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The Difference Between Attributes and Skills, and Why One Matters More Than the Other

When we measure performance in ourselves and our teams, we need to get the whole picture.

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Whenever we judge the potential of ourselves or others based on skills, we are making a mistake. It's a bit like judging the performance of a car based on how it looks, versus how it performs in different road conditions.

The bottom line is that when we are measuring performance in ourselves or our teams, skills tell us only part of the story — and maybe not the most important part.

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

Let's go back to the dawn of Covid. The environment was completely new, wildly stressful and completely uncertain. Our first "job" was to figure out how to navigate this new world we'd been dropped into. Without even realizing it, each of us began to rely on our adaptability, perseverance, open-mindedness and our courage.

This is what happens every time we are thrown into any type of uncertainty: We're forced to use time and energy to figure things out, making sense of what is entirely new. This is required whether the shift is deliberate (you decide to make a pivot in your life, such as trying a new job or moving to a new area), or if it's thrown upon us (a layoff, a weather disaster or a global pandemic). Our ability to move through and continue to perform optimally during these times is grounded in the attributes that we bring to the table — not necessarily our skills.

Related: These 5 Skills Are Critical for Success and Career Advancement

Trust is built on attributes, not skills

Think for a moment about someone in your life whom you trust deeply. It could be a family member, a friend, a work colleague or even a boss. As you picture that person in your head, ask yourself this question: What did they do that made me trust them? Chances are, if you stew on it for a moment, you'll come up with answers like, they had my back, or they allowed me to take a risk, or they were accountable, empathetic, authentic and had integrity.

We often think and describe trust as a feeling, but a feeling is simply a human emotion. Trust is something more. It's a belief, and belief is an emotion that has been rationalized or justified. To believe anything, we must decide to do so. This tells us the simple truth that we cannot make anyone trust 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 poorly must have a foundation of trust. And the behaviors that lead to trust are almost all attributes. Empathy, accountability and authenticity are not skills that we are taught and learn; they are attributes that we develop. While a lot of the skills that we define as performance can be seen, measured, tested and scored, the attributes that build trust are hidden and hard to see. It's very difficult to assess someone's ability to build trust, or to decide to trust someone simply by looking at stats or reading a resume.

Related: Soft Skills are Critical Skills

Skills can be taught, but attributes must be developed

If someone were to tell me "Rich, I'd like to learn how to shoot a pistol at a target and hit a bullseye every time," I would take that person to a gun range and, within a couple of hours, I would teach 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'd like to learn how to be more patient or adaptable," I'd be stumped. You can't teach patience. Likewise, you can't learn and develop attributes the same way that you do a skill. To develop an attribute takes self-motivation, self-direction and a willingness by that person to develop that attribute. When you are building a team, it's more important to find the people who have the attributes you need rather than the skill. If the person has the right attributes, you can always teach them the skill.

High performance relies on attributes

We can all agree that the musician at the concert, the athlete on the football field or the business person that nailed the sales presentation were all performing well. But the measure of true top performers is often not taken when things are going great — it's assessed when things go wrong.

When the plan changes, the environment shifts, everything starts to unravel. This is how we judge our best performers. And the ability to still perform in these situations is not just about the skills. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to apply a known skill to an unknown situation. This is when we lean on our attributes. Things like adaptability, perseverance, open-mindedness, and patience are what get us through when we are trying to perform in uncertainty. It's certainly true that high performance requires some skills in whatever discipline one is operating. But to perform all the time, regardless of what happens around you, is about the attributes that you bring to the table.

Potential hides in attributes, not skills

We are always looking to explore and discover our potential, as well as those in our span of care. What we must remember, however, is that potential always lies in the future. Potential is about what could be, not about what is. Skills only tell us what is, while attributes tell us what could be.

Take an example of the top-seed NFL draft pick. He's an absolute rock star on the collegiate football field. Once that guy gets to the professional field, however, he can't keep up. That athlete on the pro football field had the same number of skills as he did on the college field, and probably more due to the practice and preparation in training camp.

Why did he choke? Because he did not have the attributes required to play pro ball. It's a different game than college; bigger linemen, faster athletes, more complex play calls. That environment takes a slightly different set (and level) of attributes than the college field. The scouts that picked him saw him performing inside of an environment that was well suited to both his attributes and skills — but only the skills were visible. In the case of this particular kid, the scouts couldn't see his attributes and therefore misjudged his potential.

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

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