Narrowing the skills perception gap

Narrowing the skills perception gap

When asked for reasons why the Scotland national football team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup; head coach Gordon Strachan replied that his side was “genetically behind”. After their defeat to Slovenia, Strachan suggested that their opponents were not necessarily technically superior, but they had the ‘height and strength’ that the Scots were unable to deal with. Some ex-professional footballers immediately described his comments as ‘nonsensical’.

Attributing failure to external factors

After years of watching Strachan in interviews, with his mix of antagonistic and often impish responses, I am not entirely convinced that even he genuinely believes his own comments.

Regardless of whether he truly believes them or not, it does suggest a certain amount of ‘self-serving bias’.  That is the psychological tendency to attribute failure to external factors; and that positive outcomes are firmly down to how fantastically awesome you are.


Compare Strachan’s take on his own team’s shortcomings (forgive the pun), to those of top performing golf or tennis players for example.  When they are interviewed after a losing a match or carding a poor score, they rarely blame the conditions, the course, the court because they understand that these are exactly the same conditions in which their opponents are competing.  I don’t think I have ever heard them blame genetics!  Furthermore, they recognise, and admit to the specific areas of their own performance that led to their failure.  The picture is the same when they win – they have a very accurate perception of which skills and capabilities they used on that day that helped them succeed.

Narrowing the skills perception gap using coaching

Talented people like this of course don’t work alone.  They have coaches who can objectively analyse and identify the areas of performance and skills that are effective in a given situation.  This provides the player with a very strong perception of their own skills and their effectiveness, so that they can deploy them at the right time.  This means that the gap between what they believe to be effective, and what is actually effective is very narrow.

We see this happening in the same way with verbal communication.  We have worked with many skilled communicators over the years who have a very strong perception of the behaviours that they believe to be effective in a given context - and how effective they actually are. They have a narrow perception gap.

Perception versus reality

We also worked with many people who have a very wide perception gap.  In other words, they use behaviours that they believe will be effective in a particularly context, but in fact are not.  For example, there are many salespeople that we have observed who can talk eloquently; passionately and at great length about their products; yet we know from our research into successful selling that this is not an effective behavioural approach for persuading customers to buy.

There are of course those people who are very skilled at communicating, but cannot explain why they are effective – or if they do offer an explanation, it is usually inaccurate.  It is also likely that they will also blame external factors when things go wrong because their perception gap is wide.

So how do we close the gap?

Firstly, don’t try and find the answer in genetics! Effective verbal behaviours can be learned. Here is some guidance on what can be done to help close the perception gap:

  • Identify behaviours that are likely to be effective in certain situations. E.g. selling, coaching, managing meetings, presentations. Look at behavioural research in the area you want to improve and find a model of success.
  • Plan to consciously use these behaviours in real life situations, but try and keep your focus to one behaviour at a time. A word of caution – if you are going to try something new – pick low risk situations.
  • Reflect on their effectiveness. Did it achieve the outcome you wanted it to? If not, why not?
  • Where you can, appoint a coach that can give you feedback on your performance. This is working on an assumption that they know what behaviours to look for and can give you objective developmental feedback.

And finally…

Avoid a self-serving bias.  If things go wrong, be willing to accept that this could be a result of your own behaviour, rather than immediately attributing it to an external influence.

About the Author
Shaun James

Written by Shaun James

Shaun is Head of Learning and Development with responsibility for the entire delivery capability of Huthwaite’s international network of trainers. He has a BSC in Social Sciences with Psychological Studies and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Over his 20 years as an L&D professional, Shaun has developed the sales and negotiation skills of some of the world’s largest and most successful businesses.