The focus we place on improving our weak spots prevents us from developing our natural strengths.
The world of work is obsessed with spotting employees’ weaknesses. We’re socialised from an early age to focus on identifying and overcoming our weak points rather than appreciating and building upon our strengths. Despite this focus on weaknesses, people will always get a better return on their investment of time and effort by developing their talent compared with striving to overcome a flaw.
If I’m naturally good with numbers and less gifted with words, for instance, where should I concentrate my energies? I can improve and even get very good at writing with some serious practice, undoubtedly. But it will require significantly more application than cultivating a natural talent. If I put the same application into mathematics, in other words, I’ll dramatically accelerate my growth comparatively. Why? Because I have an innate aptitude for numbers. It’s easier for me to learn than building a vocabulary – not to mention, more enjoyable and less stressful. So, it makes sense to develop our gifts, more so than we are led to believe.
Our obsession with strengthening weaknesses
Think about it: all things being equal, spending an hour developing a strength or talent is a far better use of your time than spending an hour trying to correct a deficiency, assuming we are applying good learning strategies in both cases. You’ll learn faster, gain greater traction, and be more efficient and effective by building on a talent compared with trying to conquer a weakness.
We’re constantly told by our parents and teachers at school to lift our grades in the subjects we struggle with and maintain the good grades we get in subjects that come more naturally to us. When we enter the workforce, the traditional performance appraisal devotes a disproportionate amount of time to our weak areas and very little – if any – time to what we do well. So, it’s little wonder that, at the point we are established in the workplace, we’re obsessed with “fixing” our weaknesses and simultaneously take our talents for granted.
Gallup has surveyed over 10 million people worldwide since the 1990s on the topic of employee engagement; that is, how positive and productive people are at work. Only a third of those surveyed “strongly agreed” with the statement: “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day”. Of those who “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” with the statement; that is, those who felt they didn’t get to focus on what they do best, none were emotionally engaged in their job. The message is clear: if you want to engage the hearts and minds of people at work, you need to give them the scope to apply their strengths and talents at work.
To further illustrate my point, Gallup’s research suggests that employees who are given the opportunity to utilise their strengths are considerably more committed to their work than those who aren’t given the same chance. These same people who exercise their strengths at work report having a better quality of life than colleagues who don’t get the same opportunity. I think it’s clear that focusing on strengths has substantial advantages for everyone: the individual, the organisation where they work, and society-at-large. This reinforces the argument for having regular conversations about strengths. Giving people a chance to use their talents at work can pay dividends for all.
I’m not suggesting that you turn a blind eye to people’s weaknesses. My point is this: leaders need to redress this imbalance of focusing on weaknesses by discussing strengths and talents equally. It’s not only performance appraisals that are preoccupied with identifying employee weaknesses, managers are fixated with pouring resources and support into overhauling these weaknesses.
What’s more, most learning and development programs are designed to address the areas we don’t excel in. As Tom Rath in Strengths Finder 2.0 puts it, these programs “help us to become who we are not”. If you’re poor with numbers you’re sent on a course to develop accounting skills, for example. Or, if you’re appraised as being weak at dealing with people, you’re sent on a course to boost your emotional intelligence. Our whole life is programmed to building up our weak spots. This takes the focus away from capitalising on our natural aptitudes.
On the other hand, we take for granted those with natural talent. We don’t value the blood, sweat, and tears put into harnessing our gifts. We don’t see or want to see, what we call in Australia, the hard yakka that’s put into the practise of perfecting talent.
Dr Tim Baker is an international consultant and author.
Discover the skills you need to progress your HR career by using AHRI’s free online training needs analysis tool for HR professionals.