doctor and a British cat on white background“Hire for attitude, train for skills.”

We’ve all heard this recommendation. Some believe it wholeheartedly. I love the “train for skills” piece. That works for me.

What doesn’t work is the attitude piece. I think the phrase “hire for attitude” is founded on an impossible task: accurately assessing a person’s attitude.

Attitude is, by definition, an internal state. If it’s an internal state, how can we accurately assess it? We can’t know what a person is thinking. We can’t know what a person is feeling. We can’t know their motivations, their rationale, or their goals.

What we can do is observe their behaviors. Behaviors are tangible and measurable.

A person’s plans, decisions, and actions – observed over time – can lead us to a more confident understanding of their goals, fears, and rationale.

Could we get a more complete understanding of a person by engaging them in conversations, asking them to explain their goals, fears, and rationale? Maybe. Sometimes people say things they don’t mean. Sometimes people say one thing and do another.

I’m not going to be a very effective recruiter or influencer if I’m attempting to assess or manage someone else’s attitude. It’s just not an effective strategy.

I’m also not going to be an effective pet owner if I’m attempting to assess my pet’s attitude. Stay with me on this.

A dear friend is a veterinarian. I enjoy learning about her daily interactions with clients – and their pets. Her job as a veterinarian is to gather information – blood tests, flexibility tests, etc. on the animal and behavioral observations from the pet’s owners – to establish what the pain or illness might be. Only then can she prescribe a treatment to address that pain or illness.

Her challenge is that pet owners try to manage or “know” their pet’s attitudes or internal states instead of observing and reporting on the pet’s behaviors.

She says, “I go over this every day with every client in every appointment!”

A client may say, “Mr. Tibbles is depressed about the weather – that’s why he’s lethargic.” That may be entirely true – but it’s my friend’s job to push for behavioral insights that can provide clues to what other issues might be causing Mr. Tibbles’ discomfort.

It could be the cat is reacting to a change in diet. That cool new cat food may disagree with Mr. Tibbles’ digestion. It could be an infection. It could be a hair ball – or any number of issues that put the pet at serious risk.

So, my friend coaches clients to share what behaviors they’ve observed, not what attitudinal assessments they’ve made of their pet.

Behavior is by far a more reliable indicator of a person’s work ethic, passion, values, and follow-through. I don’t have to make any assumptions about a person’a attitude. I can simply look at their patterns of behavior.

Hire for values and behaviors – then train for skills. You’ll end up with a much more enthused, aligned high performer on your team.

What’s your experience with hiring for attitude and training for skills? Have you assessed valued behaviors first? Share your insights on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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