The difference between knowledge and skills when building resilience

Resilience training can effectively increase employee engagement and retention, but it requires more than just a series of workshops focusing on knowledge. This article explores the difference between knowledge and skills and why this difference matters to you, your people and developing sustainable resilience. 

In the world of learning and development, we have seen an acceleration of changes that have already begun. To some extent, organisations were already delivering virtual classrooms, webinars, polls and video conferences. E-learning libraries were available to store and transfer knowledge for onboarding essentials and annual mandatory refreshers. Inspirational speakers did just that – inspire. 

It’s just become more the norm. More scalable as we have all become more comfortable with technology. We’ve adapted.

Organisations are starting to realise that we will not be returning to the old ways anytime soon.

Wherever we end up as a result of the pandemic, roles have changed. New skills (or reconnecting with the softer skills) are coming to the fore. Self-help, mental health, resilience and behavioural change are all coming to the fore. And therein lies the problem, especially when it comes to resilience. It seems it is everywhere and everyone has an offer to L&D teams looking for a solution.

Much of what the team at Resilience Development Co. sees in this space describes general outcomes. Be more positive, reframe the negative, be more empathic, more authentic, manage your stress, and the list goes on. Defining outcomes may be helpful to show people where they could be, but it doesn’t show them HOW to get there and so creates a gap. 

It’s a gap that many “resilience gurus” are trying to fill, and it’s a tricky situation for organisations. They want to help their people grow and thrive, but the answer is elusive and getting it wrong is costly in terms of reputation and impact.

Because having, developing, raising, maintaining, building resilience is not a skill.

It’s a characteristic of optimally performing individuals, teams and leaders. Resilience is an outcome of a series of individual skills. The broad-brush approach of many in the L&D arena sees “resilience” as a skill when in reality, it is a series of interlinked micro-skills that build up to competencies that underpin resilience. 

What is a skill?

Knowledge, skills and abilities (aka KSA) are three different things, although people (including us) use these terms interchangeably. Here’s how we think about the difference in the Resilience Development Co. team: 

Knowledge is the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. For example, your employee may know what resilience is, but this doesn’t mean the employee knows how to be resilient. It means they know the theory.

Skills are valuable proficiencies developed through training and experience. They are possible to teach, test, measure and improve with deliberate practice. 

We add “valuable” because it implies the link to success, better performance and improved outcomes. The link to outcomes means you can measure it. (And we do in our work.)

Abilities are the qualities of being able to do something, and you are probably already recognising the fine line between abilities and skills. Most people would say that the differentiator is whether you can do something due to teaching (skill) or innate ( ability).

Knowing the difference between knowledge and skills matters when it comes to developing resilience.

The reason we use them interchangeably is that they are all must-haves. There are times to use them interchangeably, but we need to emphasise the exact term for building resilience. Here’s why:

If L&D aims to build resilience in teams, leaders, and culture, they must link to the right solutions. And this is where the risk of choosing the wrong approach can be costly in terms of outcomes.

We've seen programmes focus on building an in-house library of knowledge that employees can dip into on various topics around resilience.

Resilience is a broad term, so it’s a quick win to cover sleep, eating well and exercise as examples. Or they may invite a guest speaker to talk about resilience. We’ve come across new clients who have done both and then realised they’ve created the issue where people know what they need to develop but do not give them “how” to develop it. It explains why people struggle to turn knowledge into results. 

The outcome for the organisation is frustration and increased stress as people waste time and energy trying to find the answers, only to find more theories.

Difference between knowledge and skills

Some in-house programmes rely on people with the innate ability to be resilient.

We are all resilient to some extent and we see webinars of people describing their experiences but not what micro-skills they put in place to do it. They can’t explain it because it’s innate. It came naturally. Again, this creates an issue where people see what they could be but not how to develop it. 

The potential outcome: feeling sub-human. Not enough. Lacking. I should be resilient, but I’m not enough. The issue is me. This is a crucial reason why knowing the difference between knowledge and skills is essential. 

And then there is our approach, which is building individual, team and leadership resilience from a skills-base.

We show people “how to” and close the skills gap with a series of micro-skills that build into proficiencies. These proficiencies add value to productivity, engagement and positive mental health. All of which can be measured. 

Remember our definition of skills:

” Valuable proficiencies developed through training and experience. They are possible to teach, test, measure and improve with deliberate practice.” 

We are not saying knowledge is not essential. When we teach people how to develop resilience, we offer blogs, podcasts, videos, and apps to build knowledge. The critical point is that they come after skills development, not as a replacement. 

Neither do we discount ability. In fact, it is essential to set the correct tone and narrative when engaging in resilience training. Fail to recognise that we are all resilient to some extent at the very beginning and you set the tone and narrative that the responsibility is on the employee to “just be resilient.” Personal resilience at work is as much about culture and context as it is about the individual, and it’s why we always address the elephant in the room right from the very beginning. We often see a few eyebrows raised or little smiles when we openly acknowledge that “you are not broken and you don’t need fixing.” That belongs in therapy.

Developing the micro-skills for change and transition

Resilience from a skills base is about maintaining optimal performance throughout change and transition. That is sometimes about bouncing back from overwhelm and boredom. Other times it is about accelerating the speed you get to your objectives with skills that maintain productivity.

For anyone looking to build resilience, the starting point has to be understanding what we mean by resilience skills and then engaging in the deliberate practice of micro-skills required to enable people and teams to thrive in a world of change and unpredictability. If we want to become more productive, impactful, and fulfilled, we need to understand what makes us effective, impactful, and fulfilled in the first place and have the skills to do more of that and less of the other stuff. 

No amount of buzzwords, resilience gurus or listening to motivational speakers with innate ability meets that requirement. Your people need and deserve skills.

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