If you have a job interview coming up, there is a strong chance that part of it will include competency based questions. Competencies are skills, knowledge or behaviours that you have and that you can apply at work to be successful in a role.
The most popular competencies that are assessed in competency based interviews are to do with behaviours i.e. how you behave in different situations and how you apply the skills and knowledge that you have. They are the main way of differentiating between candidates with similar levels of qualifications and experience. After all, we have all met people who on the surface are very qualified to do their job but find it difficult to put the knowledge they have learnt into practice, or who are missing key behavioural skills e.g. they may find it difficult to deal with conflict, even though their role means they regularly encounter situations that involve conflict.
How to know if the interview will have competency based questions
The best way to know what kind of interview you’re going to have is to ask the recruitment consultant or headhunter (if you’re being put forward for the job by a recruitment agency, or executive search firm), or to ask the person who has contacted you from the company that you applied to directly. They are usually happy to share the interview format with you if you ask them the question, as it shows that you are a committed and organised candidate who wants to be prepared.
Identifying the questions you will be asked
If you are very lucky the company will tell you which competencies they are going to question you on (however, this isn’t common practice). If other candidates have already been interviewed for the role and an agency has put you forward for the interview, the recruitment consultant or headhunter may have a good idea about the type of questions from asking the previous candidates about their interviews.
The biggest clues to which questions you will be asked can be found in the job description. For example, if the job description states that the candidate needs to have skills in leadership, communication and organisation, then it is very likely that you will be asked questions to draw out whether you have the necessary skills in these areas.
Competency based interviews work on the premise that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. So, the interviewers want to hear evidence that you have successfully used the competencies before. This means that you need to prepare answers based on your previous experience of using them. It is no good saying in an interview, “I know that I could be really good at leading a team because I have read books on leadership,” or, “I could manage a project efficiently because I have observed other people managing well and will implement their techniques.” Your answers need to clearly show that you have a proven track record in using these skills.
Don’t panic if you can’t immediately think of examples of using the skills or behaviours you are going to be questioned on. You will nearly always be able to find examples by thinking laterally. For example, you may not have held a leadership role before but the concept of leadership at every level shows that we can all demonstrate leadership behaviours, no matter what level we are at in the organisation we work for. These leadership behaviours might include recognition (thanking colleagues who have helped you at work and pointing out other people’s achievements and successes to others), leading by example (e.g. helping turn a negative meeting around by introducing some positive ideas into the discussion), integrity (being trustworthy – your colleagues know they can come to you with a problem and that you will be discreet about it). Alternatively, you may be using these skills outside of the workplace. This is where voluntary work and hobbies can come into their own on both a CV and in an interview. If you don’t have any hobbies or you don’t do any voluntary work, it’s worth doing something about this in advance of the interview, or during your job search, particularly if a hobby or volunteering can help you build the knowledge, skills, or expertise in one of the key competency areas required for the next step in your career.
Answering the questions successfully
Once you’ve identified the competencies that you are likely to be questioned on in the interview, you can use the STAR method to prepare some possible answers for them. Don’t worry about learning your answers by heart (as this can come across as slightly fake in the interview setting), having a few practise attempts at answering possible questions can help you feel prepared for the interview and familiar with the format. Make sure you practise saying your answers out loud; there’s a big difference between thinking of the answers in your head and being able to vocalise them succinctly and with confidence. The fact that a whole range of questions could be asked to assess you on a particular competency means it’s unlikely you would be able to prepare an exact answer to fit any questions that you are asked. However, by preparing and practising, you will have a range of past scenarios and examples in your mind to draw on and adapt to fit the questions.
Let’s imagine that one of the key competencies you are going to be questioned on is communication. It’s worth spending some time reflecting on and assessing your communication skills. Asking colleagues and friends for feedback can be a helpful way of learning more about your strengths and areas for development with this competency. You might be surprised by what they tell you, as many of us are often not aware of the extent of our strengths. Some people are excellent at communicating ideas visually i.e. by doing drawings and diagrams but they don’t realise that this is a skill that many other people don’t share; others may not feel confident communicating by delivering a presentation but all the people in the room listening to the presentation think they’re doing a fantastic job; another person may be good at writing concise but friendly emails; while someone else may have introduced a new messenger tool or app at work that means teams now communicate more effectively than when they were relying on emails as their primary means of communication; yet another person may be excellent at calming people down, or persuading them to see another point of view by taking them out of a stressful situation and having an informal chat with them.
Using the STAR method
Continuing with the communication skills example – once you’ve reflected on your communication skills, you will feel more prepared to use the STAR method to think of possible answers to communication questions. There are a wide range of questions you could be asked about communication skills. Examples include, “Tell me about a time when……:
…you encouraged effective communication at work”
…you had to explain a technical solution to a colleague who did not share your technical expertise”
…you communicated effectively in a difficult situation”
Let’s imagine that you have been asked the first question, “Tell me about a time when you encouraged effective communication at work”. Here’s how you might answer it using the STAR method.
Competency based questions are only part of the interview
Competency based questions always only form part of the job interview. Interviewers will often start off by asking you the reasons you are interested in the role and what your knowledge of the company is. The article, How to Answer the Two Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions has seven steps to researching the company you are being interviewed by, to help you tackle these types of questions. Other common things you may be grilled about include your strengths and weaknesses and your career history so far. It’s worth spending some time thinking about these areas and practising being able to explain your career history concisely (you don’t want to waste precious interview time talking through each of your jobs in detail; you just need to give the interviewers your edited career highlights).
Good luck with your interview and if you use the information in this article to help you prepare for it, let me know how you get on.