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Developing Talent: Strengths + Weaknesses

Posted Dec 17 2012 1:48pm
Have you noticed people making excuses for poor performance or ugly behavior by invoking the "It's just who I am" defense?

Lets have a close look at this:

Research (and common sense) confirm that focusing on peoples' strengths has a positive affect on morale, engagement and the bottom line. 

But as with any approach (or new idea), focusing on strengths can go overboard in organizations, causing many negative side-effects. Some I've seen: 


1. Using the "strengths" research as an excuse for managers to avoid uncomfortable performance discussions with employees. ("Everyone knows that James is difficult to work with and shirks his responsibilities. No one wants to work with him and clients complain about him...but he's a really good analyst. Let's not rock the boat.")

2.  Hiding behind strengths as an excuse for bad behavior. For example, "I'm sorry that I snapped at you and called you a bumbling idiot. I have a short fuse. That's just how I am. Sensitivity is not my strength. You'll just have to accept that."

3.  Dumping mundane tasks (like paperwork, administration) on others because "it's not my strength." (For example, "Anne, you're so good at making the office coffee, cleaning out the pot and using the fax machine. Would you mind? I'm not good at that kind of stuff.") 

All jobs require doing some things we don't like, or aren't particularly good at...and most companies can't afford to give all of their employees an assistant to dump work on. Sometimes we just have to suck it up and do something, even though it's not our strength. All of that said, I'm still a huge believer in focusing on strengths. I just get alarmed when I see a good concept spin out of control and become destructive. 

What's Happening?

There are probably a number of reasons why, but I think there is a phenomenon that gets played out--at least in American business circles--whenever the latest and greatest thing hits the scene. It's this:

What is actually a principle is adopted as a rule. 

These are two actual representations of the 80/20 "concept":

8020 final.001  
Instead of really taking time to understand all that lies underneath a principle, the human condition tends to run with a catch phrase and treat it as "the way." A book title becomes a buzzword that gets tossed around in meetings as a mantra. It becomes problematic when that word isn't represented accurately or in context.  And that happens a lot. 

So it is with Strengths. It's a lot easier to say "It's all about strengths" than it is to live a life identifying and acknowledging our strengths; figuring out where we need to become at least adequate in some of our weaknesses; and respecting the people around us enough to behave unselfishly even when we "feel" like doing our own thing our own way.

When managers avoid uncomfortable performance discussions, they are showing disrespect for their employee. How can the person improve without hearing the truth, explore ways to change, and growing as a result?

When we hide behind Strengths as an excuse for bad behavior we're really saying, "I don't respect you enough to bother to honor you with good behavior."

And when mundane tasks are dumped on someone else because "I'm not good at it," then I better ask myself just how I'm using my position power. Is one of my less attractive "strengths" the inclination to take advantage of others' weakness?

What I find ironic as I write this is: we're talking about Strength, yet the insidious culprit is Laziness. 

What to do?

1. Take time to learn the "why?" behind the "what." When you can explain a concept accurately using everyday language, you've got it. If you or colleagues around you are still discussing things using buzzwords, stop and ask for an explanation of the meaning. That discussion could lead to shared meaning and deeper understanding.

2. When you hear a "performance excuse" disguised as a reason, follow up by asking: "What are you going to do about that? It's impacting other people and that's not acceptable." It's amazing how we'll make changes once we are called on our behavior and not allowed to explain it away.

3.  Make really bad coffee and jam the fax machine. 

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