How Competent Are You?

Professional competence has been defined as “the habitual and judicious use of communication, knowledge, technical skill, clinical reasoning, emotions, values, and reflection in daily practice…”

These seven dimensions of professional competence are used to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses for individuals so they can become more competent in their profession. If you are weak in a dimension, evaluate yourself to see if improvements in that area will greater results than if you focused on improving a dimension you are strong in. If you find that it is unlikely to do so, find someone who is strong in that dimension and partner with them.

Communication covers advanced communication skills in public speaking and writing, conflict resolution, teamwork, and teaching skills. We often find the dimension of communication to be the weak link in the competence chain. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I’ve often said things in a meeting and left with an understanding of what we agreed to, only to discover later that others in the group came away with a completely different understanding. Poor communication leads to misunderstandings—particularly when other parties ascribe motivations to what they misunderstood.

Knowledge covers core knowledge of your job, basic communication skills (verbal and written), information management, and applying your knowledge to real world situations. You don’t really know something until you’ve done it, so the application part throws a lot of people under the incompetence bus. You may know about something, but you don’t know it, just as you may know all kinds of facts and figures about a person, yet not know them. Knowledge also covers the use of your tacit knowledge and personal experiences in real world situations. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is hard to explain, yet is part of your intuitive practice. Abstract problem-solving is another area that falls under knowledge, as is self-directed acquisition of new knowledge and the ability to recognize gaps in what you know. This is called metacognition. The ability to generate relevant questions, the use of resources, and learning from experience also fall under the dimension of knowledge.

Technical skills related to your role are another dimension of competence. Core technical skills that apply to many, if not all, professions include the skill of observation and the procedural skills required to do the work. Many professionals don’t notice things they should because as they developed expertise they narrowed their professional field of view. This narrowed perspective hurts their ability to notice other things that are relevant to what they do. Mastery of the procedural skills leads to reduced effort and the appearance of doing things naturally. This requires the mindset of a craftsman as you get good at what you actually do.

Reasoning is the ability to incorporate good judgment into the decision-making process, as well as the use of appropriate strategies such as deductive, pattern recognition, eductive, abductive, and elaborated knowledge to arrive at defensible conclusions. Reasoning provides the ability to link knowledge across disciplines through leverage of the Medici Effect and allows us to manage uncertainty. Critical thinking skills are the major component of reason, but those are developed under another dimension.

Emotion is a dimension that includes tolerance for ambiguity and anxiety, resilience, responsiveness to others, and emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and others, and includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

Values are another dimension of professional competence that we often find lacking when we conduct assessments. It turns out that most people haven’t really thought about their values, what ethical system they want to follow (non-cognitive, deontological, virtues, consequential), and because they have not decided—they cannot act within a coherent and cohesive framework of decision-making.

The last dimension of professional competence yields the greatest result when applied to the other six dimensions: reflection. The ability to reflect on the quality of your thinking produces the critical thinking skills necessary for reasoning, while reflection on your emotions allow you to recognize and respond to your own biases. Reflection on your technical skills will produce a willingness to acknowledge and correct errors if you also reflect on your values. Attentiveness, mindfulness, and curiosity can all be developed through the practice of reflection.

How do you know if you are competent?

Get a 360-degree assessment on these 7 dimensions and compare them to your self-assessment. Once you’ve identified the gaps between those two assessments, you have a more honest appraisal of where you actually stand in your world of professional competence. It isn’t perfect, but it is a better understanding of how competent you really are.


Ronald M. Epstein, Edward M. Hundert. “Defining and Assessing Professional Competence”. JAMA, January 9, 2002, Vol. 287, No. 2

Cary Cherniss and Daniel Goleman, editors. The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace: How to Select for, Measure, and Improve Emotional Intelligence in Individuals, Groups, and Organizations. Published by Jossey-Bass, San Francisco CA. Copyright 2001 by Cary Cherniss and Daniel Goleman.