This is an excerpt from The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Appraising Employee Performance by Tim Baker. Copyright 2014 by Tim Baker. Reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
The world of work, which mirrors society at large, is obsessed with spotting and overcoming employees’ weaknesses. As I mentioned in Chapter 2, we are socialized at an early age to focus on overcoming our weaknesses rather than building on our strengths. You will always get a better return on investment in time and effort by investing in the development of your strengths than by trying to overcoming your weaknesses.
Our obsession with overcoming weaknesses
Think about it: All things being equal, spending an hour developing a strength or talent is a far better use of your time than spending an hour trying to correct a deficiency. You will learn faster, gain greater traction, and be more efficient and effective in building on a talent than in trying to overcome a weakness. As the saying goes: ‘What seems common sense is not always common practice.’
We are told at school to lift our grades on subjects we struggle with and maintain the good grades we get on subjects that come easily. When we enter the workforce, the traditional performance appraisal devotes a disproportionate amount of time to our weak areas and very little time on what we do well. So it is little wonder that we are obsessed with our weaknesses and take our talents for granted.
According to Rath, Gallup has surveyed over 10 million people worldwide since the 1990s on the topic of employee engagement; that is, how positive and productive people are at work. Only a third of those surveyed ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement: At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day. Of those who ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ with the statement – that is, those who felt they did not focus on what they do best – none were emotionally engaged in their job. The message is clear: If you want to engage the hearts and minds of people at work, you need to give them the opportunity to exercise their strengths and talents at work.
To further illustrate the point, Gallup’s research suggests that employees who are given the opportunity to utilize their strengths are considerably more committed to their work than those who are not given the same opportunity. These same people who exercise their strengths at work report having a better quality of life than others who do not get the same opportunity at work. It appears that focusing on strengths has considerable benefits for the individual, the organization where they work and society. This is the rationale for holding a conversation about an employee’s strengths. Whilst it is true that a lot of what we do in the workplace is hard work, giving people a chance to exercise their innate talents can be significantly beneficial to employees, the organization, and society in general. Yet, performance appraisals are generally geared toward overcoming employees’ weaknesses.
I am not suggesting that we do not discuss these weaknesses or opportunities for growth. In fact, the next conversation in the Five Conversations Framework does just that. What I am saying is this: We need to redress this imbalance in focusing on weaknesses by discussing strengths and talents.
Not only are traditional performance appraisals obsessed with identifying weaknesses, but managers are preoccupied by pouring resources and support into the development of these weaknesses. Most learning and development programs are designed to overcome weaknesses. As Rath puts it, these programs ‘help us to become who we are not. ‘For example, if you are poor with numbers you are sent on a course to develop accounting skills. Or, if you are appraised as being poor at dealing with people, you are sent on courses to enhance your ‘emotional intelligence’. Our whole life seems to be devoted to overcoming weaknesses; and this is more often than not done at the expense of developing our talents.
On top of this, our heroes in society are those who have overcome massive obstacles. People who excel despite a physical disability, individuals who triumph over barriers such as age, discrimination, and economic circumstances – our lives are filled with stories like this. These stories are undeniably inspirational. But they teach us that overcoming obstacles is more virtuous than capitalizing on our strengths and talents.
On the other hand, we take for granted those who have natural talent. We do not value the effort they put in to exploit those talents. We do not see – or want to see – the hard work put into activities in which people have a natural advantage.
Dr. Tim Baker (www.winnersatwork.com.au) is an international consultant and executive coach and the author of four books, including Attracting and Retaining Talent: Becoming an Employer of Choice.