Is attitude more important than skill in small business?

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In hiring new employees, many think that what matters above all is a candidate’s credentials and skill. If they can get the job done without needing to be trained, then they ought to be the best candidate, right? 

Well, if you think that, then you’ve probably never heard of the mantra, “Hire for attitude, train for skill.”

People attribute this business motto to Herb Kelleher, a co-founder of Southwest Airlines in the US, who asked his HR team to hire people with a sense of humour because “I want flying to be a helluva lot of fun!”

What makes a healthy work environment is a good attitude.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be hiring for skills. Of course this should factor in especially in technical fields, but how many times have you met someone whose work isn’t related to their university degree? How many professionals are out there thriving in their path now after a drastic career change?

There’s way too many to count. 

Skills can be taught, and if you train employees well, they can be experts in no time. Teaching attitude though - that’s an entirely different story.

What is attitude?

Attitude is defined by psychologists Hogg and Vaughan as “a relatively enduring organisation of beliefs, feelings, and behavioural tendencies towards socially significant objects, groups, events, or symbols.”

In simpler terms, it’s your point of view on something, often reflected through your behaviour.

According to Simply Psychology, there are three components of attitude, called the ABC model of attitudes:

  • Affective component. This refers to your feelings about something (e.g. I love my job.)
  • Behavioural component. This refers to how your attitude influences your behaviour (e.g. I will go to work early.)
  • Cognitive component. This refers to your belief or knowledge about something (e.g. My job will lead me to success.)

In the workspace, you’ll notice how different employees have varying attitudes towards work. 

Some are there just because they have to be - they’re not too engaged and just do what they have to do and go home after. There are those who are bubbly and proactive, always ready to help and even do things beyond their scope of work if needed. Then, there are those who seem to hate their job - the ones you see lazing around or complaining every time a new task is given to them.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you which one brings a refreshing aura in the workplace, and which one ruins the mood for everyone else.

Attitudes are contagious. The saying, “positivity breeds positivity” applies in any business. Positive people tend to empower those around them, while negative people bring others down.

What is skill?

Skill is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.”

A chef, for instance, has an excellent set of culinary skills, an app developer has great programming skills, a broadcaster has amazing presentation skills, and so on.

Of course, this is oversimplifying it; all jobs require a multitude of skills. This is why before you hire someone in your business, you usually have a checklist of skills you expect them to have to ensure that they’re capable of getting the job done.

A recent Forbes article listed the 12 most important skills you need to succeed at any job:

  • Learnability
  • Resilience
  • Agility
  • Collaboration
  • Verbal communication
  • Written communication
  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership
  • Negotiation
  • Technology

By having all these skills, you’re setting yourself up for success. There's a lot though, right?

But don’t stress; all of this can be learned. That’s why every good company invests in training their employees, and that’s why “upskilling” exists too.

There is no limit to learning, no matter how young or old you are. And if all you need to do to be the best employee you can be is to master a certain skill, then you can rest assured that your goal is achievable.

The difference between attitude and skill

The main difference between attitude and skill is that attitude is associated with EQ, while skill is more attributed to IQ.

IQ is basically the measure of one’s intelligence. The higher your IQ is, the faster you can learn a new skill.

For instance, people with a higher IQ can learn and memorise equations a lot more easily and can therefore more effectively apply these learnings in relevant jobs (e.g. financial analysts, accountants, statisticians, etc).

But as mentioned, these are all learnable, despite the different paces of learning. I’m sure you remember that one classmate who started off with poor grades but still managed to graduate top of class after studying their asses off.

EQ, on the other hand, is your emotional intelligence. Someone with a high EQ can manage their own emotions and others’ too. They know how to behave appropriately and how to deal with difficult people.

Employees with high EQ generally have better attitudes, making them more cooperative, social, empathetic, and proactive at work.

Should you hire for attitude or skill?

We’ve all met someone in the workplace who’s obviously skilled and intelligent but still isn’t performing well. We’ve met an employee who’s good at what they do, but everyone just doesn’t like them.

In the end, these people offer little to the business and are incredibly difficult to work with.

This has to do with their attitude towards work.

No amount of intelligence will make a person more motivated, engaged, persevering, self-controlled, focused, and diligent.

Employees with positive attitudes, on the other hand, can easily be all the things I listed above, and more.

It’s incontestable: a study by Gallup revealed that highly engaged businesses achieve up to 20% more productivity and experience less turnover. Another study by Glassdoor showed that companies with positive work cultures significantly outperformed those with low employee satisfaction.

Employees with better attitudes are more productive because:

  • They react to stressful situations better.
  • They are more engaged and easier to work with.
  • They have a positive relationship with their job.
  • They empower and socially support their colleagues.
  • They tend to be healthier.

So in hiring for small businesses, attitude should trump skill.

You can teach a novice coding, SEO, or accounting, but you can’t force them to stay motivated, work hard, or love their job.

While you should always consider candidates’ skills in hiring them for your next job opening, it’s more crucial that you choose someone with a positive attitude towards work.

It’s far easier to train someone to learn a new skill and excel in it than to change someone’s negative and disagreeable attitude towards their work.

Having a positive attitude increases your business’ productivity, and therefore, your profitability.

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