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Competencies and Characteristics: What’s the Difference?

Woman in blue blazer.

I had a boss who frequently talked about “competencies and characteristics” when interviewing nurses for various positions. Admittedly, it did strike me odd that she always used both words, but I didn’t give it much more thought.

Until now.

Recent studies have shown that even in a high-tech world, employers favor employees who have outstanding characteristics, or so-called “soft skills” over those who have competencies, or so-called hard skills.

So what’s the difference between competencies and characteristics, and what does this have to do with personal or professional development? 

Focusing on competencies

Professional development focuses on competencies. Competencies are often a mix between knowledge and skills.

The process of teaching and learning competencies is fairly straightforward. In my opinion, competencies can almost always be thought of as a “how-to” behavior.   

Let’s talk about skills. I can teach someone how to insert an IV or how to interpret a fetal monitor strip.

Similarly, I can learn (even teach myself!) how to edit an MP3 file, how to study using steps of the PQ4R method, how to use the paced feeding method, or how to knit brioche style. All of those situations require a step-by-step how-to approach.

Knowledge is a little different. You might need to know how to use or understand health-related terminology, how to differentiate between normal and abnormal data, and how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a fractured clavicle.

For either knowledge or skills, pretty much, you’re in a “how to” situation.

This may be true for competencies, but not so with characteristics.

Overlapping with personal characteristics

Soft skills, or personal characteristics, are readily apparent in some people, and clearly lacking in others.

Personal characteristics are usually thought to be something we acquire during personal development. Yet, the results of personal characteristics are seen in your personal life as well as your performance on the job.

I think of personal characteristics as those attributes for which the person has some innate or acquired understanding of some “rules” and then applying those rules to the situation.

These are the characteristics or “soft skills” that you can take with you from job to job, from setting to setting, from one year to the next. Most of all, you’ll take them from one situation to another.

In both your personal and professional development, you’ll need to:

  1. display leadership qualities: someone is following and you are leading
  2. apply a problem-solving process
  3. use time management techniques
  4. handle difficult situations and conflict management
  5. have good communication skills

If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about here. If you never walked outside of your family’s home, you’d need all five of those characteristics — and more, right?

Therefore, in developing personal skills that are applicable in the home situation, you can relatively easily carry those skills over into your work situation.

How do you see competencies and characteristics differently? Do they differ between your personal and professional lives? Share your experiences in the comments section below!

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