Would you rather be exceptional at somthing or well rounded?

By Reyna Matthes, Director

If you want to win at work and become exceptional in your chosen role, then you probably need to reject the orthodoxy on performance reviews and improvement. Instead of trying to turn weakness into strength, spend more time doing the things you’re already good at to become even better at them.

For example, how much energy is lost by focusing on a weakness, rather than further developing your strengths? The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t ask his principal violinist to spend time learning the cello. Rather, they work on timing and precision to accentuate their existing skills as a violinist. The same principle applies for organisational leaders. That’s not to say we should ignore our weaknesses! Take those on board and try to improve. But people who spend too much energy on improving weaknesses, are quick to burnout and become negative

The classic workplace review focuses on weaknesses in order to improve them. This comes from an idea that the best employees are the most well rounded – that the difference between their strengths and weaknesses is small – but that is one of several classic workplace performance concepts that researcher Marcus Buckingham wants us to throw out the window. Buckingham is widely-regarded as the world’s leading researcher and author on talent and unlocking potential through strengths. He spoke recently at the World Business Forum in Sydney, drawing from his book Nine lies about work: a freethinking leader’s guide to the real world. Buckingham’s work links business fundamentals – such as turnover rates, customer satisfaction, profits, and productivity – to the engagement levels of employees who work to their strengths. Which is why he is my favourite thought-leader in this area.

Buckingham wants to redefine how we think about strengths and weaknesses. Many of us will have tasks that we are capable of doing quite well but that we find boring and that drain us of enthusiasm and energy. Because we can do these jobs well, a traditional performance review would class them as strengths. But for Buckingham, these are weaknesses because they weaken us. And vice versa. Those things that enliven you, that allow you to flow at work and enjoy how you spend your time should be considered your strengths.

So this is his redefinition of strengths and weaknesses:

“A strength is an activity that strengthens you, and a weakness is an activity that weakens you.”

That makes each individual the best judge of what their own strengths and weaknesses are. Not the person interviewing you for a performance review, unfortunately.

Cultivate your strengths rather than weaknesses

It also means that your strengths are the areas you should focus on improving further. Research has clearly shown that our brains grow more synaptic connections, faster, around existing connections. This is how we learn and become experts. Buckingham uses the example of a tree. Learning, he says, is like new buds growing on a branch, rather than new branches growing.

With this in mind, the very basis of a performance review is flawed. These structures depend on the assumption that humans are inherently good and trustworthy reviewers. The truth? We aren’t. We are generally geared toward focusing on the bad rather than the good, and this is reflected in the reviews we give. When we are given negative feedback our sympathetic nervous system goes into flight or fight and this is not conducive to learning.

What about leadership? How do we introduce a strengths-based approached to how we lead our teams. Buckingham provides much insight on this. Some key points from his talk were:

  • Don’t assume the best candidate is the most well rounded. This is false in almost every case. Consider a report card that reads A, A, B, F, A. The F is pretty glaring, right? Well, yes, but if you are hiring an engineer and those three As are in physics, maths, and engineering, while the F is in medieval German literature, it’s probably nothing to worry about. Strengths are key here, and this candidate certainly has those.
  • In most cases, work cannot be extricated from your life. So trying to separate the two to produce some kind of forced work-life balance can distract from a more important goal: instead, we should focus on our strengths and manage work and other aspects of life in ways that are inspired by what we’re good at doing. If you spend 20% of your job doing things that you love, your burnout risk falls through the floor. If you do less than this, (19 or 18% for example), there is a commensurate increase in burn out risk.
  • Leadership is not a distinct quality. Think about what leadership is, about the qualities that constitute it. Think about nurturing, consideration, and decisiveness. Do these qualities exist in isolation? No. They are universally applicable. This is because good leadership is found at the confluence of a variety of different skills, priorities, and outlooks. All of us can be great leaders. It is just a matter of approach.
  • If you lead people, you should replay their strengths to them. But rather than a simple ‘well done’ reminder, you need to interrogate those strengths by asking people to explain how and why they performed well. And ask the same of anyone reviewing you. This will help make the unconscious conscious so it can be called on again and enhanced in future. This should be a leader’s highest priority.

Strengths-based leadership

Since we formed Executive Central in 2004, our approach has been a strength-based leadership model. To identify a coachee’s talents, we use the Clifton Strengths assessment. It’s a tool that’s backed by data and a solid methodology. In our Coaching Academy and in the work that we do as executive coaches in the majority of our leadership programs, we take the existing and dormant strengths of the people we work with and bring them to the fore. We work with talented people and so we don’t talk about ‘developing leaders’ − because our clients usually have sophisticated professional skill sets − but rather we talk about unlocking their potential. Focusing on strengths is a successful way of doing that.

So instead of seeking out performance reviews, Buckingham recommends we seek out positive performance coaching. This is how we unpack those talents that work well for you or those people you’re coaching, unlocking the potential in them, so you can become exceptional, rather than just well rounded.

If you would like to discuss strengths-based leadership or any of Executive Central’s solutions, please contact me.

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