Steven Forth is a Co-Founder of TeamFit. See his Skill Profile.


Skill management systems like TeamFit rely a lot on words. They are full of skill names, categories, descriptions and other words. But can a word ever really capture the essence of a skill?

Imagine something as simple as cutting an onion. What are the full range of skills used and can we describe them in words? There is a wonderful sequence in the film Julia and Julie (about American food icon Julia Child and food blogger Julie Powell) about learning to cut onions, from how to hold the knife to the rhythmical movements needed. There is a lot of skill involved in cutting onions. There is also a lot of muscle memory required to do this well. If you are running a professional kitchen, you need know if kitchen staff have the skill of cutting an onion. You may not care about the component skills. On the other hand, if you are responsible for teaching people how to cut onions, then the component skills are important as well. It is very difficult to describe motor skills in words or to assess them using interviews, conversations or surveys. The words can be no more than pointers.

If this is true for chefs, it is even more true for surgeons, who need highly intelligent control over fine motor skills. Kurashiki Central Hospital in Japan has a compelling way to assess such skills. They ask students to do a variety of tasks requiring fine motor skills and to do so under time pressure. The tasks range from folding a miniature crane to assembling a tiny robot to making scaled down sets of nigiri sushi. I am quite sure I would do poorly on all of these.

The challenge of describing skills in words is not limited to motor skills. Think about empathy. Empathy is generally seen as a critical component of meta skills like Design Thinking or User Centred Design. What does it mean to have the skill ’empathy’? Is empathy even a skill in any useful sense of the word, or is it better described as an attitude or behaviour? 

Empathy is commonly understood as the ‘ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (from define: empathy on Google). It frequently comes up as one of the most important skills for design thinking. This is not surprising, as most design thinking approaches are predicated on having a deep understanding of all the stakeholders. Empathy is one way to get to this understanding.

Is ’empathy’ a skill? Is it a behaviour? Does the difference matter? Can empathy be described in words? Are there different ways of showing empathy and being empathetic?

These are all critical questions that people concerned with enabling human potential (which is afterall the goal of skill management) must ask.

Is empathy a skill?

It can be useful to capture empathy as a skill in a skill management system, as it is a critical connecting point for other skills and for training. Empathy contributes to skills such as design thinking, solution selling, coaching, counselling and inclusive design. It is implied by having a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) So yes, there are reasons to consider empathy a skill.

Is empathy a behaviour?

One can have a skill and not regularly manifest it. Skill is the ability to do something, the behaviour is habit demonstrating the skill in the right contexts. Most modern competency models include behaviours and distinguish them from skills. What behaviours suggest empathy? Listening, and even active listening is certainly one. So is the behaviour of withholding judgement until one understands what is actually going on. A person demonstrating the skill of empathy in their behaviours will often orient themselves towards the other person, take a non threatening posture, ask questions that reassure while guiding both parties towards deeper reflection and mirror the other’s emotional state.

Does the difference between a skill and behaviour matter?

It does. The skill is the ability, the behaviour is its manifestation. Both are important. A skill management system may need to capture descriptions of and evidence for both.

Can empathy be described in words?

Yes, but not directly. Think of the great novels you have read. One of the reasons they are great is that you empathize with the characters. The same is true of great plays. When, in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” we feel not for him but with him.

This does not help all that much in a skill management system though. We do not want to be writing novels or testing people for empathy within the system. Our goals are simpler. We want to capture the essence of a skill in terms of its relationships to other skills and in descriptions of the behaviours that show it in action.

Are their different ways of showing empathy and being empathetic?

The conclusion I draw from this is that individual skills considered in isolation provide little insight. What is important is the connections between skills, how the skills are manifested in behaviours, and how they are put to work with other people, in different projects, for different roles, and how a skill evolves across a lifetime. Any skill management approach that treats skills in isolation, even with rich definitions, will fail to capture the most important insights about people, how we work and how we work together.

One book that has been popular at the office this year is The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. In this wonderful book, he explains time as the relations between events. Time is not the absolute and uniform backdrop against which events unfold (time as Issac Newton understood it) but rather the fabric created by the relations between events. This is how we are thinking about skills at TeamFit. Each skill is given meaning through its relationships. These relationships are manifested in events. The flow of events, experience, provides evidence for the skills.