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What’s the Word?

What’s the Word?[1]

Words matter.

When we hear a name or term, we instantly make a wide range of assumptions.  Think about the Patagonia toothfish –doesn’t seem very appetizing.  But rename it Chilean sea bass and suddenly it sounds pretty delish.  How about munching on a dull brown, fuzzy Chinese gooseberry?  No?  Call it kiwi and suddenly we are making kiwi margaritas.  (Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.)

Recent research finds that words not only trigger assumptions, they actually shape thought.  Considering the influence of language, we think it is important to clarify the differences among the words used to describe the talent we want to hire


Knowledge is an organized body of information, usually factual or procedural in nature. In other words, it is an understanding of factors related to a subject. Different knowledge is required for different jobs.

For example, an accountant at the United Way needs to know the accounting rules that apply to nonprofit organizations.  Or, a company might want to hire a sales person who knows the Sandler approach to selling.  A content knowledge test can be administered to learn an individual’s level of knowledge about nonprofit accounting rules or the steps in the Sandler approach.

Knowledge can be acquired and enhanced through education, study, training, or through a learning experience.


A skill is an observable, learned activity (usually physical) that demonstrates an individual’s proficiency and facility in performing a task that contributes to performing a job successfully.  A skill describes observable tasks such using a tool (like a slide rule or hammer), a machine (like a digital printer), or a computer program or language (like Salesforce or .net).

A person can acquire skill, for example skill in using a drill, glass blowing, or a programming language.  Skills can be taught – they are acquired and strengthened through training, coaching, and on-the-job feedback.  Skills can be measured using appropriate assessment tools.


Ability indicates the power or general capacity to perform an observable task at the present time. Ability is an enduring attribute of the individual; it influences the performance of a behavior that results in an observable product.

For example, a utility lineman may have education and experience in line repair, but may not employ them effectively in the actual repair of a line.  In that case the ability is low despite the knowledge and practice.  If a telephone support representative has strong verbal ability, she will be effective in acquiring and applying verbal information to solve a customer’s problem.

It is important to be clear about what abilities are needed for a job.  For example, does a position require the employee to lift 20 pounds or does it require the employee to be able to move a box weighing 20 pounds?

Abilities combine abilities and capabilities that are developed by training and practice or experience and can be developed over time.  They can be measured using valid assessments.


Attitude is a consistent pattern of responses to people and situations; it is a set of personal thoughts that can influence work behavior and commitment.  Attitude combines opinions, beliefs, and feelings.  It is a mindset or a tendency to act in a particular way based on an individual’sexperience and temperament.

Attitude is a personal characteristic; it is intangible and cannot be seen or taught.  It is based on an internal summary of beliefs, values, and assumptions – it is how someone “feels” about work or a job.  An attitude generally is associated with a specific situation or object and an attitude may change over time.

Attitude affects how people choose to respond to situations, so behavior can reflect attitudes.  People often refer to attitude when they try to explain someone’s behavior. While attitude is not observable, how people behave can communicate their work attitude behavior.

The attitude a person expresses and acts on results from the individual’s evaluation of a situation, positive or negative.


A competency is a more subjective and difficult-to-measure aspect of talent because it is a combination of various factors.  A competence is a collection or cluster of related abilities, knowledge, skills, and commitments, which enable a person to act effectively in a job or situation.

For example, a person’s communication effectiveness in a technology team is a competency that may depend on her knowledge of spoken and written language, practical IT skills and knowledge as well as her attitudes about those with whom she is communicating.

Competence assumes sufficient capacity to act effectively in a variety of situations based on a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, but it is more than just KSAs.  Competence incorporates personal life experience and attitudes to produce a successful outcome in a particular work setting or context.

Every job or level of responsibility will have its own competence requirements.  An individual’s competence level can change and grow at every career stage – competence cannot be taught, but it can be developed.


Values are standards or criteria the people use to choose goals or guide their actions.  They are relatively enduring and stable over time and most believe they develop through the influence of culture, society, and personality.

A value does not correspond to a specific object or situation and people tend to have fewer values than attitudes.  Values tend to be more general while attitudes relate to a specific situation or object.  Work-related values may include factors like autonomy, prestige, helping others, or receiving credit for work.

There is evidence that employees are more satisfied and committed to the work when their values are in sync with their manager’s values.  When looking for jobs, people are initially attracted to organizations that seem to have attributes in common with themselves.  In addition, interviewers tend to prefer applicants who are similar to themselves.  Organizations can develop into places where there are a lot of shared values.

Values cannot be taught, but they can be identified and measured.


Interests describe an individual’s personal preferences for work environments. One well-known model of personality (used by the O*NET folks) describes the work environment using six interest categories: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional.

Here is how O*NET describes each category.

Realistic occupations frequently involve work activities that include practical, hands-on problems and solutions. They often deal with plants, animals, and real-world materials like wood, tools, and machinery. Many of the occupations require working outside, and do not involve a lot of paperwork or working closely with others.

Investigative occupations frequently involve working with ideas, and require an extensive amount of thinking. These occupations can involve searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.

Artistic occupations frequently involve working with forms, designs and patterns. They often require self-expression and the work can be done without following a clear set of rules.

Social occupations frequently involve working with, communicating with, and teaching people. These occupations often involve helping or providing service to others.

Enterprising occupations frequently involve starting up and carrying out projects. These occupations can involve leading people and making many decisions. Sometimes they require risk taking and often deal with business.

Conventional occupations frequently involve following set procedures and routines. These occupations can include working with data and details more than with ideas. Usually there is a clear line of authority to follow.

Interests are personal, work-related preferences.  They result from a combination of personality factors, learning, and experience.  Interests cannot be taught, but they can be identified and measured.Companies like Southwest, Apple, and Google understand the differences among these concepts – they hire people who already have the traits that can’t be taught and teach them job skills after they are hired.

Written by: Dr. Deborah L. Kerr

Check your interests….ready for that margarita now?

Kiwi Margarita

In a blender combine 1 ½   peeled kiwifruit,  ½ ounce melon liqueur, splash of Triple Sec, splash of lime juice, 1 ounce of tequila and 8 crushed ice cubes. Blend until smooth. Serve in stemmed glass garnished with kiwifruit slice. Makes 2 servings.

[1]What’s the Word is the second studio album by the Austin, Texas-based blues-rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds, released in 1980. The album initially sold poorly, but is now considered a successful white blues recording.

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