competencies are learned over several years. Skills are learned in a matter of months” [2]

How many times do we interview for skills rather than competencies? How often have we seen people with impressive resumes, unable to pull it together and synthesize new ideas into working solutions? It’s a common problem, likely caused by being unaware of the distinction between skills and competencies. Because skills are easy to test, we test for them, but because competencies are much more deeply ingrained in the person, it’s very hard to expose competencies during interviews.

What are some of the skills in the workplace?

Basic Workplace Skills, per U.S. Department of Labor, which surveyed business, organizations, unions to determined that workplace competency depends on 36 skills.

1) Reading 2) Writing 3) Arithmetic / Mathematics 4) Speaking 5) Listening 6) Creative Thinking 7) Decision Making 8) Problem Solving 9) Seeking things in the mind’s eye 10) Knowing how to learn 11) Reasoning 12) Responsibility 13) Self-esteem 14) Sociability 15) Self-Management 16) Integrity / Honesty 17) Time 18) Money 19) Material and facilities 20) Human Resources 21) Participates as a member of a team 22) Teaches others new skills 23) Services clients / customers 24) Exercises leadership 25) Negotiates 26) Works with diversity 27) Acquires and evaluates information 28) Organizes and maintains information 29) Interprets and communicates information 30) Uses computers to process information 31) Understands systems 32) Monitors and corrects performance 33) Improves or designs systems 34) Selects technology 35) Applies technology to task 36) Maintains and troubleshoots equipment

Competencies are composed of various skills, but also pull from a deeper psychological well related to who a person is.

Consider a Scrum Master or an agile coach, charged with both technical skills and “soft” interpersonal skills to deal with team dynamics, using persuasion as the weapon of choice. What competencies might we be looking for? Lyssa Adkins talks about this in “Coaching Agile Teams” and has this chart:


Lyssa says: “You need to be quite strong in Agile-Lean Practitioner and strong in either Mentoring or Teaching as well as strong in either Professional Coaching or Facilitating. We suggest you pick one in-depth area to really get to know: Technical Mastery, Business Mastery or Transformation Mastery.”

That resonates with my experience as well. Too often we have “specialist” coaches who are one-trick ponies. An agile coach or a solid scrum master needs to be able to cycle across several dimensions and up and down the org chart quickly and comfortably.

How can we possibly interview for such competencies? Consider just a couple of the competencies:

Facilitating: A neutral process holder who guides groups through processes that help them come to solutions and make decisions.
Agile-Lean Practitioner: Applies agile practices, lives agile values.

Remember the old adage: not everything that counts can be measured. It would appear the only reasonable way to determine competencies would be to observe someone in action.


[1] Salganik, Laura. 2001. “Defining and selecting key competencies”. Kirkland: Hogrefe & Huber.

[2] Aje Cunningham,

[3] “What Work Requires from Schools; A SCANS Report for America 2000,” Apps. B and C