Skills versus Attributes: What’s the difference and why it matters

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During SEAL training, candidates spent hours and hours exercising with 300-pound telephone poles. I personally remember spending hours and hours running around with those heavy, waterlogged poles on my shoulder. Interestingly though, over the next 20 years, I went on to conduct hundreds of combat operations and thousands of training evolutions, and I never carried a telephone pole on any of them. So what was the point?

Those poles were never about training in the skills on “how to be” a SEAL. Instead, they were about determining if we “could be” SEALs. The Navy wanted to know if we had the Attributes that were required - those innate qualities that would be needed for the real job - which was the ability to perform in inherently complex, challenging, and uncertain environments.  All the required skills could be, and were, taught later but the Attributes couldn’t be taught, they needed to be there already.

When it comes to performance, skills only tell us what to do, but Attributes tell us how we behave, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.

Skills versus Attributes

Think of a time when you were faced with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty - so much so that it was difficult to know what to do. Maybe it was the first time you had to leave home. Perhaps a car accident, or a time where you got completely lost. For many of us, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic invoked this feeling rather viscerally.

You can’t practice for moments like these. Moments when you are surrounded by uncertainty, challenge and stress, when your heart is beating fast and panic is rising. These moments are when we rely on our Attributes, not our skills.

Skills direct your behavior in known situations. They are learned by following a set of instructions that can lead to mastery. Riding a bike, throwing a ball, or typing - . these are skills. And skills are important, we use them all the time to help us perform in our daily lives.

But when it comes to performance, skills don’t tell the whole story. They only tell us what to do in known, predictable, and contextual situations. Attributes, on the other hand, tell us how we will act in all situations, particularly unknown, challenging, or stressful ones when you can’t apply your skills. Attributes are more inherent to our nature, we are born with them. This is why parents of young children can see levels of things like adaptability, patience, and resilience show up at very early ages. The good news is that everyone is born with all of the  Attributes. The difference in people are the levels to which we have each one. Someone may possess a high amount of courage and have little discipline, while someone else may have the opposite. These different levels inform our behavior rather than direct it. Knowing where we fall on the scale of each Attribute helps us know how we are going to act in a situation, and it’s the highly challenging situations that really showcase these levels. As Rich Roll put it, “It’s that high-stress environment that reveals the default settings.”

Having skills is important, but knowing our Attributes helps us understand why we perform the way that we do - even when we are using our skills.

Creating the “Dream Team”

I hear leaders talk about “building a  dream team” all the time. They usually talk about finding the “best” of everything; best salesperson, best marking person, best graphic designer, etc. But so often these leaders report that while everything was great when “things were going great”, as soon as things took a hard turn, or things didn’t go as planned, these  “dream teams” turned toxic. Why does this happen? Because the team was built on skills, not Attributes.

It is easy to build a team from skills alone. Skills can be measured, recorded, and scored.  You can see the data about how good someone is at something. The problem with basing a “dream team” off of skills is that they don’t tell you how the people on that team will perform when things go sideways, when the environment becomes stressful, unknown or challenging.

High-performing teams are not just great when things are going according to plan, they are also great when things go sideways. They are built on Attributes, not just skills. And they are not easy to put together, it takes time and patience to find people with the right Attributes for that team. When you do however, you build a team that can perform in any environment; it’s long-lasting, durable, and resilient.

Look to Your Attributes

Skills don’t tell you everything you need to know about yourself or about others. Understanding the difference between skills and attributes is the first critical step in optimizing performance in a variety of situations, especially when stress, anxiety, and uncertainty come into the picture. If you want to understand why and how you perform the way that you do, or your team does - look at Attributes, not skills.

Rich is a former Navy SEAL who draws upon 20+ years of experience as an officer where he completed more than 13 overseas deployments – 11 of which were to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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