The difference between attributes and skills, and why one matters more than the other


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Whenever we judge the potential of ourselves or others based on our skills, we are making a mistake. It’s a bit like judging the performance of a car by its appearance, compared to how it performs under different road conditions.

Ultimately, when we measure the performance of ourselves or our teams, skills only tell us part of the story – and perhaps not the most important part.

In times of uncertainty, our skills often take a back seat

Let’s go back to the dawn of the Covid. The environment was completely new, extremely stressful and completely uncertain. Our first “job” was to figure out how to navigate this new world we had been dropped into. Without even realizing it, each of us has begun to rely on our ability to adapt, our perseverance, our open-mindedness and our courage.

This is what happens whenever we are immersed in any uncertainty: we are forced to use time and energy to understand things, to make sense of what is entirely new. This is necessary whether the change is deliberate (you decide to make a pivot in your life, such as trying a new job or moving to a new field), or if it is imposed on us (a layoff, a climate catastrophe or a global pandemic). Our ability to weather and continue to function optimally during these times is based on the attributes we bring to the table – not necessarily our skills.

Related: These 5 Skills Are Essential for Success and Advancement in Career

Confidence is based on attributes, not skills

Think for a moment of someone in your life who you trust deeply. It could be a family member, friend, co-worker, or even a boss. When you imagine this person in your head, ask yourself this question: what did he do to make me trust him? Chances are, if you simmer on it for a while, you’ll find answers like, they had my backWhere they allowed me to take a riskWhere they were responsible, empathetic, authentic and honest.

We often think of and describe trust as a feeling, but a feeling is simply a human emotion. Trust is something more. It is a belief, and belief is an emotion that has been rationalized or justified. To believe anything, you have to decide to do it. It tells us the simple truth that we cannot Craft someone trusts us. All we can do is behave in a way that allows that person to decide to trust us.

Any team or business that wants to perform optimally even when things are going badly needs to have a foundation of trust. And the behaviors that lead to trust are almost all attributes. Empathy, accountability and authenticity are not skills we are taught and learned; these are attributes that we develop. While many of the skills we define as performance can be seen, measured, tested, and rated, the attributes that build confidence are hidden and hard to see. It is very difficult to gauge someone’s ability to build trust or decide to trust someone just by looking at statistics or reading a resume.

Related: Soft Skills Are Essential Skills

Skills can be taught, but attributes must be developed

If someone said to me “Rich, I’d like to learn how to shoot a target with a pistol and hit the bullseye every time”, I would take that person to a shooting range and within a few hours I would be teaching them just that. Shooting is a skill, and it can be taught, just like typing or driving.

However, if that same person said, “Rich, I would like to learn to be more patient or adaptable,” I would be puzzled. You cannot teach patience. Likewise, you cannot learn and develop attributes the same way you do a skill. To develop an attribute requires self-motivation, self-direction, and a willingness on the part of that person to develop that attribute. When building a team, it’s more important to find the people who have the attributes you need rather than the skills. If the person has the right attributes, you can still teach them the skill.

High performance is based on attributes

We can all agree that the musician at the concert, the athlete on the football field, or the businessman who nailed the sales presentation all performed well. But the measure of truly top performers is often not taken when things are going well – they are measured when things are going badly.

When the plan changes, the environment changes, everything starts to fall apart. This is how we judge our best students. And the ability to continue to perform in these situations is not just a matter of skill. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to apply a known skill to an unfamiliar situation. This is when we rely on our attributes. Things like adaptability, perseverance, open-mindedness, and patience are what get us through when trying to perform under uncertainty. It is certainly true that high performance requires certain skills in any discipline in which one operates. But being successful all the time, regardless of what’s going on around you, depends on the attributes you bring to the table.

Potential lies in attributes, not skills

We are always looking to explore and discover our potential, as well as that of our skincare range. The bottom line, however, is that the potential always lies in the future. The potential is about what could benot about What. Skills only tell us whatwhile the attributes tell us what could be.

Let’s take an example of the NFL’s first draft pick. He’s an absolute rock star on the college football field. Once this guy gets into the professional realm, however, he can’t keep up. This athlete on the professional football field had the same number of skills as on the college field, and probably more due to practice and training camp preparation.

Why did he choke? Because he didn’t have the attributes required to play pro ball. It’s a different game than college; bigger linemen, faster athletes, more complex play calls. This environment takes on a slightly different set (and level) of attributes than the college realm. The scouts who picked him saw him play in an environment that suited both his attributes and his skills – but only the skills were visible. In the case of this particular child, the scouts could not see his attributes and therefore misjudged his potential.

Related: 8 Soft Skills That Make You an Even Better Leader

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