BEWARE: "Focus on your strengths"

By Jarrett Retz -December 31st, 2018

I'm not going to mess around because I have already thought about this one a lot recently. Here's my claim: people hide behind their strengths in order to avoid work and improve themselves. Additionally, they are unclear as to the potential gains that small improvements can have.

Ok, I want to get down to the real juicy stuff, but I have to provide just a little context first. There will be many topics discussed here. Let's define a few things.

specialization: the process of concentrating on and becoming expert in a particular subject or skill.

strengths: skills, traits, or other ways of acting that are viewed as positive and contributive. Can be subjective or objective.

weaknesses: aspects of yourself that are, by comparison, not as contributive or skills that are decidedly lacking. Also, subjective or objective.

competitive advantage: a condition or circumstance that puts a company in a favorable or superior business position. It will be used in this context, and in the context of a personal competitive advantage.

One of the ideas to support the claim that people should focus on their strengths, as opposed to working on weaknesses, is that (like the economical benefits of specialization) the benefits of being really good at a couple things beats being average at all of them.

If person A is great at skill X, but bad at skill Y, and person B is bad at skill X, but exceptional at skill Y, they can morph into something better together than on their own. That's all good stuff, and I know I am running the risk of putting you to sleep but stay with me.

There are questionnaires that claim to identify strengths, and based on that, the person should pursue increasing their ability of the strengths because that's where they can have a competitive advantage (or just a better way to contribute). This appears to be a rock solid idea, and in building a team it would be great to collect all these personal competitive advantages to create a super team.

Step back and consider this. Managers need to leverage their employees strengths. For example, Joey will handle the social stuff because he's friendly. Christa is good at organizing, so she will plan. And Zach knows how to use Excel, so he will do whatever the heck people do in Excel spreadsheets.

I fully agree that people have strengths, and if someone is hired to do IT work they shouldn't spend the majority of their time learning the Four P's of marketing .

BUT.. (Here comes the call out of a fictional person who is a conglomerate of about five people/situations I have come across.)

That should NOT be an excuse to avoid work, avoid improvement, and justify a subjective weakness. I cringe when someone uses the saying that they are—or need to focus—on their strengths, when it seems apparent that improving a weakness would not only make them a more likable person (because they're not creating more work for team members), but increase the efficiency of the whole work place.

Let's start with the classic example of old people not wanting to learn about technology. This is a cliché, and is not as bad as I will probably make it sound, but some older people are a wealth of knowledge, but use the excuse that their strength is _________ so they're not going to learn about how to use software X. They seem to not understand the benefits, if they were willing to put in the work, of how much better the team as whole would be if they improved on this weakness.

Another example is the oversimplified quotation, "I'm gregarious so I don't have to be organized". Or its beautifully evil counterpart, "I'm analytical so I don't have to communicate my ideas/emotions, and customer service is out of the question."

This is where the CAUTION sign is at. It's easy to use the phraseology of 'leveraging strengths' or 'focusing on strengths' to avoid doing the difficult taks to improve aspects of yourself.

I need to slow down. Because I can hear you saying, "People are unique and different. And some people are introverts, and some people are extroverts." I will do my best to avoid the extremes here because in theory that is all gravy, and I totally agree with it. People are different, and are better fit to take care of different necessary functions. HOWEVER, I SEE THAT EXPLANATION USED AS AN EXCUSE TO AVOID WORK THAT ENDS UP CREATING MORE WORK FOR SOMEONE ELSE.

In his book, Who Are You, Really?, Brian Little discusses free traits which are, "[...] ways of acting that fall outside our normal personality features. Introverts can have incredible moments of extroversion, but they need recovery time after the incident and the acts must be practiced.” He has a TedTalk on the book's topic as well.

A person might be introverted, but that seems like a b.s excuse to not see a need to improve communication skills, or sociability. Conversely, a person might be social, or a classic extrovert, but that is not an excuse to not put files in the proper folder, or avoid organizing business documents.

The question is, where does your self-improvement stop, and are you an expert determining that? The person using this excuse (hey, sometimes it's me too) is probably a poor judge as to where their weakness ends. Strengths & weakness can be subjective and highly based on comparison factors.

Here is another TedTalk on marginal gains by Stephen Duneier. The speaker talks about how marginal gains are used to increase the subjects chances of success by controlling the small things that the person can control. There is another video here that is much shorter and references the same focus on marginal gains, but in a cycling team context.

There is usually no definitive end point on just how much better the subject, and the team, could be if that person just got a little bit better at their weaknesses. So, is that good enough reason to not try?

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