Crazy Misconceptions: Fix Weaknesses or Leverage Strengths?

Most of us have little sense of our talents and strengths. Instead, guided by our parents, our teachers, our managers and psychology’s fascination with pathology, we become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives trying to repair these flaws, while our strengths lie dormant and neglected.

“Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.”Peter Drucker

Most people have the crazy misconception that the way to grow and become the most that you can be is to “fix” your weaknesses. This is a hard framework for many people to adopt. However, the impact of this framework cannot be understated. On further thought you will realize that all you will have is strong weaknesses. And a weakness is a weakness no matter if strong or not.

In spending time and energy working on the weakness you have neglected giving your strength the focus it needs to be really useful. So you end up with weak strengths which are not very helpful.  Instead you should focus as much time, energy and resources on building up your strengths. And learn to manage around your weaknesses.

However, Brad Smart has another view in his article “Ambitious Manager’s Should Work Harder to Fix their Serious Weakness(es) than to Build on their Strengths” where he writes I am frequently asked about the value of working on fixing weaknesses and make the point: for individual contributors, don’t bother trying to fix your weaknesses and instead go with your strengths, but for ambitious managers, fix your serious weakness(es) or your career will plateau!”

Mr. Smart continuing with an example; “Over the years I’ve worked with some super talented people who simply could not control their negative treatment of people. One management executive was given 2 years to improve, but he got worse – publicly humiliating his people and peers, using biting sarcasm, etc. He ran the most profitable division, almost single handedly, but was fired. The CEO said, “Pete, you’re brilliant at running one division, but 16 out of 18 peers told me they’d quit if you are promoted to President. So, you’re fired!””

In the book “Sink, Float or Swim” by Scott Peltin & Jogi Rippel they write: “Know you Strengths. The important thing is that you learn as much about your strengths as you can. Knowing how to use our strengths to your advantage will set you up for success. A key to winning is to know your strengths and then to use them mercilessly against your opponents.”

They give an example: “Martina Navratilova was a brilliant serve and volleyer. It’s not that her ground strokes were awful, but without coming to the net, she probably would have never won most of her Grand Slam titles.  In contrast, Chris Evert recognized that her greatest strength was her amazingly consistent ground strokes from the back of the court. By using this strength, Evert won more than half of the tournaments she entered. These are two outstanding tennis players, two totally different strengths, two legendary successful careers.”

Is it better to Improve Strengths or Fix Weaknesses? Heather Mundell shares her thoughts on where the focus should be in her post “Build Your Strengths rather Than Fix Your Weaknesses”. Heather talks about everyone having skills that don’t come so easily and suggests time be spent working on your strengths because doing this will “attract the people and opportunities you’re seeking.” “Let’s think about this for a minute.  If we focus on things that we are good at, our confidence increases and we are more efficient.  We’ll also have more interest and motivation.  People will start to notice these things!  We can achieve happiness and fulfillment by honing in on our strengths – who doesn’t want that?

Now, I’m not saying we should just pass over our weaknesses and not do anything about them.  We should still find time to work on them but should limit it and not make it our primary focus.  Building our strengths is a much more productive use of our time.

This doesn’t have to be just for us as individuals – this can be extended to your entire company! Encourage employees to work on their strengths, look for opportunities to praise them and steer them towards doing things they are good at. Efficiencies will increase and everyone will be happier. We are not all good at everything but we all have a few things that we are great at.  Let’s put our time and energy into those things – we’ll enjoy our jobs more and it will show.”

Want to lead a life of strength?  Well, what holds you back?  Chances are … you do.  You’ve been trained to focus on your weaknesses.  At school, it’s not how many you got right.  Its how many you got wrong.  At work, chances are you spend more time fixing your weaknesses than growing your strengths.  Want to make the shift? Marcus Buckingham, well known motivational speaker, says: “Focus on your strengths, not weaknesses.”  Buckingham says focus on identifying one’s strengths at an early age and developing the unique traits that every individual possesses.

The transition to Buckingham’s suggested approach has proved to be arduous for corporate America. From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of people who focus on strengths rather than weaknesses only jumped from 41 to 45 percent. The majority still think that “plugging the weaknesses” will help them succeed.

People tend to focus not only on their own weaknesses but also on the weaknesses of others. Parents dwell on a child’s F in algebra rather than praise an A in English. In a one-hour performance review, supervisors spend two minutes discussing strengths and 58 minutes discussing the “areas of opportunity” or weaknesses with employees, Buckingham said.

It may sound elementary, but a quick glance around the business world indicates that many companies have yet to grasp this simple concept of putting people’s strengths to use. That’s because the business world — and the world at large — is obsessed with weaknesses and finding ways to fix them. A recent poll that asked workers whether they felt they could achieve more success through improving on their weaknesses or building on their strengths. Fifty-nine percent picked the former.