The importance of attitude over skill

Sebastian Kerridge | 10 June 2021

When it comes to talent acquisition, many organisations look for specific skills or experience in a certain role or industry as a must have when considering a new hire. But what is often over-looked, under-assessed or under-represented during the recruitment process is an individual’s attitude and cultural fit.

In March this year, Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur) were knocked out of the Europa league by a determined and seemingly underdog team, Dinamo Zagreb. Jose Mourinho, the then manager of the Spurs, praised his opposition in his post-match interview for “leaving everything on the pitch” and more specifically, for winning the game based more on their “attitude” rather than “skill”. In his interview he describes football as being not just about having more skill but going beyond this and spilling into attitude.

Just like in football, attitude impacts a company’s wider culture, and a poor attitude can spread through a company’s culture like wildfire.

The example of Spurs’ performance in their Europa League loss is a clear representation of this. 2 – 0 up from their first leg, Spurs threw it all away. Many would argue that Spurs have the better players and play in a more challenging league, leading to the expectation that they should have won. But Dinamo deserve the praise here. They played with ambition, courage, and an all-round better, more positive and determined attitude. An attitude that carried them into extra time and inspired them to score three goals with no reply and ultimately take them into the next round.

Having the right attitude leads people to be more motivated, eager to learn new skills, and they often integrate into teams more positively. We are constantly told to “surround yourself with positive people”. Doing this can also inspire others to get to your level of positivity and drive increases motivation. Organisations should focus more on how they can recruit based on an individual’s attitude, rather than purely based on their skills.

To borrow an example from another football code, look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who hadn’t won a Superbowl in 18 years. At the beginning of 2020 they signed six-time Superbowl winner, Tom Brady, and ended up not only playing in the 2020 Superbowl but winning it – in his first year at the team. Brady no doubt had a huge contribution to their success. You could say that his winning experience at the New England Patriots meant that whatever team he joined he’d be successful in.

But when you take the complexities of joining a new team such as a roster full of different players into consideration, his winning attitude likely spread amongst his teammates and enabled them to create a winning, forward thinking, “not over until it’s over” culture. He had the experience and skill but more importantly he had the right attitude required to win.

In a meta-analysis of 81 studies by Van Iddekinge, Arnold, and Frieder (2018) they implied that pre-hire experience had “little value outside of the organisation it was developed”. We may assume that because an individual has been working in a similar role for five years that they must be good at their job, but in reality is this just an easy method of ruling a candidate in or out of the process early on? In Tampa Bay’s situation, they recruited based on both skill AND attitude, and they got a winning combination.

Now, don’t get me wrong: experience and skill are both important. Though Van Iddekinge and co found it had little value, it has been a core factor in assessing a candidate’s suitability for a role for years; and there has been success in this assessment method. Organisations, however, should think more broadly about what they want their internal culture to look like, both now and in the future to ensure they build an optimum environment for success.

Organisations need to consider what has worked in the past, who their top performers are and what attributes, experience, and personality they have which makes them successful. It is all well and good hiring a top performer from another organisation but if their attitude, values, and overall cultural influence doesn’t suit the employees you already have, it can be a dangerous mix.

Just like in sport, companies focus much of their time on previous performance, and seem to spend less time focussing on cultural fit. In sport, top athletes, managers, and back-room staff have moved clubs and turned into “flops”. We must as a society think about cultural fit and individual attitude as an essential factor in the recruitment process, as getting this right can mean achieving great things, at great speed.

Sebastian Kerridge is a Senior Consultant in the Talent Intelligence team at NSCG, providing real-time insight into talent markets to support employers with their future people strategy. To find out how you can place greater emphasis on attitude in your hiring decisions, get in touch.

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