Play to your greatest strengths

Ask the most successful people in any sector how they made it to the top and they will describe their laser-like ability to focus on doing one or two things better than anyone else. Ask the average person for an opinion about employee evaluations and most will quickly become cynical and shrug them off as a waste of time. The reason, according to one software developer I spoke to, is that managers spend almost all their time focusing on the “opportunities for improvement” section of the evaluation. “Evaluations feel like you’re hitting a brick wall because you think you’re doing OK until they make you feel inferior (by) drilling down to your weaknesses.”

Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton wrote Now, Discover Your Strengths based on 30 years of research from the Gallup Organization. Their goal was to prove that the path to excellence for managers and their reportees is to spend time honing talents rather than shoring up weaknesses. Gallup asked more than 1.7 million workers in 63 countries whether they had the opportunity to do what they do best every day.The results showed that only two out of 10 employees work to their potential in core strength areas. What was more surprising was the discovery that the longer employees stay with an organization and move up the ladder, the less likely they are to strongly agree that they are playing to their strengths.

The authors define a strength as a consistent, near-perfect performance in an activity. This translates into identifying one or two unique talents that each of us can do better than 10,000 other people. By learning the necessary skills and knowledge, a particular talent can be transformed into a strength catapulting the person up to another level.

The two myths most managers have are that anyone can learn to be competent in almost anything and that a person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness. Buckingham and Clifton do not suggest ignoring your weaknesses but instead to manage around them as a form of damage control. They argue that great managers follow two assumptions: they recognize that every person’s talents are enduring and unique, and that each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.

When Warren Buffet spoke to students at the University of Nebraska earlier this year, he gave them one piece of advice: “If there is any difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do, every day.” What Buffet did was look within himself, identify his strongest threads, reinforce them with practice and learning and finally carve out a role that drew on his strengths everyday. The result was higher productivity, more fulfilment and greater success.

Sadly, most people continue to invest in fixing their weaknesses rather than exploiting their strengths. This might be attributed to what researchers call the paradox of human psychology: people are four times more likely to remember criticism than to remember praise.

When organizational behaviour shifts towards positive dynamics, managers are better equipped to get their people to adapt to global business climates premised on constant change. Perhaps the next time you have an employee evaluation, you could conduct your own review on how well your manager is working with you to further develop your strengths.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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