What does one do with the strength-based philosophy?

This is not yet another article advocating the benefits of a strength-based philosophy. We’ve seen many of those already, haven’t we? GallupPeter Drucker and the industry as a whole have successfully convinced me to believe that employee performance and consequently organizational productivity is positively impacted when organizations routinely focus on strengths.

I’m sold! However, despite all the talk about the benefits of a strength-based philosophy, I haven’t seen enough usable information on how one can apply it.

Advocating a strength-based philosophy is only one part of the equation; implementing it is a completely different ballgame. Therefore, while I will still spend time explaining the strength-based philosophy, I’ll spend a little extra time exploring how one can leverage it at the workplace.

Understanding the strength-based philosophy

Let’s start with Usain Bolt. Bolt played cricket in school. Eventually, a sports coach spotted his talent, granted him a scholarship and encouraged him to pursue track events. Usain wasn’t good at sprinting and was never a good starter in the blocks. His height of 1.95m meant that when he crouched down, he took more time to stand up than his counterparts did.

Usain learned early on to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. His biggest strength was his acceleration at the 50m mark of the 100m sprint. His stride is longer and it is at that point in the race, his strengths begin to compensate for his weaknesses. Usain did not dwell on the fact that he was an average starter but instead focused on his acceleration at the halfway mark as his key asset.

Bolt once said in an interview, “I was so in love with cricket that I didn’t want to do anything else. Track was just something I was doing because I was good at it.” We can all thank our lucky stars that he chose to focus on his strengths, otherwise, he’d probably have stayed a mediocre cricketer who ran very fast between wickets.

Defining & Focusing on Strength

So how does one define strengths? Gallup comes to the rescue again by providing an easy equation. As Tom Rath of StrengthsFinder fame says –

A strength arises out of a combination of a talent (which tends to be natural) and investment (which relates to effort allocation).

When we look at employees, it is tempting to focus on weaknesses. While it is important to work on deficits, it is more important to recognize strengths and use them to forge a unique signature, much like Usain capitalized on acceleration and stride length.

Historically, organizations have placed an overwhelming focus on defects and investment on bridging gaps. However, research indicates this can lead to counterproductive results over the long term. Research done by Robert Eichinger of the Korn Ferry Institute revealed that managers ranked the ability to ‘grow talent’ 67th out of 67 competencies. In other words, on average, managers are worse at developing employees than everything else they do.

Additional research shows that focusing on correcting weakness will only bring those on the lower-end of the performance curve towards the middle. It never propels them to the upper half of the curve. Building on strengths is the best way to accelerate learning, performance, and productivity. As Folkman Zenger rightly says,

‘People working on developing strengths have twice the gains in performance and productivity as those working on weaknesses. These gains extend to other competencies. When people focus on strengths, they tend to increase their effectiveness in other areas as well.’

Now that we know how to define strengths, let’s move to the next part.

Identifying & Categorizing Strengths

The biggest mistake managers make is treating strength identification as a point in time task vs an ongoing process. The second big mistake is believing that there aren’t enough avenues to collect strength-based data for employees. Some opportunities to gather strength data include:

1. Annual reviews act as a formal once a year process and help in capturing feedback on both strengths as well as areas of opportunity.
2. The second source of information is stakeholders and peers that the employee engages with.
3. The third and highly underleveraged mechanism is that of 1:1 discussions with the employee.

Ideally, managers should seek feedback on team members not just annually but at frequent intervals, definitely no less than once a quarter. Evaluations on employees can be done on a continuous basis using software like Asana to evaluate task completion or ProSky’s Desk feature during Projectships. Some organizations have also built tools that explicitly capture strength-based data from stakeholders at frequent intervals.

The process of identification of strengths is not the responsibility of managers alone. Reflected Best Self Exercise (RBSE) is a feedback seeking exercise that enables individuals to identify and understand their own unique strengths. In this exercise, an individual seeks feedback from others by asking them to share examples of when they have seen the individual at their best.

After feedback is gathered, the RBSE guides through the process of creating a portrait of one’s best self and an action plan for leveraging strengths. It is an exercise I’d recommend every individual to go through.

Analyzing Strengths Data

Once we’ve identified sources of strengths data, it is time to analyze it. The manager and individual should spend time identifying themes and commonly recurring behavior patterns. Start by creating a list of these patterns, checking for patterns that are closely related and grouping them together.

For example, the ability to understand unstated needs of customer and responsiveness to customer requirements can be grouped together as they are both customer oriented. Amongst the groups that you identify, prioritize the ones with the highest impact.

The key thing to note is that the quality of output (identification of strengths) is only as good as the quality of input. Feedback can sometimes be vague. It is the responsibility of managers to reach out to stakeholders wherever necessary and seek additional details on feedback where required.

While we look at strengths, there may also be weaknesses that may need development/mitigation. It is possible to combine information on both to work on categorizing strengths. Take a look at the matrix below.

Quadrant 1 is Realized Strength. Realized strengths are strengths demonstrate regularly by the employee and used often.

