What is the difference between skill and ability?

Difference between ability, skill and competency

Various terms related to our abilities and knowledge are used in our professional world. Although they may sound similar, each has its own meanings and applications. We look are the difference between the terms skill and ability, while comparing them to two other: competency and qualification. Understanding their nuances is key to effective recruiting and skill development.

From Ability to Competency


Ability refers to a person’s potential or capacity to perform a particular task. It belongs to human capabilities, and help together with resources and potential, to achieve various goals.

Abilities are linked to personality traits, as well as to cognitive or physical capabilities. They can be developed and improved over time, but they are less malleable than skills.

Examples of abilities:

  • Problem-Solving
  • Creativity
  • Adaptability
  • Critical Thinking
  • Empathy


A skill is more specific than the other terms and pertains to the practical application of knowledge or abilities. It indicates that someone has already mastered and proficiently carries out a specific task or activity. For example, playing a musical instrument or programming in a particular programming language is a skill.

Examples of skills:

  • Programming Language
  • Project Management
  • Foreign Languages

The difference between soft skills and hard skills

Soft skills, also called human skills or transversal skill, are interpersonal and emotional intelligence-based abilities required for effective collaboration, while hard skills are job-specific.

Examples of soft skills:

  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Active listening


A qualification relates to the formal education, knowledge, and experience a person has in a specific field. This can be demonstrated through academic degrees, certificates, or professional experiences. Qualifications are often required to pursue certain positions or professions.

For example, a college degree in computer science can be a qualification to work as a software developer.


Competency is a term used to describe the ability or capacity of an individual, organization, or system to perform tasks, meet objectives, or effectively carry out a specific function or role. It encompasses the knowledge, skills, expertise, and capabilities required to perform a particular job, task, or function successfully.

For example, competency as a project manager is made by project management skills, ability to communicate and experience in various projects. 

Abilities and skills in people development


Improving abilities requires hard work and time, sometimes many years, as they depend on cognitive and physical capabilities. People with the right abilities and attitude to learning will catch up with their skills very quickly.
Therefore when you recruit, take a deeper look at abilities. This can be done with psychological tests, personality questionnaires and assessment centers. In an interview you can ask the candidate to demonstrate an ability or soft skill with the STAR method.

Using this approach, an employee should address the following inquiries:

  1. What is the current situation?
  2. What task was assigned to me, or what was expected of me?
  3. What specific actions did I undertake in this scenario?
  4. What were the outcomes or results of my actions?

Skill development

In a team, it is much effective to develop skills rather than abilities, as ability development requires much more effort and time.

A Skill matrix is a very effective tool to identify skill gaps and accelerate skill development in your team. In your skill matrix, add only skills and not abilities. It is indeed frustrating for team members when they are compared to others on criteria which are hard to improve.

For instance, creativity may be an important ability for innovation, but it is quite hard to evaluate it on a scale and compare creativity levels of people. Therefore prefer having the skill “creativity techniques” in your skill matrix, which are the tools for fostering creativity.

Ability development

Focusing on developing skills in a team does not mean that abilities have to be forgotten. Everybody is responsible of his own personal development and to improve his abilities during his career. Coaches and mentors can help employees to evaluate their abilities and to find how to develop them to reach their career goals.

As stated in this research paper from the NIH about capabilities and skills, developing skills creates also opportunities to develop abilities.

If you would like to be a more creative person, you could try painting courses. Thanks to this opportunity you will both train your creativity ability and your painting skills.


Abilities are the foundation for developing skills and can only improved on the long term. Therefore it is important to hire people with the right abilities and who are willing to learn new skills. Skill development can be done with the right training and will also improve the corresponding abilities, in particular the one to learn.