Competency Interviews – A Simple (But Complete) Guide

Last Updated on 30th November 2021 by Freddie Chirgwin-Bell

Competency Interviews - A Simple (But Complete) Guide

Job interviews are the most important part of the job search journey. However, more than ever, businesses are trying to find experienced and skilled people to fill their vacancies. This has led to the rise of competency-based interviews.

Where some interviewers may be more interested in your experience or previous qualifications, what a competency-based interviewer really wants to know is whether you have the right skills to take the position on.

This style of job interview focuses on trying to assess how you have applied your skills in the past so that you can apply them properly in the future (i.e. when you get the job).

Also called behavioural or situational questions, they are often used in first interviews. They’re useful for finding ‘raw’ talent as well for example graduates for training schemes.

They’re also used to assess people for promotion and as a result, it is a good idea to get familiar with this style of questioning so that you can excel.

What is Competency?

When we talk about competency we realise that is an incredibly broad subject. There needs to be much more specificity with what your interviewers are after.

Key competencies regularly sought after by employers include:

  • adaptability
  • commercial awareness
  • communication
  • conflict resolution
  • decisiveness
  • independence
  • flexibility
  • leadership
  • problem solving
  • organisation
  • resilience
  • teamwork

These are the most common so don’t be surprised to see questions geared towards you answering these questions referring to practical situations.

Competency-based interview questions

Questions asked during a competency-based interview aim to test a variety of skills and you’ll need to answer in the context of actual events. The skills tested will depend largely on the job you’re interviewing for and the sector you’ll be working in.

Expect questions opening with ‘Tell us about a time when you…’, ‘Give an example of…’ or ‘Describe how you…’

Competency questions you may be asked at the interview include:

  • Describe a situation in which you led a team.
  • Give an example of a time you handled conflict in the workplace.
  • How do you maintain good working relationships with your colleagues?
  • Tell me about a big decision you’ve made recently. How did you go about it?
  • What has been your biggest achievement to date?
  • Describe a project where you had to use different leadership styles to reach your goal.
  • Tell me about a time when your communication skills improved a situation.
  • How do you cope in adversity?
  • Give me an example of a challenge you faced in the workplace and tell me how you overcame it.
  • Tell me about a time when you showed integrity and professionalism.
  • How do you influence people in a situation with conflicting agendas?
  • Give an example of a situation where you solved a problem in a creative way.
  • Tell me about a time that you made a decision and then changed your mind.
  • Describe a situation where you were asked to do something that you’d never attempted previously.
  • Tell me about a time when you achieved success even when the odds were stacked against you.

How to answer competency questions

Luckily you don’t need to fear! The answer to how to ace these kinds of interviews is simple. The STAR system is an old workhorse but it is effective because it works so well.

This will let you answer the questions thoroughly and make sure you stay on task to provide the information that the recruiter is looking for.

Situation

What was the situation? What started the whole process? What was the problem that needed fixing?

This is your chance to set the scene for the interviewer. Remember you are trying to give context to your answer. You only need to spend a couple of sentences on this.

Keep it short and snappy, that way you can focus on the later steps of Action and Result.

Task

Now that you have set the scene what was the task you undertook. What did you need to do or complete to resolve the situation?

You will want to keep this specific but also relevant to the job you’re applying for. Would this be a situation you would have to face in this new role? That counts. Does this task show your leadership or technical skills that would be useful in this new role? That counts too.

Remember the task is closely related to the situation so make sure they align so that you can focus on what you actually did.

Action

Here’s where you can really shine. What you did and the challenges you overcame is what the interviewer wants to know.

Describe what you did to fix the task, overcome the problem, or find the solution. Whatever it is, this is where you can go into specifics.

It’s important to not make it all about you. If you did this as part of a team, acknowledge and credit them. Your teamwork skills and willingness to acknowledge others is much more impressive to a recruiter than you single handily fixing everything (unless you actually did, then kudos).

You can talk at length about the steps you took, the challenges you faced and any specific skills you used.

One golden rule. Be honest. Don’t lie or overly embellish a story. You will be caught out quickly. What the interviewer is after are the core characteristics and skills that mean you can reproduce the effect, so be honest.

The action, along with the Result portion, should make the bulk of your answer.

Make sure these actions are ones that are relevant or can be repeated in this new role. That way, the interviewer can easily see the skills you can potentially replicate in their workplace.

Result

What was the result?

Be specific and include essential numbers, figures, and facts if you can. Think along the lines of “because of this, sales went up by 20%”.

Remember this needs to relate directly to the actions you and your team took in the previous step. The result should always have a positive impact and help solve the situation highlighted earlier.

The result is the proof that the interviewer is looking for. Your actions show how you did it the result is what came of it and they can see what the difference would be.

You can also include what you learned from the experience and show points where you would improve or do things differently.

This would impress the interviewer by showing thought and a desire to improve.

Preparing for a competency-based interview

The key to providing successful answers to competency questions is preparation and practice.

First, understand the job advert and what they are likely to ask.

If it’s a management position of a large team then expect leadership and overcome challenging styles of questions.

If it’s a technical position think about the kinds of questions they would ask about compliance, technical implementation, fixing issues, coding language problems etc.

From that, you should have a decent approximation of what they are likely to ask. From there think about how you have solved similar issues in your previous experience.

Did you lead a smaller team through a difficult and drawn out tender process?

Did you learn about how to fix a software bug in your classes and then can run through all the best practices relating to it?

Try to draw on a variety of experiences from your studies, previous employment or any work experience you’ve undertaken.

Freddie Chirgwin-Bell
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