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Skill Over Behavior vs. Behavior Over Skill

A 5 Part Series - Part 2



Historically, and even a lot of what we see today, are organizations that focus on skill as the primary indicator of success. However, contrary to what you may think, education, experience, and skills do not create success. Most of us have also heard that knowledge equals power. This, also incorrect. These things do not equal success or power; rather, it is the application of knowledge, or the associated behavior that can bring about success. Organizations who seek greatness must understand this, think a bit differently, and act accordingly.

In terms of hiring decisions, there seems to be a focus on experience and not behaviors and potential

Experience absolutely offers insight into what a person could possibly bring to the table and is especially critical in some industries, however, it is only one element of the total equation, and I would argue that it hails in comparison to potential. When I see job descriptions that outline requirements and read “10 years of x experience required” I completely cringe. What determines that 10 years of experience is what it takes to be successful in that particular role? I happen to know people managers who have 20 years of experience who are not nearly as effective as some with only a few. Just because someone has x number of years of experience in a particular area does not provide evidence that they were actually any good. Unfortunately, far too often, organizations tend to make hiring decisions based upon specific background in the industry, and job history. Overall, a significant amount of time is spent looking at a candidate’s skills and knowledge before extending an employment offer.

Fast forward. An organization is now struggling because an employee is not performing as their experience may have suggested they should. How could this be? The employee had all of the skills and experience required; their resume and ability to talk about their experience was excellent. The issue here is the focus on skills alone and at the end of the day the organization spent their time determining skills and knowledge, meanwhile, the employee failed as a result of behaviors and attitudes.

As a result, organizations need to challenge how positions are typically posted and hiring decisions are made. In terms of discussing the skills and knowledge within job postings, rather than providing a laundry list of required experience and skills, the focus should center around on the candidate and describe the qualities that the individual should possess and behaviors that should be present. And as much as interviewees don’t love extra work when submitting a resume, including additional screening questions focused on behaviors will both provide insight into how a candidate might perform as well as screen out individuals who are not willing to spend the extra time (a key behavioral indicator in and of itself). Interviews and further screening should also be altered to ensure that they are consistent, and not focused on what the candidate has done in the past as it provides very little indication of what they will do and how they will perform going forward.

In terms of leadership, we see individuals being selected based on technical skills instead of behaviors

Strong leaders exhibit specific characteristics and behaviors that make them stand out. And when we think about those things, very few characteristics are specific to skill set. Sure there are communication skills, decision-making skills, etc. but really it is about the underlying behaviors that make someone successful. HOW they go about communicating and engaging with others, HOW they balance reason with emotion, enlist input from others, etc. when making decisions. Far too often individuals are selected for leadership roles because they are highly skilled in an area that is specific to the particular role (e.g. 20 years of experience in Marketing for the role of Chief Marketing Officer, or a lawyer for the role of Compliance Director), however, the reality is that this experience does not indicate that the individual is best suited for the leadership role. It also does not indicate that the individual does not possess the ability to be successful. Leadership does however require the ability to build trust, inspire others, and exhibit integrity.

As a result, organizations need to keep this in mind given that leadership is a critical component in the engagement of staff and effective operations. When comparing two individuals for a leadership role, the natural choice may be the individual with 20 years of marketing experience for the Chief Marketing Officer role, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right one, and hiring an individual who possesses the necessary skills but not the right behaviors could work in the opposite way as intended. After all, it is true what they say, individuals do not quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. Leadership skills and behaviors are key. It is also important to note that potential is key here. If the skill set is strong but behaviors need some fine-tuning, organizations must integrate leadership training and development opportunities and hold the leaders responsible. Great organizations are the ones who make this a top priority.

In terms of performance management systems, behaviors seem to be left behind

Beyond initial hiring and promotion decisions, how do we ensure that the right behaviors are present in individuals across the individuals? The answer: strong performance management systems that are robust and incorporate measures of skills and behaviors. Far too often, individuals are assessed based on a results approach that is focused on skills. A sales individual might be assessed on the revenue they are bringing in or new accounts opened, or a police officer may be assessed based on the number of arrests, or tickets issued, and while these measurements are important, overall performance is much more than that.

As a result, organizations need to ensure that their performance management systems incorporate behavioral components as well and that the application is consistent and fair. What does it say to others within the organization when an individual is a “top-performer” based on their sales and ability to secure accounts while their behaviors demonstrate a lack of ethical responsibility and inability to work well with others? It certainly sends the wrong message and can be detrimental to the organization. A strong performance system takes a look at all components related to performance and ensures a consistent application.

Overall, behavior is critical in terms of success. And organizations that think a bit differently and integrate changes within the processes have the opportunity to set themselves apart, building a workforce in which individuals are more engaged, innovative, and successful.

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