Blog Post

Did You Know That Skills are Not Behaviors?

Dr. Tom Tonkin

Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

As Learning and Development professionals, one of the big distinctions we need to make when developing training is that behaviors and skills are two different yet related constructs. It is teaching a skill that ensures that the future behavior modification will last longer than just trying to modify a behavior. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1977) argues that one way we learn is through mere observation but also warns that this may be pure mimicking, void of context and social sensitivity. A great example is how a child learns from observation. A little boy sees his father grab a beer from the fridge after a long day mowing the grass. The child sees this and is compelled to do the same after he does his chores. One can easily see the issues here. This is observational learning and reinforced through mimicking.

Behavior is ultimately the thing we want to see changed in people when we are training them to do something. It really is our only manifestation of whether or not we believe they can do something in the future. Although a person is not simply the sum of his or her behaviors, behaviors are the only thing we can observe. Thus, it is important that we are able to answer this question: "How can you tell the difference between a skill and a behavior?" There are three considerations when trying to discern whether someone has gained a skill or is merely performing a behavior.

Skills Transcends Context

To distinguish the difference between somebody knowing a skill versus just displaying the behavior simply change the context. The skill will be transferable, while the behavior will not.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s discuss the ability to play guitar. I have a good friend who sings well; however, he doesn’t know how to play the guitar. During high school, he had the opportunity to be the lead in a musical. This particular role required him to sing a song while playing it on a guitar. He certainly didn’t have enough time to learn how to play the guitar (let alone become a guitar player), so someone taught him the mechanics of strumming and fingering the guitar chords for that particular song. He was shown where to place his fingers on the fret board and how to strum at the right time when he was singing the lyrics to the song. He picked up the behavior quickly and did a marvelous job in the play. Yet, if he had needed to play another song, in a different key, with different lyrics, or even the same song in a different key, he certainly would not have been able to do so. Playing different songs, changing keys, etc. necessitates having the skill of guitar playing. What my friend did was merely demonstrate guitar-playing behavior. He was playing the guitar (behavior) but he was not a guitar player (skill).

Closer to our interest, because of such great emphasis on behavior, many training programs focus on behavior modification and not skill attainment. For example, sales training programs provide the "10-step" process to conduct a sales call. The sales programs are contingent on the context of the sales call not changing. They are laced with assumptions for the program to be able to work. However, anybody who has been in sales for more than five minutes knows that nothing ever goes as expected. Many variables change within any given sales call, sales cycle or overall account management. Thus, to become a well-equipped sales rep, you must have the requisite skill that transcends behavior and context. One diagnosis might be to challenge your skills for behavior by changing the context. If your skill or behavior does not stand up to that change, then it is merely a behavior.

Behaviors = "What" / Skills = "How"

The second consideration when evaluating the differences between skill and behavior is the classification of each. In essence, behaviors really describe what is going on while skills describe how it is happening. Again, many training programs give you a lot of what and very little how. For example, how often have you heard "gain trust" or "build rapport"? These are all very valid outcomes for one to tackle if learning better communications; yet, these statements address what one needs to do (behavior), not how she needs to do it (skill). This is commonplace in our field because too often management truly wants the employee to attain an outcome but seems not to care how they get there. Arguably, there are multiple ways of achieving these behaviors; however, rarely are they addressed in a systemic way through skill development.

Behavior Is a Result of Skills

The bottom line here is that we must have some kind of skill to be able to manifest the behavior consistently. We must ask when we observe behavior, "What are the skills that are truly being manifested in the behavior?" Someone who wants to develop a new skill is most likely mimicking what a more successful person is doing and is not developing the skill; rather, she is simply mimicking another’s behavior, which ultimately fails as the context shifts.

It is my experience that many successful employees utilize different skills and approaches to achieve similar results. What distinguishes one employee from another is their associated skills and approaches; thus, someone mimicking another’s behavior without understanding the underlying skill will most likely not lead to similar results. Ultimately, while I can’t say that a particular skill always yields a particular behavior, we can argue that a particular set of behaviors likely stems from multiple diverse skills.

What other constructs in learning and development need more clarity when it comes to their operational definitions in order to enhance training and learning effectiveness?

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