Defining (Leadership) Competencies and Competency Modeling

Competency modeling is a common practice in organizations today. Creating fit and alignment between individual competencies and organizational strategies and objectives is assumed to play an important role for a sustained competitive advantage (e.g., Ulrich and Smallwood 2004). Specifically, competency modeling allows organizations to translate their business strategies into performance requirements for their employees (Stevens 2013). By providing a common language in the form of desirable sets of individual competencies, it serves as a platform for a variety of human resource (HR) activities, by informing, for instance, selection, training and development, promotions, job assignment, and compensation (Rodriguez et al. 2002; Lievens et al. 2004).

In general, a competency model (i.e., a set of competencies) describes how individuals excel in specific job positions and responsibilities (Boyatzis 1982). Campbell and Wiernik (2015) identified three ways of conceptualizing competencies: a competency could refer to performance itself, to a direct determinant of performance (e.g., negotiating skill), or to a more distal indirect determinant of performance (e.g., openness to experience). Thus, behavioral outcomes are attributed to traits, motives, skills, or knowledge, which are needed for effective performance in the jobs, and/or, on the other hand, to performance itself (Stevens 2013). Whereas competency models differ enormously in their real-life conceptualizations (e.g., mainly presenting a mixture of behavioral and psychological facets), prominent scholars in the academic field favor the assumption that competencies are best classified as part of the performance space (Bartram 2005; Lievens et al. 2010) or as “behavioral themes” that are considered to be critical success factors and strategic performance drivers (Sanchez and Levine 2009; 2012).

One main psychological research focus lies on investigating transferable generic competencies that are required for most jobs or particular occupations or job roles. Kurz and Bartram (2002) developed a prominent competency framework with eight competency domains (also known as the great eight) depicting a behavioral collection that is necessary for the delivery of desired outcomes in organizations. Competencies are meant to reside in the behavioral act that leads to good performance outcomes implying that competencies can be learned and developed. The eight empirically derived competency domains for general work performance provided by Kurz and Bartram (2002) are as follows: Leading/Deciding; Supporting/Cooperating; Interacting/Presenting; Analyzing/Interpreting; Creating/ Conceptualizing; Organizing/Executing; Adapting/Coping; Enterprising/Performing. These eight competencies are specified as higher-order factors representing 112 individual scales defining negative and positive behavioral indicators (Bartram 2005). With regard to leadership competencies, Kurz and Bartram’s framework identifies the domain of leading and deciding as one of the “great eight” competencies, defined as “takes control and exercises leadership, initiates action, gives direction, and takes responsibility“ (Bartram 2005, 1187). The competency itself contains several behavioral aspects of providing leadership and supervision (e.g., providing direction and coordinating action, supervising and monitoring behavior or coaching) and deciding and initiating action (e.g., making decisions, taking responsibility, or acting with confidence). However, understanding leadership as an interpersonal influence process (Yuki 2013), this differentiation does not allow disentangling leadership behavior from general management performance. Deciding and initiating action involves direct interpersonal influences as well, and these are not necessarily bound to hierarchical relationships.

An alternative competency framework was developed by Campbell (2012; Campbell and Wiernik 2015). It provides an integrative synthesis of eight general content dimensions of performance in a work role meant to integrate previous work on individual performance modeling, team member performance, and leadership and management performance. Each dimension consists of several subfactors highlighting the description of competencies as concretely as possible. Contrary to the framework of Kurz and Bartram (2002), Campbell and Wiernik (2015) explicitly differentiate between leadership performance and management performance in hierarchical relationships. In their framework, leadership refers to the interpersonal influence process, whereas management performance deals with actions such as generating, preserving, and allocating the organization’s resources to best achieve its goals (Campbell and Wiernik 2015, 54). Specifically, the competency domain of hierarchical leadership performance contains six behavioral facets referring to what leaders do: (1) consideration, support, person-centeredness; (2) initiating structure, guiding, directing; (3) goal emphasis; (4) empowerment, facilitation; (5) training, coaching; and (6) serving as a model. Although emphasis on each subfactor and associated actions may vary at different organizational levels and settings, Campbell and Wiernik (2015) observed a striking convergence of research literature on leadership models ranging from the classical Ohio State and Michigan studies to current leadership theories such as transformational leadership or team leadership (ibid.).

To the best of my knowledge, research findings on competencies for safety leadership are rarely published in the academic literature. Instead, a reasonable range of competency models are presented, which either were developed with regard to specific work contexts and job roles (e.g., nursing leadership competency model by Sherman et al. 2007) or describe more general competencies of safety professionals without focusing on leadership positions (Chang et al. 2012). Therefore, the next section describes the attempt to develop an exemplary outline of a generic competency model for “Safety Leadership”, based on research evidence stemming from review papers (e.g., meta-analyses or theoretical reviews) and empirical field studies on safety leadership. This model was developed beyond a single organization or industrial domain and provides a generic structure identifying common safety leadership competencies across various organizations and levels of leadership positions. Importantly, it does not take into account competencies, (1) which are important for all employees to possess (so-called core competencies, Hamel and Prahalad 1994), (2) which describe job-specific skills required to perform a particular job profession (functional competencies, Ozcelik and Ferman 2006), and (3) which focus on management performance or, in other words, the generation, preservation, and allocation of resources. Thus, the developed model has a relatively narrow focus and should inspire further refinement with regard to a given industrial domain or organization.

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