How are Behaviours Measured?

As you can imagine, behaviours are quite difficult things to specify and to measure accurately. The professionals who design assessment centre exercises usually try to overcome this problem by subdividing behaviours into separate factors that are more specific and therefore easier to measure. To do this we need to introduce the concept of KSAs.

The acronym KSA stands for Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes, and is the way behaviours are ‘broken down’ into more easily measurable metrics. There are other ways to do it but KSA is the most straightforward. These three separate components that together make up a particular behaviour.

The assessment centre exercises have been designed to test your ‘behaviours’ and it is the KSAs you need to portray to ensure you display the required behaviours. This illustrates to the assessors that you are ready and competent to perform the role. These competencies are defined by the assessors, and the Human Resources Department for each particular role. These behaviours and competencies form the foundation of the scoring sheet to be used during any assessment centre.

To succeed you must understand what KSAs are required for the role and that you can ‘show’ the assessors’ you possess them by exhibiting them appropriately during the exercises.

You must allocate sufficient time to the task of defining the roles KSAs an

Defining K.S.A.s

First, to help you in this process it is essential that you understand how KSAs are defined and used within this eBook. Lewis Rowe provides us with a very broad definition. Whilst helpful it is not really very helpful when creating your own or job specific KSAs.

'Knowledge, Skills, Abilities and Attitudes that are required for competency.'

Source: Lewis Rowe, Tina; A Preparation Guide for the Assessment Centre Method; 
(2006) Charles C Thomas Publishers Ltd, Illinois, USA.

By looking at the individual dictionary definitions for each of the KSA components it helps to provide a clearer framework.

• KNOWLEDGE – something that you have learned or discovered.
• SKILL – the ability to do something well.
• ABILITY – being able to do something, a talent.
• ATTRIBUTE – a quality or characteristic.

But whilst clearer, these definitions are still very limited in their use. This is especially the case when you are trying to decipher exactly how you can display them at your assessment centre.

For example: Exactly how is a 'skill'’ something you're good at; different from an 'ability', which is something you are talented at or in?

The only difference is 'doing it well'. Once again this is not a very clear and makes it extremely difficult to work out whether something is a skill, an ability, or an attribute.

Over the years many other definitions of KSA have appeared and whilst their overall meanings are very similar, there is not one universal definition or interpretation of the acronym itself, or the definition of each individual component. This lack of correlation between the KSA definitions is further complicated by specific industry sectors having their own KSA definitions reflecting the nature of their work.

To help you achieve success we have created our own definition of the KSA acronym. Our individual definitions have been designed so that they constructively help you prepare so you are able to portray the required behaviours during the assessment centre exercises.

An assessor will be assessing your behaviours in the following three ways:

• How do you use the knowledge you have? 
• Is it appropriate to the role you are applying for? 
• Do you make use of more than one type of information – facts / ideas / principles?

• What abilities do you have? 
• Are these learned experiences relevant to the required role? 
• Can you exhibit these skills at the role's level during the assessment day? 
• If you don't have a skill how will you address this?

• Through your behaviour do you show the appropriate attitude to the situation or scenario being played out in the assessment centre exercise?

This is especially important as it includes how you interact with others, and how your attitude is perceived by them.

Comparing your competencies with that of the Role is the single most important activity you will undertake as part of your preparation for the assessment centre and your own personal development to ensure success.

This is best illustrated by an example from an assessment centre. You are attending an assessment centre because you are seeking internal promotion.

Your Current Position: Sales Assistant

You desired Role: Salesman

Exercise: Telephone role-play exercise that is being observed by a team of assessors.

Background: You work for a company, which sells computer hardware support contracts. 
In the role of Salesman, you will have direct contact with high value corporate customers and significant autonomy in dealing with them.

You will be provided with information of your customers and their support contracts.

Scenario: You receive a phone call where you are faced with a customer whose server has crashed and they want you to send out an engineer immediately.

The customer has called you directly because they have not received an immediate response from the Customer Services Hotline and you are the salesman who sold them the maintenance contract. 
The customer is very unhappy and is insisting that you arrange to have an engineer sent out immediately.

Your behaviour when dealing with this scenario can be measured in terms of three factors: your KSAs -

Your Knowledge
Is the customer being reasonable in expecting the Customer Services Hotline to respond immediately? It may be that they stipulate a response time of one hour.
Is the customer entitled to have an engineer sent out immediately? This will depend on the service contract they have paid for.

