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Competencies, Attributes and Traits: What’s the Difference?

Ask several people to explain the difference between competencies, attributes and traits, and chances are, you’ll get several different explanations. The truth is, there really is no one right definition for any of them, but they are very different nonetheless. For me, personality traits are more permanent and as a result, can be difficult to change. Competencies and attributes are a little more unpredictable. For the sake of clarity, here are a few points on each that may help to make the distinction a little more evident:


A personality trait is often ingrained. When we think of traits we think: outgoing, shy, gregarious or introverted. These are the types of characteristics that most people have had for most of their lives. Can they change over time? Sure. But personality traits are often deep-seated and difficult to learn or unlearn. The truth is, regardless of how hard you try, you’re probably never going to get someone who is shy and introverted to suddenly want to become the centre of attention. More than likely, they’ll never be described as being “super bubbly” or “outgoing”. When we think of leadership traits, we often think strong, confident, and secure- qualities we strive to have.


An Attribute is generally discussed in the context of specific behaviors that are learned as part of external experiences. He or she is loyal, committed, or has strong integrity. These are attributes that lead to certain behaviors and can be strong predictors of how someone will respond in a given situation. Attributes, as opposed to traits, are not ingrained, but learned over time. So you might develop strong attributes after going through a particularly difficult personal or professional situation. Motivation and enthusiasm might be described as attributes that would be ideal for most careers.


Competencies are a little more difficult to understand, and are typically a mix between behaviors and skills. If you have strong leadership competencies, it’s understood that you may have behavior patterns that are strengthened by certain skills you have developed over time. Generally, competencies are measures of how well you do certain things, taking into consideration your knowledge, skills and attributes. Competencies are generally behaviors that are easily identified and measured.

Most of us have heard of personality traits, attributes and competencies. In fact, we may have even used these terms almost synonymously at one time or another to describe a co-worker, a friend or a family member. There are differences between the three and while most people use them interchangeably, it’s important to understand at least a few of the major differences. Traits are ingrained behaviors that are mostly permanent and difficult to change while attributes can be learned through external experiences. Competencies are simply combinations of skills and behaviors and are easily identified and measured.

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