What is the difference between competence and capability?

Yes, I know there are definitions of these terms in the Oxford Dictionary, but how do you use them in the real world when talking about yourself or colleagues in a workplace context? What is the difference between competence and capability?  Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a mechanic. His name was Mike. He was an excellent mechanic and worked in the garage just around the corner from where you live. Mike has serviced your car for many years and you trust him and his skills.

One day, not so long ago, you volunteered to take little Johnny to his football practice. Johnny loved football, and practice was one of the highlights of his week. As you leave your house, with little Johnny in the back seat, you notice again that strange noise under the bonnet of your car. Only this time it’s much louder. You have plenty of time, so with assurances to Johnny, you stop at the garage around the corner to find out if this is a serious fault.

Mike the mechanic

Mike has a listen to your car. He comes back and tells you he knows what is wrong and that it is easy to fix. There is a small part which is cracked and rattling. This simply needs replacing. The job will take a couple of minutes. You breathe a sigh of relief and head for the waiting room. Johnny is a bit anxious about getting to football on time.  However, you can reassure him that Mike says it is only a few minutes to fix the car. Once fixed you will be on your way.

Mike returns with an apologetic look on his face and says that they do not have the spare part in stock. He explains that he has ordered the part and it will be in first thing the next morning. Also, he offers to come to your house and fix your car on your driveway for free. He then goes on to explain that you should not drive the car in the meantime. This is because if that cracked component breaks, you could do some serious engine damage. He tells you to drive the car straight home and he will fix it first thing in the morning.

Competence or Capability?

As you are driving home, my question to you is this: was Mike capable of fixing your car? Yes or no?  What if you turned around and asked little Johnny, sulking in the back seat, the same question? What would he say? Yes or no?   Tell the story to a few colleagues and you will find that some will say ‘yes’ and some will say ‘no’. Interesting, isn’t it?

Given the story about Mike being a great mechanic, we can say that he is competent. That is, he has the skills and knowledge to do the job. But at the moment, when you, his customer, asked him to do the job, he was not able to do it. In effect, he was rendered incapable of doing the job due to the missing spare part, even though he was competent.

In a work context, it is worth separating the ideas of competence and capability as illustrated by the story about Mike and his inability to fix your car.

Competence and capability in the workplace

When we talk about competence, we should be talking about the attributes of the individual, and what they bring to the job in terms of knowledge, skills, and also their attitude and motivation.

When they are asked to do a job, a lot of other factors come into play from the environment that surrounds them and the job. At that moment, at the point of work, they are asked to perform and we must remember that the stage on which they are performing will affect their performance.

For people to perform well, they must be competent, and the stage on which they are performing must also be ‘competent’. Only when both performer and stage are competent, will the performer be capable of providing the desired performance.

When someone says ‘he is not capable’, what they normally mean is that he cannot do the job that has been delegated to him. We cannot automatically assume that the lack of capability is due to a lack of individual competence. How many times in the last week have you been unable to complete a task on time to your satisfaction? When you were unable to do something, was it because you were not competent, or was it because of a barrier in your environment?

Drilling down into performance

When we are talking about someone else not performing, it is seductively easy to ‘blame’ the individual for the lack of performance. This tends to produce a response which focuses on changing the individual. The change is effected by perhaps offering them training or coaching. Alternatively, you might try to motivate them with a bigger stick or a bigger carrot. Or extremely you could suggest swapping that individual for another one who is deemed to be more competent.

Using a competency framework to visually review performance can be an effective way to find solutions. This approach involves assessing performance based on key competencies in an objective and clear manner, which helps decision-makers identify areas for improvement and develop targeted solutions to address performance gaps accurately and efficiently.

If the barrier to their performance was actually in their environment, then ‘fixing’ the individual is not the solution. Instead, we need to fix the environment.

When you are addressing a performance problem, think of Mike the mechanic. Think about where the true barriers to performance lie; in the performer, or on the stage.

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Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how Learning & Development can help achieve business targets. He is the author of the Learning at Work Trilogy: “Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance”, “Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times” and “Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle”.