These and other ‘matters of fact’ represent the knowledge that you would be expected to have if you were a salesman in this role.

Your Skills
The main skill required here is in verbal communication.

Can you calm the customer down? Are you able to show empathy with the customer’s problem?
Can you get a full and clear picture of the problem? If the customer is not entitled to an immediate response under the terms of the contract then you may need to show your diplomacy skills when telling them so.
How do resolve the problem? Is there an implication for the organisation? The resolution you propose is appropriate for this customer’s importance to your organisation. 
Is there an opportunity to show sales and persuasion skills by trying to sell the customer an upgrade to a support package, which did include an immediate response?

Your Attitude
Whether the customer is entitled to an immediate response or not, your attitude to them over the telephone will be a big factor in determining the outcome of this situation.

Are you too deferential? Do you promise things that neither you nor your organisation can deliver?
Is your manner helpful / constructive? Do you offer a solution that meets their business needs and suits their support contract?
Are you unnecessarily antagonistic? Do you stick to the letter of the support contract and offer little help in solving the customer’s problem?

If several salesmen were given the same scenario as an exercise, then it would be much easier for the Assessor to compare their performances against the KSA’s and competencies they have defined as necessary for the role.

The assessors can then use these KSAs to ascertain how each salesman candidate did in terms of displaying the required KSAs. This makes it easier for them to assess each candidate’s performance rather than trying to measure each of their behaviours as a whole.

KSAs are important only in as much as they make it much easier for you to think about how the assessors are going to measure appropriate behaviours and to plan your responses accordingly.

Another important concept to understand about KSAs is that they are only useful if the Assessor has a clear specification of which KSAs are relevant to a particular role.

In the example detailed in the behaviours faq, a salesman might be expected to have:

• Knowledge of the organisations support policies, 
• Understand the cost implications to the organisations if the support service is compromised.
• Be aware of the support limits available in times of crisis.
• Understand how support contracts are constructed.

If this was the case, then the level of knowledge expected would be detailed in the job description. It is important to remember that it isn’t always set out clearly, you may have to read and decipher several items to gain the information you need to conduct such a call. But time would be allowed in the preparation aspect of the exercise. 

To summarise KSAs:

KSAs are what the assessors are actually measuring as you perform each exercise. This is true even if the assessors are not explicitly marking knowledge, skills and attitudes as separate components of behaviour.

KSAs are specific to each role and are derived from the job description.

KSAs are the most important concept to grasp if you want to succeed at an assessment centre.

Relating KSAs to Assessment Centre Exercises 
Whenever you are considering your approach to a particular assessment centre exercise you should think in terms of demonstrating the appropriate KSAs. (You will need to derive these from the job specification and your own research into the organisation).

For example,

Suppose you are given an in-tray exercise in which you have to deal with incoming correspondence and telephone calls. 
The exercise involves you reading through a series of emails and prioritising them and then responding as appropriate. 

You could approach this exercise in one of two different ways.

1. Firstly, the material itself is the focus of your efforts.

a. That is, you work through the material systematically, prioritise it and reply as appropriate. 
b. This is the approach that most candidates would take.

2. Secondly, demonstrating your KSAs is the focus of your efforts and the material itself is a means to that end.

a. That is, you use each piece of material to demonstrate one or more of your KSAs.

The second approach is used by those who succeed in assessment centres as they use the exercises as vehicles to demonstrate their KSAs (and by extension, behaviours and competencies) enabling them to ‘tick more boxes’ on the assessor’s scoring sheet.

One important thing to realise is that you cannot demonstrate all of your KSAs in every exercise. Some exercises may require you to show leadership behaviour, empathetic behaviour or whatever is appropriate. No individual exercise will give you the opportunity to show off all of your KSAs. It is up to you to determine which KSAs are appropriate for each exercise.

Obviously, you cannot predict exactly how much information you will be given in each exercise or whether the scenario will be based on a ‘real-life’ scenario or a fictitious one. Neither can you be sure that you will always be given sufficient information to have a realistic prospect of making the ‘correct’ decision.

Many candidates are put-off by this unpredictability and lack of realism in the exercises and perform badly as a result.

These issues can be dealt with by asking yourself the following questions as you work through each exercise.

• What knowledge does this enable me to demonstrate to the assessors?

• What skill does this enable me to demonstrate to the assessors?

• What attitude does this enable me to demonstrate to the assessors?

