Director Eidos Consulting Ltd
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Attributes over skills
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Why L&D should focus more on employee attributes and less on skills

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In times of change, skills are not the whole answer. It is employee attributes that need to be L&D's focus.

29th Nov 2021
Director Eidos Consulting Ltd
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As learning & development and HR professionals, we are continuously focusing on how to improve the capabilities of our workforce. This drive for continuous improvement always comes back to one word – skills

The favourite topic of conversation

Whether we are trying to attract new skills through recruitment or looking at how we can develop the skills of our existing workforce through training, skills is always the topic of conversation. We regularly see news reports about skills gaps across entire industry sectors or see government white papers titled ‘Skills for Jobs’. Wherever you look, skills are on the agenda.

If we are looking to develop attributes, we need to give that individual access to the experiences that will change them

One thing that has become increasingly apparent as a result of Covid-19 (and further back to the financial crisis in 2008) is that skills are not the whole answer; in times of change and upheaval, it is attributes, rather than skills, that will make the difference.

So how do we define a skill and an attribute?

Skill – the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.

Attribute – a quality or feature regarded as a characteristic or inherent part of someone or something.

These are the dictionary definitions however I prefer to look at it as attributes are inherent to our nature, skills are not. What this means is that skills are learnt, attributes are a result of nature and nurture. This has significant implications on how we look to develop each, and as L&D and HR professionals, we should be aware of the different approaches we need to take to develop both.

Everyone has the same attributes but will demonstrate them to a greater or lesser extent. This extent is informed by nature and by nurture, i.e., they are ingrained at an early age, and continue to evolve through our life experiences. Therefore, if we are looking to develop these attributes, we need to give that individual access to the experiences that will change them. 

The key to developing positive attributes

When considering how you develop your employees, there is a case for separating your thinking around how you develop skills, versus how you develop their attributes. Although not mutually exclusive in their use, the approach that you should take to developing attributes can be considerably different to how you develop a skill.

Let us take the practical example of being able to use word processing software. The training you attend to learn the required skills that allow you to successfully (and repeatedly) use the software may only last a couple of hours and give you most of what you need to know about using that software.

However, the attribute of demonstrating the patience needed to continue practicing with the tool (especially when things start to go wrong) won’t have been covered in that same training. Instead, your level of patience will be informed from years of experiences doing similar things and will take time to change.

As the development of attributes can be over longer periods of time, it is important to ensure you plan in regular reviews

When it comes to developing your employee’s attributes, you must consider that the time and effort needed to invest in their development will be considerably more and, importantly, the types of development activity will significantly differ.

Take the attribute of leadership. Of course, there are training courses available to teach you the fundamentals of what it means to be a leader (the What to do) – these courses will develop the skills we associate with leadership, giving us a toolkit for the standard leadership activities. But when has leadership ever been standard?

Leadership presents us with difficult choices, unforeseen circumstances, and times of change and difficulty. In these scenarios, knowing what to do isn’t enough, rather knowing how to apply your leadership capabilities to navigate these scenarios successfully becomes more important. This is where an attribute comes in to play, and this can only be developed through experience. 

How should you approach developing attributes?

When looking to develop on attributes, your development activities should look at how you can expose that individual to the how. Activities such as work placements or secondments, coaching and mentoring, project work, and even role play activities will provide them with the opportunities to practice the how – to develop on their attributes.

This approach should be tailored based on their entry point and individual need – if you have an individual that is already quite organised, their development needs will differ from someone who struggles with being organised.

As the development of attributes can be over longer periods of time, it is important to ensure you plan in regular reviews. This will support the individual with staying on track with their development, but also give you an opportunity to celebrate successes along the way – something that is important to do with longer-term development journeys.

As a business we must understand which attributes we value and where these should be distributed amongst our workforce

Good practice here may be recognising and reflecting on key milestones (first three months in role, or first time they see a project through to completion), looking not only on the skills they have learnt, but specifically focusing in on how they have developed key attributes that are associated with their role and responsibilities.

When we look at employee performance and how we seek to develop and improve it, we must make sure that skills are not the only topic of discussion. As a business we must understand which attributes we value and where these should be distributed amongst our workforce.

Having this focus on attracting, developing, and retaining the right attributes within our businesses will ensure that we are able to effectively deal with change and times of difficulty – and to make best use of the skills we have spent so much time and budget developing.

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