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To Unleash People's Strengths, Help Them Manage Weaknesses

To Unleash People's Strengths, Help Them Manage Weaknesses

by Dean Jones and Jessica Buono

Organizations historically have based employee development on identifying and fixing people's weaknesses.

Managers, probably more than any other group, realize this is true.

Many managers have sat down to write a performance review for an employee and, no matter how outstanding the employee's performance, they have felt obligated to find some "areas of improvement" to include in their feedback.

In this way, employees have become conditioned to regard development and performance improvement as an endless cycle of finding and fixing weaknesses.

This conditioning colors employees' engagement in your development program -- and, in fact, their entire experience with your company.

It is little wonder, then, that strengths-based development comes as a welcome and refreshing relief to employees in most organizations. Gallup research shows that developing people's strengths leads to significant increases in performance, along with greater engagement, wellbeing and business results.

But as organizations move to become strengths-based, the question lingers for many: If we choose to focus on strengths, does this mean ignoring weaknesses?

It's a good question, with important ramifications for how we, as leaders and managers, develop employees and manage their performance.

Weaknesses are not excused -- or worse, ignored -- in strengths-based organizations. Rather, the strengths-based approach to development is to define, understand and address weaknesses in the context of strengths.

What is a weakness, and how should we approach it?

In a strengths-based organization, development begins with the identification of strengths, rather than weaknesses. Learning activities are then directed at helping the employee develop those strengths and apply them with increasing efficacy.

But any discussion of a person's strengths is not complete without a discussion of their weaknesses. Like light and darkness, you can't distinguish one without the other. Weaknesses are a natural and integral part of any development conversation about strengths.

Gallup defines a weakness as "anything that gets in the way of your success."

Often called "derailers" in the parlance of leadership development, weaknesses are the specific behaviors that prevent people from realizing the full impact of (and return on) the expression of their strengths.

So, identifying your weaknesses is as important as identifying your strengths. But don't be mistaken -- there is no such thing as "fixing" a weakness. You can manage a weakness; you can't truly fix it.

Employees simply need to be aware of their weaknesses, take responsibility for them and then use their strengths to manage them.

It begins with self-awareness.

Confronting weaknesses is a lot easier to handle when the spotlight is on a person's strengths.

The Achilles' heel of many talented people has been a lack of awareness of their weaknesses.

Issues of self-awareness that people commonly struggle with include:

  • claiming strengths they don't possess
  • failing to see their own weaknesses -- or the impact those weaknesses have
  • being defensive and self-protective around weaknesses and non-talents
  • viewing their areas of weakness as more valuable or important to develop than expressing their areas of strength

People often lack self-awareness about their weaknesses because they are sensitive to negative feedback. This is especially true for leaders or high-performing employees who may have higher self-assurance and an outstanding track record that make them less inclined to see what they are doing that is not working.

But interestingly, we find that as people develop greater awareness and ownership of their strengths, they are more transparent and able to be more forthcoming with their weaknesses.

As people invest more in their strengths -- and as those strengths become more consequential -- they are more inclined to exchange being "well-rounded" for being extraordinary.

The next step after awareness is taking responsibility for weaknesses.

Responsibility is essential for any meaningful change. Just as they own their strengths, employees must own their weaknesses -- particularly the impact of those weaknesses on others.

Taking responsibility can be associated with blame or fault-finding and seen as an admission of guilt. In truth, it is the most powerful move for anyone, leaders especially, to acknowledge what others see and its impact and then to demonstrate a willingness to be accountable for it.

It will be obvious to some that they need to take responsibility for the impact of their weaknesses after becoming aware of them. Others may resist taking responsibility -- and instead shift the blame to circumstances or other people.

Having a coach who can gently help employees -- those who take responsibility and those who resist -- see other perspectives, appreciate the impact of their weaknesses and provide a developmental lens can help the employee own those weaknesses.

Once employees are aware of and take responsibility for their weaknesses, they must find strengths-based strategies for managing their weaknesses.

This is the real benefit of knowing your CliftonStrengths. Weaknesses can be meaningfully managed only by means of your strengths.

You can't manage a weakness from a deficit. A person's natural reservoir of identified talent is the only true resource they have for neutralizing their weaknesses.

Once a person has identified their CliftonStrengths, it is a simple strategic exercise to think through how they can apply their strengths to manage their weaknesses.

For example, you can ask them questions, such as:

  • How can you use your competitive nature to be a better listener?
  • How will you use your relationship strengths to improve the quality of execution?
  • How can your talent for analytical thinking help you influence others?

By leveraging their natural talents and strengths, they are better equipped to manage and compensate for their weaknesses.

Managing weaknesses is another demonstration of the power of strengths.

Weaknesses are an integral part of strengths-based development. But weaknesses will never develop into strengths. They can only be accounted for, compensated for and managed.

Strengths, on the other hand, develop infinitely. They provide an unlimited, evergreen source for increasing performance. For organizations, helping your employees manage their weaknesses is another part of great strengths development -- and the access to success.

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


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

Jessica Buono's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Individualization, Activator, Strategic, Woo and Learner.

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