It can be quite difficult to see how KSAs relate to particular assessment centre exercises. However, this is such a vital point that it is worth illustrating with another example.

Imagine an in-tray exercise that puts you in the position of a Marketing Manager for a fictitious company, which produces solar panels for electricity generation. You are expected to work through a number of items in your in-tray and deal with them appropriately.

To illustrate how you can demonstrate your KSAs we have listed some of the questions and considerations that pertain to each item. You must actually demonstrate these either by making notes or in the case of item three by what you say. 

Item 1-The first item is an email from an automotive racing team asking if your company would like to explore a sponsorship deal.

Demonstrate Knowledge 
• Does the company already have a sponsorship deal? 
• If so, is it exclusive? 
• If not, would it fit in with other sponsors, the company’s mission statement and the overall ethos of the company?

Demonstrate Skill 
• Use your judgement to decide if the company’s positioning in the marketplace is consistent with this type of sponsorship. 
• For example, if the main thrust of the marketing efforts were based on ‘green and environmentally friendly’ messages then it would not be appropriate. 
• However, if the marketing messages stress the ‘high-tech’ nature of the products then it might be a good fit.

Demonstrate Attitude 
• Even if the request for sponsorship was entirely inappropriate and you are under a lot of time pressure in this exercise, your response should still be polite and businesslike because you are the public face of the company. 

Item 2 -This is an email from a journalist with GreenLife magazine. It has an attached article and the journalist is asking if you have any comments before publication. The magazine describes itself as being aimed at ‘environmentally aware people who are building or improving their homes’.

Scanning the article you can see that it is generally positive regarding your products, particularly the technical capabilities, but there are some negative comments about the fact that the products are made in Indonesia. Specifically the article is critical of the conditions in the factory and the amount of energy consumed in the manufacture and transport of the products.

Demonstrate Knowledge
• Are the readers of this magazine part of the target market for the products? 
• Is the magazine influential? (This will influence how much priority you give this item.)
• Does the organisation have a full time press officer? 
• Is he or she likely to have a working relationship with the journalist? 
• Has the company had an environmental audit?

Demonstrate Skill
• You can display judgement by prioritising this item as well as outlining and ranking the options available to you.

Demonstrate Attitude
• Your attitude will be apparent from how you deal with this item. Did you approach it in an analytical way and are your decision options the result of clear thinking?

Item 3 -You will also receive a telephone call from an actor who is playing the part of a subordinate. He is at a trade exhibition representing the company. He is upset and concerned because a member of the public has tripped over the exhibition stand and broken their wrist.

Demonstrate Knowledge
• There is not really any opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge with this item. 
• It is exclusively an opportunity to display your skill and attitude.

Demonstrate Skill
• You can display your communication skills by dealing with your subordinate in such a way as to calm him down.
• Then outline an action plan for dealing with the incident.

Demonstrate Attitude 
• The challenge is to deal sympathetically but efficiently with a subordinate who is obviously upset whilst you are under time pressure.

As you can see, even simple items like these three examples give you ample opportunity to demonstrate your KSAs. In fact, if you were to approach them in any other way, they might seem trivial and pointless.

Behaviours are central to the assessment centre selection process and the assessment centre exercises are designed to let you demonstrate to the assessors what you are capable of.

However, some competencies cannot easily be demonstrated in exercises and the only opportunity to show that you have them will be with reference to your qualifications, employment history or personal achievements. This is why almost all assessment centres retain some sort of interview.

You may find that the assessment centre interview is different from other interviews that you have attended, in that they are usually competency-based interviews.

Competency-based interviews work on the assumption that the best indication of an individual’s future behaviour is their past behaviour.

This style of interview consists of a number of targeted questions that require you to describe a specific task or situation.

For example, suppose that a required competency for the role is ‘Managing Change’. A typical range of questions designed to test for this competency would be:

Tell me about a time when you had to implement changes to an established process?Talk me through your approach to planning the changes?How did you overcome resistance to the changes?What was the eventual outcome?What did you learn from the experience?

As you can see, the questions require you to describe something that actually happened and to do so in a lot of detail.

If you want to succeed at a competency-based interview then you really do need to prepare properly and your preparation needs to be specific to your employment history and personal achievements.

Fortunately, preparation for a competency-based interview is actually easier than for a traditional interview. This is because you can make a comprehensive list of the competencies required either from the job specification or the advert and you can then make sure that you have an example for each particular competency.

