Fix Employee Weaknesses or Focus on Their Strengths?

Umer Mansoor Umer Mansoor Follow Jul 26, 2017 · 6 mins read

In “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” the authors, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, have put together their observations from more than 80,000 Gallup interviews they conducted with various leaders and managers over a period of 25 years. The book is full of excellent insight into what great managers do and don’t do and debunks several traditional management myths. One such myth is that people are capable of almost anything if they work hard enough or everyone has unlimited potential. According to the authors, this is a complete fallacy and while it is an uplifting thought, it is far from reality.

“There once lived a scorpion and a frog.

The scorpion wanted to cross the pond, but, being a scorpion, he couldn’t swim. So he scuttled up to the frog and asked: “Please, Mr. Frog, can you carry me across the pond on your back?”

“I would,” replied the frog, “but, under the circumstances, I must refuse. You might sting me as I swim across.”

“But why would I do that?” asked the scorpion. ”

“It is not in my interests to sting you, because you will die and then I will drown.”

Although the frog knew how lethal scorpions were, the logic proved quite persuasive. Perhaps, felt the frog, in this one instance the scorpion would keep his tail in check. So the frog agreed. The scorpion climbed onto his back, and together they set off across the pond. Just as they reached the middle of the pond, the scorpion twitched his tail and stung the frog. Mortally wounded, the frog cried out: “Why did you sting me? It is not in your interests to sting me, because now I will die and you will drown.”

“I know,” replied the scorpion as he sank into the pond. “But I am a scorpion. I have to sting you. It’s in my nature.”

In this old parable, the frog made a fatal mistake in believing that scorpion’s nature will change.

Great managers reject this out of hand. They remember what the frog forgot: that each individual, like the scorpion, is true to his unique nature … They know that there is a limit to how much remolding they can do to someone. But they don’t bemoan these differences and try to grind them down. Instead they capitalize on them. They try to help each person become more and more of who he already is.

Under the same situation, different people react differently according to their nature. People are motivated differently. For example, I worked with a software developer who was very competitive by nature and his productivity would go through the roof when he heard that someone else on the team did it better or faster. That was his trigger. If a task carries too much risk, it is best assigned to a person who is meticulous than to someone who is a risk taker.

Everyone has some talents which the authors define as ‘recurring patterns that could be applied productively.’ Willpower is a talent. So is empathy and competitiveness. They key is to select and hire for talent and cast in the right role. This includes identifying an individual’s talents and assigning responsibilities which maximizes the strengths and neutralizes weaknesses.

Casting for talent is one of the unwritten secrets to the success of great managers. On occasion it can be as simple as knowing that your aggressive, ego-driven salesperson should take on the territory that re quires a fire to bel it beneath it. And, by contrast, your patient, relation ship-building salesperson should be offered the territory that requires careful nurturing.

This may sound like common knowledge but all too often hiring managers put excessive emphasis on skills and experience over talent. Skill or how-to’s of a role can be taught. Talent cannot be taught. A Java software developer can learn Python, but may not become a good marketer. An aggressive, ego-driven person generally makes a poor team player but put that person in a situation that requires a fire to be lit under it, and that person might just become a rockstar.

People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.

This is the essence of the ‘focus on strengths’ school of thought. There is some scientific evidence to support this theory:

Beyond a person’s mid-teens, that unique network of synaptic connections, in which some are strong and robust and others non-existent, does not change significantly. This means that a person’s recurring patterns of thought, of feeling and of behavior do not change significantly. If he is empathic when he is hired, he will stay empathic. If he is impatient for action when he is hired, he will stay impatient.

There is also criticism of the ‘focus on strengths’ based approach. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that focusing too much on our strengths can be counterproductive:

it’s important to understand that even the smartest, brightest, and most brilliant individuals have a dark side. They have certain elements of their personality, of their typical behaviors, that are quite counterproductive. And if those tendencies are left unchecked, no matter how smart, competent, and talented they are, their careers at risk of derailing.

Think of an employee or an individual who is very driven and ambitious. If we developed their ambition and drive even further, they might just become greedy. Or somebody who is very socially skilled, if they develop their social skills even further, they might become almost Machiavellian and manipulative. People who are very creative can become odd and eccentric, and people who are already a little bit confident, if we make them even more confident, they might become arrogant or overconfident.

I generally agree with the idea of focusing on strengths as too many managers focus on irrelevant weaknesses or non-talents of their reports. There isn’t enough time to change an employee’s nature even a little or to give birth to a new talent. Does this mean we should completely ignore weaknesses? If the weakness is relevant and it is affecting performance, the manager must determine if the weakness is trainable (i.e. missing skill), whether the person is casted in the wrong role or if the person can be paired up with someone who has complementary strengths. Either way, poor performance should be tackled head on as soon as possible.

Until next time.

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