Oct 21, 201310:47 AMForward HR
with Diane Hamilton and Nilesh Patel
In professional development, focus on both strengths and shortcomings
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For more than a decade, the focus of leadership and professional development has been to emphasize people’s strengths rather than concentrate on weaknesses. The concept was popularized by Gallup researchers and led to a series of StrengthsFinder books and tools. For those unfamiliar, the StrengthsFinder is an assessment that reveals dominant “themes” that help people focus on their strengths and abilities and center their work and lives on them. The premise is that it makes more sense to leverage strengths and talents than to try to address shortcomings.
Peter Drucker, a management consultant, professor, and writer, talked about leveraging strengths as early as the ’50s. Drucker, hailed by Businessweek as the “man who invented management,” was quick to point out that it made no sense to hire people for a set of skills and then immediately identify what they needed to improve and expect them to do that. From Drucker’s standpoint, strengths made the difference.
I’m a proponent of focusing on strengths. Aligning people with jobs and situations that play to their strengths is powerful. Tapping into the skills and talents that people bring to the table and learning to leverage and even enhance those skills can lead to great success. While a supporter of leveraging strengths, I have been guilty of doing the exact opposite. I’ve tried to fit a square peg into a round hole and haven’t had much success in doing so. I’ve tried to develop others by focusing on skill sets that were clearly shortcomings. This left both parties frustrated and feeling like failures.
My concern is that the pendulum has swung so far in the strengths direction that the shortcomings side of the equation is overlooked. These weaknesses can be career-limiting. Conversely, there are some who only focus on the negative. It is easier for these individuals to identify what didn’t work than to comment on what was right. A project debrief is about beating up the team for “should haves” or “why didn’t we?” situations versus discussing what went well so that it can be repeated in the future.
I have also been guilty of this, especially when it comes to my own development. My inner critic wants to examine what I should have done differently versus what I did well. I tend to focus on how to do more, do better, change, or adjust. This isn’t always a bad thing. This inner critic has created a drive that has led the way to success on a number of occasions. But where that inner critic gets in the way is when it blocks the examination of what went well and how best to leverage that and/or repeat it in the future. So much like the focus on strengths only, the tendency to focus on gaps only doesn’t provide the complete picture.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to develop potential is to focus on both leveraging strengths and addressing shortcomings. If a fatal flaw exists that prevents someone from being successful, focusing on strengths isn’t helpful. Addressing the fatal flaw is the starting point. If the focus is only on weaknesses or what didn’t work, the opportunity to build on successes is lost. So leveraging strengths and closing development gaps work in tandem in overall performance and development efforts.
When development planning (for yourself or in supporting others), the following questions can be useful in helping leaders think about both strengths and development needs.