Improving on Your Weaknesses? The Smart Play Is to Build on Your Strengths

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If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a hundred times while listening to managers give performance reviews to their employees – “Here are the areas you need to work to improve on.” 

It sounds like a really smart thing to do, doesn’t it? After all, don’t we all want to improve on our weaknesses?

Well … no.

Although it would be nice to improve on the things we aren’t so good at, the fact is that you will have much more success as a manager if you concentrate on helping employees build on their strengths and the things that they are already pretty good at. And, you’ll help yourself if you work on building on your own strengths as well.

Gallup conducted some research on this subject back in 2016, and they found that organizations that routinely do this experience fairly consequential increases in employee performance. For example, they found that companies that work to build on strengths see:

  • A 10-19 percent increase in sales;
  • A 14-29 percent increase in profits;
  • A 3-7 percent improvement in customer engagement;
  • A 6-16 percent lower turnover rate (in already low-turnover organizations);
  • A 26-72 percent lower turnover rate (in previously high-turnover organizations);
  • A 9-15 percent increase in engaged employees; and, 
  • A whopping 22-59 percent reduction in safety incidents.

A critical thing for leaders to focus on

The notion of building on a person’s strengths is not a new concept, but it is at odds with the thought that getting people to improve on their weaknesses – what they aren’t as good at – is the best way to improve overall organizational performance.

Peter Drucker, who is widely considered “the father of modern management,” used to say that building on strengths was the critical thing for leaders to focus on. He wrote about this way back in 1967 in his book, The Effective Executive. In it he said:

“The effective executive makes strengths productive. To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths — the strengths of associates, the strength of the superior, and one’s own strengths. These strengths are the true opportunities. To make strength productive is the unique purpose of the organization. It cannot overcome the weaknesses with which each of us is endowed, but it can make them irrelevant.”

Gallup’s research falls in line with Drucker’s thinking and points to how you get managers aligned in building on strengths in employees. It goes like this:

  1. Know your own strengths.
  2. Don’t assume employees know how to use their strengths.
  3. Help workers who aren’t using their strengths.
  4. Harmonize team strengths.
  5. Keep strengths on top of mind; and,
  6. individualized recognition with the consideration of strengths.

Yes, employees want help developing their skills

Gallup adds this to the debate over strengths-based management, and it is well worth considering if you’re focused on improving the overall performance of your workforce:

“The best way to help others develop and grow is to identify and build on their strengths. Now more than ever before, employees expect their managers to support or even guide their development.

Managers who take this role seriously should make strengths-based development their approach, consistently enacting proven strategies such as holding frequent meetings with each worker, providing strengths-specific opportunities for growth and helping each worker establish goals based on their strengths.”

Here’s my take: It’s pretty hard to disagree with the wisdom of the great Peter Drucker.

He was ahead of his time on a lot of things, and focusing on the strengths of your employees is one that many questioned when he first mentioned it back in the 1960s. Of course, odern’s thinking on this has stood the test of time and he’s lauded for it now some 50 plus years later.

The Harvard Business Review makes this point as well in writing about strengths-based management:

“We believe strengths-based development is definitely here to stay. Its acceptance will be enhanced as some of these lingering myths become dispelled.”

For my money, count me in as one who believes in this, too.

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