I have been told that parents of children with special needs often dread their child's annual progress meeting. It can involve only a paragraph or two about what the child is doing right. It then has twenty or so pages (yes, pages, not paragraphs) outlining every way in which the child is behind. Demotivating, to say the least.
Employee performance evaluations are often approached in the same manner. Sure, Employee X, you never miss a deadline. Nonetheless, let’s talk at length about how terrible you are at proofreading.
What if we reversed the balance?
What if we didn't spend our energy on focusing on our weaknesses? What if instead, we leaned into our strengths? What if we focused on finding ways to get even better at things we were already good at? What if doing so took our performance (and our job satisfaction) to the next level?
This is the concept behind strengths psychology and strengths-based management/leadership. It recognizes that people tend to perform better when they’re playing to their strengths. They’re also happier in their jobs. This leads to greater employee engagement, greater customer satisfaction, and greater productivity.
Developing our strengths isn’t a new concept. We’ve done it for decades when it comes to musicians and athletes. Coaches identify talent at a young age and then nurture it. When someone is an amazing pianist, we don’t try to convince them to learn the guitar. Instead, we find them the best piano teachers we can afford and see where their talent takes them. Why should we treat strengths like computer programming in a different manner?
Identifying your strengths
To lean into your strengths, you need to have a clear understanding of what they are. Many people confuse skills with strengths. Being good at something does not make it a strength. If you’re good at doing something, but you do not enjoy it, it is not a strength. If it drains your energy, it is not a strength. When you play to your strengths, you feel alive. You look forward to doing the activity. It energizes you. You might even lose track of time while you’re doing it. Even if it tires you out, you look forward to doing it again.
What if you don’t have a clear picture of what your strengths are? There are several ways you can fix that:
(1) Think back to a time in your life where you felt excited, fulfilled, and like you were doing what you were born to do. It could be in either a personal or a professional setting. What was the activity that made you feel that way? Is there a way to seek out that activity in your current life?
(2) Think about which topics people come to you for advice on. What are you the go-to person for? Which activities do others struggle with that are effortless for you?
(3) Ask your friends. What do they see as your strengths? What would they say if they were writing a reference for you?
(4) Take one of the many available online assessment tools to help you hone in on your strengths.
Using and developing your strengths
Once you have a clear picture of your strengths, think about a typical work week for you. How often are you using those strengths? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month?
If the answer is “not very often,” start thinking about ways you can change that. Is writing one of your strengths but your job is more focused on sales? Try writing for the company newsletter or website. Is mentoring is a strength but you don’t have any direct reports? Get involved in your company’s internship program. Is networking a strength but you sit behind a desk all day? Offer to represent your company at an event. Some of your colleagues dread the thought of having to do something that you find effortless.
As you try to incorporate your strengths, also look for ways to develop them. That might be through taking a class or through volunteer work. Above all, tell other people what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. This makes it more likely that they will think of you when opportunities arise.
As you increase your focus on areas which play to your strengths, you need to make room in your day to do so. This often necessitates delegating certain tasks to others.
Once you understand your strengths, you can identify potential partnerships. Look for partners who complement your strengths and vice versa. Those kinds of partnerships can take your performance to the next level. You don’t have to be good at everything – concentrate on becoming great at what you’re already good at.
Don’t use your strengths as an excuse
Strengths-based management does not involve giving employees a carte blanche for poor performance. If your supervisor has told you that you need to work on a significant area for improvement, do so. My point is not to ignore weaknesses that are holding someone back. Of course, address them. By focusing at least equal energy on developing one’s strengths, one can yield far more positive results and develop more job satisfaction. Give it a try.