Implicit in the way many, if not most, organizations approach performance management is that their employees can, and should be, “all-rounders.” Competency frameworks describe the ideal profile they want their people to match up to. The focus at appraisal time is “how can you be better at the things you’re weak at?”
So much of what we do in life and work is automatic and based on conscious or unconscious assumptions that may not be true anymore.
One of the unspoken (and probably unconscious) assumptions about what we expect from our employees is that they should be good all-rounders. That’s why competency frameworks are so prevalent in organizations. We want people to be able to do most, if not all, of those items on the competency framework to a reasonable level.
There is an inherent flaw in that approach. The flaw is that it assumes it’s possible for most human beings to be all-rounders to the extent that they can be good at the myriad and variety of competences contained in your average competency framework. The majority of people are really good at some things, but they are not good at all things!
Excellent performance comes from people knowing (in detail) what they are really good at—their strengths, and stretching themselves in the direction of their strengths, NOT from fixing their weaknesses so that they can become good all-rounders. That approach leads to mediocre, at best. Imagine if Manchester United had said to David Beckham, “You’re a great goal scorer, now we need you to get good at defense.” It would be madness.
In the sporting world, so much emphasis is about building on natural strengths. Yet in education and the workplace, the dominant approach seems designed around making us well-rounded people. Sure, it’s important to encourage people to try new things and learn a broad range of subjects in school. But the problem comes when we expect them to earn good grades in all subjects and to achieve good standards of performance in a company’s required list of competences. This is unrealistic and undesirable. Imagine if tennis pro Andy Murray had tried to be good at all his school subjects. He probably would have been unhappier and not as great at sports because a lot of his energy would have been used up on things he didn’t really like and was never going to be good at. None of us can be good at everything. If we spend time and energy trying to be good at everything, we will become mediocre at many things and not great at anything.
People grow and develop more in the areas of their strengths because biologically it’s significantly more difficult to develop new synaptic connections in the brain. The brain grows more where the synapses are already strong.
The challenge for people is to increase the time they spend using their strengths, uncovering those they’re unaware of, developing these strengths and then adding necessary skills and knowledge so their capabilities and work satisfaction shoots up. We all have weaknesses because we are human and we can’t be good at everything. The key is to focus attention on the weaknesses that affect us the most and work on minimizing their impact.
I am not advocating ignoring weaknesses, but our weaknesses are not the area of greatest growth potential. As your employees work on their strengths they become more of who they are and are able to reach their full potential.
There’s a reason forward-thinking leaders are bringing strengths-based thinking into their organizations and ditching the old all-rounder approach to performance! It’s not just a positive and engaging thing to do, it’s bringing real business results, too!
Sally Bibb is the founding director of specialist strengths consultancy Engaging Minds and author of “The Strengths Book: How to Be Fulfilled in Your Work and Life” (published by LID).