The best way to prepare for a competency-based interview is described in depth later in the 'Assessment Centre' eBook. It probably won’t surprise you to know that this preparation involves relating competencies to KSAs and then answering each question in terms of demonstrating as many KSAs as possible.

This can be demonstrated by looking at a particular example in detail.

Imagine that a candidate, let’s call him John, has implemented a project in which the field sales force held their weekly sales meeting using virtual conferencing software on their laptops rather than actually attend a physical meeting at the office.

To take one of the example questions above, “How did you overcome resistance to the changes?”

John could take the interviewer at their word and simply do his best describe the process or he could frame his reply in terms of the Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes that were required to successfully overcome resistance. In reply to the question “How did you overcome resistance to the changes?” John answers in terms of his KSAs, for example:

Knowledge  - “I knew that the main purpose of the weekly sales meeting was to showcase new products and to give the sales force the confidence to start selling them as soon as possible. Any new system would have to fulfil this requirement if it was going to be successful as far as the organisation was concerned.

From the perspective of the sales force, the system also had to allow information from individual sales people to be properly disseminated to the rest of the team quickly and efficiently. This involved making sure that the most important issues were dealt with first and that the time given over each item was directly related to its importance.”

This shows that John has knowledge of:

The function of the sales meeting and therefore what criteria the new system would need to fulfil.It also shows that he understands the operational needs of the sales team as well as what the new  system needs to achieve if it is to have their support.

This is the trademark of a really effective individual, someone who is capable of seeing what is important to both the organisation and to the sales team members and ensuring that the ‘change’ is seen to benefit all of the parties involved.

Skills - “I put together two separate presentations: The first was for the senior management and described the system in terms of its cost benefits to the organisation. I knew that I would need their support in the first few weeks of the implementation as there were bound to be teething problems.

The second presentation was for the sales force, and was designed to demonstrate how much time they would save during a typical week and how this would translate into extra sales calls and commissions, which could easily net them each another $5000 per year.

I also scheduled a comprehensive review for one month after the system went live, where I guaranteed that everyone who had concerns about the new system would be given a chance to voice them and that any problems would be dealt with as soon as possible.”

This shows that John’s:

Communication skills are well-developed.He can ‘tune in’ to what is important to each group.Ensure that any presentation he delivers is tailored to their needs.

 Note that whilst he may be able to demonstrate the necessary presentation techniques in a Presentation exercise, this ability to frame messages in terms of what is most important to the audience is best illustrated by an example like this one.

Attitude – “Most of the resistance came from members of the sales force who liked to go out together for a drink after the weekly sales meeting. They had been doing this for years and it had become important for team morale even though it was ‘extra-curricular’ as far as the organisation was concerned. I realised quite early on that this was the real reason for many of the objections to the new virtual meeting, even though no one was prepared to come out and say so.

I decided that the best approach would be to re-schedule the monthly product training session, which everyone was obliged to attend. I moved this from a morning slot to an afternoon so that it finished at 5pm and everyone could go out and socialise afterwards. This went a long way to overcoming the spurious objections to the new system.”

This shows that John can:

Empathise with people and understand what is important to them even though they may not make this clear by what they say.This is a particularly good example of someone showing a high level of emotional intelligence.Had he not picked up on this, then the implementation of the new system would have been more expensive and time consuming, as the ‘spurious issues’ would have had to be dealt with, and this would still not have resolved the underlying problem.


No doubt John could have forced through the new system without re-scheduling the monthly product training session but by choosing to take a more sensitive approach he has saved the organisation a great deal of unnecessary pain - since many of the objections from the sales force were actually a proxy for the removal of the opportunity to socialise.

It is possible to argue about which aspects of John’s answers’ should be considered knowledge, skills, or attitude. For example, whether the interviewer considers the fact that John scheduled a comprehensive review of the new system, to show either ‘communication skills’ or a ‘pre-emptive attitude’ does not really matter.  The fact remains that by answering the questions in terms of his KSAs, John gave himself the best possible opportunity to show that he had the necessary competency that was being assessed.

To summarise, if you take the KSA approach, you are pretty much guaranteed to tick more boxes on the interviewers score sheet. This is because your behaviours will demonstrate that you have the right competencies for the role. Provided that you have planned and practiced this approach in advance, your answers won’t sound contrived and you won’t miss any opportunity to demonstrate conclusively that you have the competency they are looking for.

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