Quadrant 2 consists of Unrealized Strengths. These may be dormant strengths or they may be areas which require a more fine-tuning before they move to quadrant one.

Growth opportunities can come from either quadrant one or two, it can involve exploring opportunities for leveraging existing strengths differently or it could also be building on unrealized strengths to turn them into realized strengths.

Quadrant 3 represents Forced Strength. These are activities one does often and very well, but do not energize. These present a real psychological trap that needs awareness. One is expected to perform these tasks regularly since they are good at it, yet performing them repeatedly over time leads to increasing disengagement as the critical energizing component is missing.

Quadrant 4 refers to weaknesses. It can be further divided into two groups – exposed weaknesses and blind spots.

Exposed weaknesses are weaknesses that are evident and cause problems. These weaknesses need to be effectively managed to make them irrelevant.

Blind spots are weaknesses that could trip an individual if the situation or context changed, but at the moment are safely irrelevant. These can be safely ignored as long as the situation does not change and they are not pushed into the foreground (becoming exposed weaknesses).

Managing Strengths and Weakness

Before we discuss strategies for managing strengths and weaknesses, let me introduce the concept of threshold competence and differentiating competence.  Threshold competence is the proficiency level at which the skill is demonstrated at the minimum acceptable level of performance based on the role expectation. Differentiating competence is the level of competence where the skill is demonstrated at a level noticeably different from the norm.

The target proficiency level for a weakness is very different from a strength. For a weakness, the focus is on getting the individual to move to threshold competence whereas in strengths the individual begins by differentiating competence and further strengthens it. 

Far too often, an unreasonable amount of time and effort is squandered towards converting weaknesses to strengths. The intent of managing weaknesses is only to make them irrelevant to the job context. No need to achieve high proficiency in them as long as it does not undermine performance. There are a few options for achieving this outcome.

Begin by examining the individual’s role. Is this something that they absolutely have to do or can the role be shaped and crafted in a way to make the weakness-inducing activity irrelevant? It is utopian to believe that it is always possible for a person – even a senior leader – to design their work in a way that they are only ever working from their strengths. In reality, however, one of two approaches can be taken.

Option 1: explore if the activity can be recast or redesigned in a way that it is playing to a different strength or strengths that the person may have.

Option 2: if #1 is not possible, try buffering the weakness-inducing activity with other activities that will recharge one’s energy and engagement. Doing something that is enjoyable and fulfilling along with something that is draining and disengaging provides a way to counteract the negative impact of having to work from weaknesses.

Finally, there are some instances where none of these strategies apply. The role cannot be crafted differently, there is no one with whom one can partner, and there is no wider team to share the burden – and yet the weakness-inducing task must be overcome and the necessary output delivered. In such a case, a formal skill-building intervention can be deployed. This may take the form of coaching, skills training, behavior modification, didactic instruction, or a number of other formal interventions.

The essential point, however, is to ensure that the weakness is developed so far as is necessary to make it irrelevant, such that it no longer undermines performance (threshold competence), rather than it being developed to the level of mastery (differentiating competence).

We must find ways of creating shared ownership for tasks within the team wherein 2 individuals with complementary strengths can do what they do best. This delivers far more value than focusing on marginal performance increase of an individual from slightly less than average to average. This concept can be extended to entire teams wherein tasks are organized based on what individuals do best. This may be the existing model intuitively but it pays more to be conscious about this.

Far too often, organizations strive to create the mythical well-rounded individual who is good at everything but serves only in crushing the potential brilliance of their employees. Look at opportunities for complementary partnering to make weaknesses irrelevant.

Coaching Conversations 

I’ll close by talking about coaching conversations. There are primarily two kinds of conversations that managers should hold with employees to help focus on strengths:

1. Weekly Check-in. This SHOULD be a weekly conversation. This light touch 5-7 minute conversation helps in two ways. First, it keeps managers closely connected with people in the team and helps reduce recency bias. Second and more importantly, it gives managers and employees a great perspective on how they are using their strengths on an ongoing basis.

2. Super Check-in. Is a more detailed version and involves a review of highlights in the past 3 months. The conversation involves a detailed discussion on how strengths contributed to successes. Part of this conversation is looking at the next 3 months and determining how strengths can enable future success. This conversation will only succeed if the weekly check-ins are done as they provide continuous inputs for the quarterly conversation and reduces susceptibility to the recency bias.

These conversations can integrate well with ongoing conversations. Weekly check-ins could be a part of 1:1s and Super check-ins could be a part of existing long-term career conversations or an earmarked 1:1 with an extended duration. Managers also need to adapt their coaching style based on whether the focus is on strength or opportunity areas.

Leveraging strengths rarely come naturally given that we’ve been conditioned to focus on areas of opportunity. Most historic coaching conversations focus on bridging gaps vs leveraging strengths. However, if research is to be believed, it is time to change. Change doesn’t have to be monumental. Incremental changes as demonstrated above can go a long way in engaging employees and bringing out the best in them.

As Marcus Buckingham says – “The difference between a pebble and a mountain lies in whom you ask to move it.”  

P.S: This post was first published here.


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