Security Staff Acquisition & Development

Focus On Employees Strengths: The Problem With That Advice

There are a number of thoughtful articles suggesting we get better results in developing our people by focusing on developing their strengths, not “fixing” or criticizing their weaknesses.  A recent HBR article, Developing Employees’ Strengths Boosts Sales, Profit, and Engagement, presents compelling data about organizations focusing on strengths-based interventions (I guess that’s HBR speak for coaching).

In general, I think it’s sound advice. Intuitively, it’s easy to see how you get employees enthusiastic and engaged in improving the things they do well. At a macro level, if we look across large organizations, the more people do what they to well, better, the more improvement the organization is likely to show.

I get it–particularly at a macro level.  But, as I read these articles, I still am not comfortable. Something’s churning in my stomach that says, “This can’t be the complete picture.”

If we shift our focus from looking at large organizations, where things tend to even out as you look at large numbers, instead looking at front line managers and the teams they manage.

Data shows, general spans of control for front line managers to be about six to 12 people. That’s not a huge number of people. We know the highest priority of the front line manager is to maximize the performance of each employee on their team.

Where Problems Pop Up

But maximizing performance means getting people to do the “complete job,” not just the parts of the job where they excel. If we focus only on strengths-based coaching, we run the risk of having our people doing only part of the job–but not everything needed to drive success or meet performance expectations.

For example, what if a person is really good at navigating the selling/buying process to close well qualified deals But we also hold them accountable for finding and qualifying those deals and they’ve got real weaknesses there.  They don’t like and are ineffective at prospecting, they don’t spend enough time in the front-end of the sales process to qualify and focus on the right deals.

If we focus only on building their strengths in managing well qualified deals through closure, they aren’t doing the total job. Ultimately, because we haven’t helped them in areas where they are less strong, their pipelines are empty and the don’t have qualified deals to win.

We hire people to do the total job, not just part of it. Everyone is going to have different strengths and weaknesses.  Naturally, we want to amplify, as much as possible, their strengths. But if their weaknesses keep them from fulfilling their job responsibilities, we have to do something about this. We have to coach them, we have to do everything we can to help them improve. We have to get them to the point where the weakness does not adversely impact their ability to do the total job.

Boosting Overall Performance

This doesn’t mean getting them to be strong at everything, no body can be strong at everything.  It’s simply getting them good enough at the things in which they have weaknesses don’t detract from their overall ability to perform.

In an ideal world, we can design organizations and jobs in which each job plays to the person’s strengths, so their weaknesses never become a factor in their ability to achieve their goals.  In the real world, at least what I’ve experienced in my career, we seldom have that flexibility or affordability.

While, generally, I hate sports analogies, this might help reinforce the point. A good friend is an extraordinary baseball player. He was signed to play Major League Baseball. In the minor leagues, he did very well. He was an extraordinary fielder. His batting was good–he was usually at or near the top of the minor league teams for which he played.  But he struggled when he got to the majors. His fielding was still extraordinary, he was better than his teammates who had played in the majors for years. But in the majors his batting wasn’t up to snuff.

Unfortunately, baseball doesn’t work as the strengths-based advocates would suggest.  They would have said, “Focus on improving his fielding skills, let’s get him much better. Don’t worry about batting skills, it’s someone else’s strength.”  The reality was he had to achieve a certain level of performance batting to contribute to the team.  De-emphasizing this was not an option.

Counter to what the strengths based-people would advocate, he sought to improve his batting. If he didn’t he’d be cut. He got special coaching. Most of his non-playing time was occupied by batting practice and coaching to improve his skills. He improved, but he didn’t improve enough, he wasn’t consistent. Ultimately, he went back to the minors.

Overcoming Glaring Weaknesses

Like baseball, we can’t just focus on parts of our jobs. We have to do the total job.  Yes, there are some parts each of us will be better than other parts, but we have to have balanced performance across the total job.

Much of the strengths-based literature focuses on how managers deal with weaknesses. They characterize managers as criticizing, belittling, attacking those weaknesses, always catching them doing something wrong.  That’s simply bad leadership.  You can’t say, “You suck at this, you better clean up your act or you’re gone!”  Great leaders diagnose, understand, help their people understand the weakness and how it impacts their performance.  They help people learn how to improve, how to get better.

There’s great power in getting everyone to amplify their strengths. We should do everything we can to do this with each individual. But we aren’t being fair to them, their peers, or the company by just focusing on these and not on their performance in the whole job.

Am I missing something?

David Brock is president of Partners in EXCELLENCE, a management consulting firm focused on sales productivity, channel development, strategic alliances and more. Read more of his blogs here.