Build On Strengths or Focus On Weaknesses?

A few weeks ago I was watching a high school lacrosse game in which both of my boys were playing. What really upset me wasn’t the bad officiating by the referees – although they were pretty bad – but rather, a dad from the opposing team and how he was yelling at his son from the sidelines.  The words coming from this dad’s mouth were not uplifting but very abusive.  Had I been the boy, I would have probably walked off of the field and given up on lacrosse.

This dad was focused only his son’s weaknesses.  Other parents have a different approach: they see only how great their son is playing, even if this isn’t always the case.  Which school of thought is better for the development of a lacrosse player: build on strengths or identify weaknesses?

The subject of strengths vs. weaknesses has been a topic of discussion in many business books during the past few years. Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton wrote about it in Now Discover Your Strengths.  Tom Rath writes in his book Strengths Finder 2.0: “In 1998, I began working with a team of Gallup scientist led by the late Father of Strengths Psychology, Donald O. Clifton. Our goal was to start a global conversation about what’s right with people.” StrengthsFinder was launched in 2001 and since then, millions of people have completed the assessment.

Later in the book (page 17) Rath writes: “What StrengthsFinder actually measures is talent, not strength. As an aside, we named it ‘StrengthsFinder’ instead of ‘TalentFinder’ because the ultimate goal is to build a true strength, and talent is just one of the ingredients in this formula.”  And here’s the formula:

Talent (a natural way of thinking, feeling or behaving)
Investment (time spent practicing, developing your skills, and building your knowledge base)
= Strength (the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance)

So let’s now look at the other camp that says it is better to focus on a person’s weaknesses rather than strengths.

In a Harvard Business Review interview entitled: Stop Focusing on Your Strengths, Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, claims that strengths-based coaching is a fad that is probably counterproductive.  Chamorrow-Premuzic states:

“First, it’s important to understand that even the smartest, brightest, and most brilliant individuals have a dark side. They have certain elements of their personality, of their typical behaviors, that are quite counterproductive. And if those tendencies are left unchecked, no matter how smart, competent, and talented they are, their careers at risk of derailing.”

Chamorrow-Premuzic is very critical of the “strengths-based movement”, as he calls it, because it doesn’t compare a person’s strengths to a normative benchmark. It evaluates a person’s strengths relative to that person’s own strengths.

At the end of the interview Chamorro-Permuzic says that it is much easier, and fun, for a person to focus on developing their strengths rather than addressing their areas of weakness.  If you’ve ever had to lead a year-end performance review, I agree that it’s much easier talking about the employee’s strengths than their shortcomings.

So here’s where I stand on the discussion of where to focus, on strengths or weaknesses: both are important! Let’s understand where a person is at, how they got there and what needs to happen for them to move forward and reach their full potential.  In some cases we should start by looking at their weaknesses, in others we can focus on their strengths.

Jack Zenger of the consulting firm Zenger Folkman divides executives into three main groups, based on his database of 6,000 senior executives:

  • Those that have fatal flaws and no strengths
  • Those with no fatal flaw(s) and no strength(s)
  • Those with profound strengths and no fatal flaws

The groups are roughly split into thirds.

According to Zenger – and I would support this approach – focusing on strengths is the wrong approach for individuals who are in the first category: flaws but no strengths.  Think of it like a person with high personal debt speaking with a financial planner: the financial planner would say, “let’s focus on paying off your credit card debt because it has a 21% interest rate. Once this is paid off, we can start moving some money into your 401k plan.”

Addressing weakness isn’t easy but positive results will come quickly; people will notice the improvement very soon.  Here’s a way to think of this: If a 300 lb. person has a goal to loose weight, a strict diet and exercise regime will delivery quick results.  The hard part is to keep the weight reduction going and not gain any of it back.

For people in the middle group (no fatal flaw but no strength), they are able to perform their work at an average level.

The high performers, and those who can focus on building their strengths, are the final group:  those with profound strengths and no fatal flaws.  They have no flaws or derailers and can continue to develop in the areas that they are good at.

Zenger also shares interesting data on the number of strengths that high performing executives cultivate. He identifies a strength as a skill or behavior that is humming at a 90% or higher effective rate. Here’s his findings are based on tens of thousands of executives that have gone through the Zenger Folkman 360 degree feedback survey:

  • 64% have no strengths (roughly the bottom and middle third)
  • 11% have only 1 strength
  • 15% have 2 to 5 strengths
  • 10% have six or more strengths

Zenger’s conclusion is that executives with at least 4 or 5 skills and no flaws, will rise to the top of their organizations.

So, if you are looking at your own basket of strengths and weaknesses, or if you are a coach or manager of people, the first place to focus is on identifying and eradicating the flaws. This is not easy and will take a willingness to admit: “Yes, I have a problem that needs to get fixed.”  If you are a coach or manager, you need to show tough love with people that have flaws.  Once you get the flaw out of the way, you can focus on the fun stuff: building on a person’s strengths.

Resources and references used for this article:

Forbes, Stop Worrying About Your WeaknessesTomas Chamorro-PermuzicStop Focusing On Your Strengths 
William C. Byham, CEO DDI: Maximizing Strengths v. Fixing Weaknesses… Why Choose?
Jack Zenger: Developing Strengths or Weakness 
Tim Clark: 11 Ways to Build the Strengths of your Team Members
Marcia Reynolds: Should You Develop Strengths or Correct Weaknesses?