Sunday, September 20, 2015

Is it Better to Work on Strengths or Weaknesses?

It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity. – Peter Drucker
Throughout my career, I’ve put a lot of effort into overcoming my weaknesses.  As a result of coaching and reading numerous books and articles on self-development, I have always viewed my weaknesses as barriers to success and something that I needed to work hard to overcome.  I’ve recently begun to wonder, though, whether focusing too heavily on my weaknesses took time that could have been better spent developing my strengths.
In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker wrote that, by focusing on our weaknesses, the best we can achieve is mediocrity.  On the other hand, working to further developing our strengths can result in greatness.
Most people excel in the areas that motivate them.  Alternatively, weaknesses tend to come from the things in which people are not really interested.  Focusing attention on developing the things people either can’t improve or aren’t interested in improving can lead to frustration, stress, and an overall lack of motivation.
People are motivated when they are able to do meaningful work, learn and develop, and have fun.  And continually developing in an area of strength and utilizing the strength to contribute to an organization’s success help make this happen.
Addressing the Organization’s Weaknesses
It is obviously important to understand and continually close the critical skill gaps that exist within an organization.  Doing this effectively requires hiring the “right” people and continually making them “more right.”  One of the critical objectives of hiring is to put together a team where individual strengths complement one another and people are able to effectively cover each other’s weaknesses, but focusing the hiring process on minimizing the organization’s weaknesses, however, will never lead to greatness.
The performance review process in most organizations targets an individual’s weaknesses.  Although strengths are usually identified – although more in terms of results than the fundamental strength that led to the result – the individual is often expected to work on the weaknesses before the next review.  There is rarely conversation about how the person can further develop strengths during the coming year.
Knowing Your Strengths
Developing your strengths assumes that you know your strengths.  For most of my career, I have approached people and asked for feedback and coaching about my work, interactions with others, and overall performance.  Whenever I have these conversations, however, I try to get the other person to talk about the areas in which I need to improve – in other words, my weaknesses.  Lately however, I’ve tried to turn the discussion around and have asked for feedback on my strengths.  What I’ve found is that it puts the other person much more at ease and comfortable giving me the feedback I need to improve.
Although this has helped improve the conversation, I have found that it is important for the other person to know that I’m not looking for compliments.  I am looking for feedback on my areas of strength where, if I got even stronger, could greatly help the organization and my own career.
Like anything, this type of conversation takes practice to provide real value, so it is important to stick with it and be consistent about holding the meetings.
PDSA to Understand & Develop Strengths
To better understand strengths and weaknesses, Peter Drucker suggested writing down goals related to a specific objective or project.  After six months or so, he recommended returning to the list and reflecting on which goals were achieved and which were not.  After doing this over a period of time, a picture will start to emerge that identifies strengths and weaknesses.  In addition to showing strengths and weaknesses in execution, it will show how strong the person is in planning and selecting the right things on which to work.
This is closely aligned with W. Edwards Deming’s Theory of Knowledge and the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Cycle.  Within a PDSA mindset, learning only takes place when the hypothesis is clear, which means that the person or team clearly and consciously understands the expected results from a given action or plan.  I believe Drucker’s advice deals with applying PDSA on a personal level to drive learning.
For this approach to be successful, I believe that the list must be remain personal.  As soon as something like this becomes public or part of a person’s performance review, there will be a tendency to skew results and show more success than really occurred and, as a result, interfere with reflection and learning.  Most organizations are not mature enough in their thinking for people to be truly open about their performance and, in particular, their weaknesses. 
It’s Not All or Nothing
Focusing on your strengths does not mean completely ignoring your weaknesses.  This is not about developing knowledge or a particular skill.  It is about using knowledge and skills to be successful.  If you have a weakness that is interfering with success, the more you know about it and address it, the more successfully you will be.  The key, though, is to avoid spending significant time overcoming a weakness.  Once it is addressed to the point where it no longer interferes with using your strengths to be successful, stop worrying about it and refocus on your strengths.

1 comment:

curiouscat said...

As you say to the extent your weaknesses are things you have to do spending time improving them usually makes sense. I think often the most productive thing is to spend time working on the system to maximize the use of people's strengths and minimize the use of their weaknesses. This often has a big impact without much effort.

And when you do that it is often the magnitude of strengths that makes a big difference. So you can avoid dealing with much of the weaknesses in the team and focus most effort on the strengths. And when you do that my getting even better at x allows the improvement not to just be x * 1.1 but (x * 1.1) + (y * 1.3) + (z * 1.4) - (if say I am now 30% "better" than y at the task and 40% better than z. Obviously it doesn't work so cleanly in the real world but that concept that you can get way more improvement normally by adjusting the way work is done than just by having everyone get less bad at the stuff they really should avoid doing most of the time.

You do also have to pay attention to the long term, so if someone wants to move into supervision but has some weaknesses they need to address and strengths to improve working on that makes sense.