Preparing Trainees for Lifelong Competence

Preparing Trainees for Lifelong Competence

Professional psychology training programs exert a powerful influence on the ways in which trainees come to appreciate and respond to the ethical mandate to ensure their own professional competence. If training psychologists overemphasize individualistic conceptions of lifelong competence, then trainees may be at risk for professional isolation if and when they experience problems of professional competence. Preparing Trainees for Lifelong Competence


In this article, we describe the virtues of communitarianism as an important shift from individual to community conceptions of competence obligations.

We introduce the Communitarian Training Culture (CTC), a training ethos that embraces and supports the evolving culture of competence in psychology while infusing it with a distinctly interdependent and communal character.We describe the contours of an effective CTC and provide specific recommendations for psychology training leaders interested in enhancing the communitarian character of their program.

All professions define themselves by specifying areas of competence and articulating components of competent service delivery (Rodolfa et al., 2013). Like other health care professionals, psychologists are ethically obligated to establish and maintain competence in professional practice (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010; Neimeyer, Taylor, & Orwig, 2013). However, research and clinical experience indicate that competence is a dynamic process that is fluid and contextually based. It may degrade over time and become obsolete because of advances in the profession’s knowledge base and expanding roles for psychologists (Neimeyer,Taylor,&Rozensky, 2012).

This requires psychologists to constantly assess and augment their professional knowledge, skills, and attitudes since these are at ongoing risk of becoming outdated, irrelevant, and ineffective over time (Donovan & Ponce, 2009). Moreover, some psychologists suffer intermittent or reoccurring problems of professional competence related to the demands of the profession or personal distress (Elman & Forrest, 2007; Johnson, Barnett, Elman, Forrest, & Kaslow, 2013b). Although a robust body of research suggests that individual health care providers face informational and motivational barriers to accurate self-assessments of competence (cf., Carlson, 2013), ethical standards and regulatory policies in psychology frame competence as an individual responsibility (Johnson, Barnett, Elman, Forrest, & Kaslow, 2012).

Beginning with their earliest training experiences, psychology trainees encounter a training culture that emphasizes personal responsibility for assessment and maintenance of competence, as well as individual-focused interventions should their competence or that of others ebb in the course of their psychology career. This culture is reinforced by Standard 2 (Competence) in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct(APA,2010).

For instance, Standard 2.06 (Personal Problems and Conflicts) places responsibility with individual psychologists to “refrain from initiating an activity when they know or should know that there is a substantial likelihood that their personal problems will prevent them from performing their work-related activities in a competent manner” (p. 5) and does not mention colleagues and their responsibility to another psychologist who may be struggling. In contrast to a primarily individual perspective on the competence obligation, a communitarian perspective holds that a strong culture of collegial engagement, caring, and compassion is essential for both the well-functioning of any community of professionals (Etzioni, 1998;Prilleltensky,1997)and maximum competence of individual members (Johnson et al., 2012). In the communitarian context, a competent psychologist is deliberately engaged in a community of colleagues, both to sustain his or her professional self (Berger, 1995) and contribute to the well-functioning of others—particularly those who are distressed and vulnerable.


This article was published Online First June 2, 2014. W. BRAD JOHNSON received his PhD in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary. His is a professor in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law, United States Naval Academy, and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education, Johns Hopkins University. He is a past chair of the American Psychological Association (APA) Ethics Committee. His interests include mentor relationships, professional ethics, training, military psychology, and leadership.



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