Set your employees up for success: focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses

I read a lot of business books and journals. Sometimes I read a well-reviewed book with eager anticipation and it is terrible. The dirty secret of most business books is that they are based on an interesting journal article that is a few pages long and then someone turns that into a book that relies on case after case to prove the thesis of the article. Imagine a veterinary researcher putting together a book on their groundbreaking research on a cure for some virus and then detail every animal that was part of the research project. Not too exciting is it? But every once in a while, there is a book that offers a light bulb moment that changes everything.

Recently, I read “Nine Lies About Work” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. It is a fascinating book that questions many of the business “truths” we depend on. One chapter, in particular, I have read over and over because it has the answer for something that has always bugged me about coaching people. We have been told that we should identify people’s weaknesses and work on improving them. I’m sure this idea came from sports or music or dance where people are drilled over and over on a certain maneuver in order to execute it flawlessly. That makes sense when we are performing the same movement over and over; practice does make perfect.

What this book argues is that when we are dealing with people and their unique personalities and characteristics, we cannot change who people fundamentally are. You cannot make someone better at something that they fundamentally struggle with, but you can work on their strengths and make them stronger in those areas. Strengths are defined not as something that you do well, rather as something that invigorates and inspires you. A weakness is something that you dread or exhausts you. What we want out of our team members are for them to be at their best, so forcing individuals to concentrate on what they resent is not going to get the best out of them.

People that know me will tell you that I am not a detail person. I’m pretty good with coming up with ideas but executing them is a challenge. My wife, on the other hand, is a detail person who can focus on a problem and not waver until it is solved. I marvel at her focus and intensity, but that is not me. Think of your own competencies and reflect on what it takes for you to work on an area of perceived weakness that you know you will dread and resent. It is exhausting and not very productive. Yet as managers, our interactions are filled with negative comments to our employees. “You need to work on this”, or “try harder”. We rarely spend any time encouraging people on what they do well because they like to do it. Employees constantly tell us when we consult with veterinary practices that their bosses never give them positive feedback, rather every little mistake is identified and becomes the basis for “improvement”.

The authors cite research that demonstrates that positive feedback is 30 times more powerful than negative feedback in creating high-performance teams. They also discuss research that split a group of students into two and placed each student in a functional MRI. This allows researchers to analyze brain activity in real-time in response to external stimuli. They found that the Sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) was activated on students receiving negative feedback, while the Parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) responded in those students receiving encouraging feedback. When the Parasympathetic nervous system is activated it allows the growth of new neurons, a sense of well-being, and “cognitive, emotional and perceptual openness”. These students were able to learn better, as opposed to those students receiving negative feedback who shut down.

Of course, we need to correct people when they make an error, but the bulk of our attention should be pointing out what people do well and what their actions made you feel, think or realize. When we share our recognition of what they have done well we aren’t judging or fixing them, rather we are acknowledging what makes them unique through the eyes of others. After a while employees don’t cringe when you ask if you can speak with them. Instead, they open up and are receptive to what they do well and ultimately focus doing more of that because they know their actions make a positive impression on others.

We all have different natural skills and abilities so a great team will have a blend of opposing individual competencies. We need a mix of detail-oriented and big-picture idea people for example. If we can make the various personalities stronger where it is easier for them then the whole team improves. This is a much better scenario of the typical team that is being forced to do what goes against their grain to fit the desired outcome.

This idea of recognizing strengths has shifted my approach to managing people. Now that I recognize and encourage strengths I find the people I work with are more relaxed around me, and they are more engaged and productive. By focusing on their strengths, I am setting them up to succeed long term, rather than force them into doing what they inherently cannot do well. Finally, by concentrating on their strengths I have found that I enjoy working with them more because I don’t feel let down when they aren’t able to do what I previously expected of them. All of us are more open to interactions and feedback because we feel better about each other and we create an atmosphere of frictionless and sustainable growth.

I highly recommend the book. I only focused on one of the “nine lies” in the title, so there are 8 more for you to discover.


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