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5 Insights That Help You Understand Employee Strengths and Weaknesses

5 Insights That Help You Understand Employee Strengths and Weaknesses

by Dean Jones

Don Clifton famously asked, "What would happen if we studied what was right with people versus what's wrong with people?"

When Dr. Clifton asked this question, psychology was a still relatively nascent field, in the throes of post-Freudian thinking and focused mostly on abnormal behavior.

It was truly revolutionary, given the prevailing thinking, to say, "Let's focus on what's right" -- to shift the focus from what makes human beings maladjusted to what makes them effective and even extraordinary.

As a result, many career coaches, learning and development professionals, and those who follow Dr. Clifton's strengths-based approach and strengths based development are now often reluctant to delve into people's weaknesses and instead focus on an employee's strengths.

The current generation of workers also places more emphasis on positive reinforcement; focusing on weaknesses is perceived as negative and antiquated.

But we do need to address people's weaknesses and give them a language to speak to them, such as in a job interview. The problem is that most people don't understand the true nature of weaknesses and what to do with them.

As Gallup has worked with people over decades to help them discover and develop their greatest strengths, we've also uncovered some insights into the nature of weaknesses.

These insights -- some of which seem counterintuitive -- help people understand how to manage their greatest weaknesses and better identify, develop and maximize their strengths.

1. Strengths and weaknesses are not opposites.

It seems only logical to conclude that strengths and weaknesses are polar opposites. If you don't have a strength, then you must have a weakness.

But the truth is, strengths and weaknesses are not opposites.

If you don't have a strength, it just means you don't have innate talent in a particular area. And if you have a weakness (that is, something that gets in the way of your success), no amount of development will turn it into a legitimate strength.

Strengths are based on a repository of innate talent -- which is the fuel that keeps strengths developing infinitely.

When you dig into a weakness, you often find an absence of talent -- or, at best, the misapplication of talent.

And you don't create a strength by investing in a weakness. Strengths development begins with the identification of innate talent, which is then honed by the investment of knowledge, skills development and experience to yield near-perfect performance.

A real strength is dependent on that underlying talent in order to develop. Without that talent, it is really impossible to build a strength.

2. People often take their talent for granted.

It is an unfortunate truth that many people take for granted the things that come easily, and they overvalue the things that are hard-won -- something I call "the fallacy of ease."

They believe that what comes easily must not be valuable, and what is challenging and takes work must be better.

As a result, they overlook their own talent -- and are inclined to invest in areas that are challenging or difficult, assuming that mastering them will provide the greatest growth.

But mastery is about capitalizing on talent rather than overcoming the odds. In other words, it is OK -- and even advantageous -- to work at what comes easily, particularly if it is in an area of talent.

By investing in areas where you already have a natural propensity for excellence, you are more likely to develop world-class performance -- and to do so more quickly.

3. You can't fix a weakness.

There is this notion that the way to handle a weakness is to "fix" it -- that applying some combination of understanding, clarity and appropriate action will eliminate the weakness and result in new behaviors.

In truth, this seldom happens. Weaknesses are like quicksand: The more you try to fix them, the more stuck you get and the deeper you sink.

The right approach for managing weaknesses is simply to account for them -- through a combination of awareness, responsibility and strengths-based strategies.

Awareness is the starting point: Am I aware of how these actions or behaviors (that is, these weaknesses) undermine my leadership and success? Am I willing to take responsibility for those actions, their consequences and impact?

Then, how can I use my strengths -- and the strengths of those around me -- to manage around these areas?

4. Weaknesses don't develop in the same way as strengths.

It is tempting to simply say that weaknesses don't develop at all -- but we find that, when applying knowledge, practice and experience to an area of little talent, there is some incremental improvement.

For example, I may not be highly analytical, but I can still learn to read financial statements. I just might not have the same intuitive insight and understanding of them as someone with innate analytical talent.

Strengths develop differently. There is a kind of natural, fluid growth, combined with rapid learning and glimpses of excellence.

And often, people who are building their strengths report the sense that their strengths can be developed infinitely.

After winning a gold medal -- and, at 18, becoming the youngest slalom winner in Olympic history -- at the 2014 Winter Games, Mikaela Shiffrin, the talented young American skier, said in an interview, "I'm just getting started!" She went on to win another gold medal in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

It is this sense of unlimited potential that makes developing yourself in areas of strength so compelling and intoxicating.

5. Weaknesses get revealed over time.

Your CliftonStrengths report identifies the areas where you possess natural talent.

Like a map of buried treasure that tells you where to dig, your CliftonStrengths show you where you have the most potential to start developing your strengths.

Over time, your strengths develop and become clearer -- and as they do, your weaknesses come into sharper focus, too.

You may be surprised -- asking yourself, "Was that weakness really there all along? Why didn't I notice it?"

Experience and application of your talents over time give you a more accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses. You will not only see them more clearly, but as you learn to use your strengths more effectively, you'll be better able to account for your weaknesses and manage them.

We often think of growth as a process of getting broader, expanding ourselves and our capabilities. While it may seem counterintuitive, the process of developing your strengths is one in which you become narrower -- more focused on the areas where you are able to use your strengths to create significant impact.

As you develop your strengths and see them in action, real growth comes from an honest (and sometimes, ruthless) assessment of where you are great and not-so-great, and from being willing to invest more attention and effort in those areas where you are authentically world-class.

As we've said before, knowing your weaknesses is an integral part of developing your strengths.

By understanding the nature of weaknesses and mastering them, you will be truly on the path to fully realizing the power of your strengths.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:


Dean Jones' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Activator, Focus, Woo, Strategic and Relator.

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