Strength-based performance and development have become the latest leadership development craze. It is based on a large body of research by Jim Collins (“Good to Great”), Jack Zenger (“The Extraordinary Leader”), Peter Drucker (“The Effective Executive”), and numerous books published by The Gallup Organization. Strength-based management theory has become very popular in business, with many Fortune 500 companies using these ideas in their management training programs. There is still a lot of confusion about what strength-based development is, and what it is not. Here we will try to clarify some of the concepts of strength-based development, and dispel some of the myths about this approach.
What is strength-based development?
Strength-based development is an approach to selecting and developing employees and includes helping employees improve their job performance. The idea is to find a seamless fit for a job role and an employee’s talents. When a person is in a role that plays to their greatest strengths, they are much more engaged in their job and will be much more productive. They are also likely to execute their job responsibilities with a near-perfect performance.
To illustrate how this approach works, let’s use a simple sports example. Imagine that you have an opening on your basketball team. You need a starting center. If John Stockton and Shaquille O’Neal show up for try-outs, you are likely to pick Shaq for this position. Without question, no matter how hard John Stockton trains to be a good center, he is never going to be able to play like Shaq. John Stockton was one of the greatest guards in basketball history because his natural talents fit perfectly in the role of a point guard. Shaq’s natural abilities would inhibit him from becoming an all-star guard, but his strengths are perfect for the center position. His efforts to improve in this role will be time well spent. A coach would be wasting his time trying to help Shaq become a great guard. This simple example illustrates the idea of strength-based development.
Buckingham and Clifton (2001) pointed out that the research in human strengths does not support the idea that, “you can be whatever you want to be.” Instead, it supports the idea that “Whatever you want to be, you will be most successful when you work in an area that plays to your greatest talents most of the time.”
This means people must first discover their strengths, and then develop and apply them.
This strength-based approach also includes a focus on a person’s interests. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses his “hedgehog concept”; that is, the idea that the best companies in the world are made of employees that understand: (1) What they can be the best in the world at; (2) What drives their economic engine; and (3) What they are deeply passionate about. Having a deep passion for one’s job is the essence of employee engagement. When an engaged employee has discretionary time at work, they are much more likely to choose value-adding activity instead of time-wasters.
When you get someone with the right talents in the right position, with a deep passion for their work, the next thing you can do is to help them continue to develop their talents. That is, you can help them achieve and maintain an optimal level of performance by developing their strengths. Even after a player in the NBA wins the MVP award, they keep training regularly to improve themselves and to maintain a high level of performance. A central idea of strength-based development is to identify your most powerful talents, and then hone them with skills and knowledge.
In short, when people are in a role that gels with their natural talents, they will develop much faster, stay longer, and add far more value to the organization.
Dealing with Weaknesses
Focusing on strengths does not mean ignoring your weaknesses, but instead, it means finding ways of managing your weaknesses.
Peter Drucker said you should make your strengths so strong that your weaknesses become irrelevant. Another reason to focus on your strengths is that other people will overlook your weaknesses if you have well-developed strengths. This is called the “halo effect.” By focusing on what you can do well rather than what may be impossible, you are likely to get better results.
According to Drucker, “A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all. It takes far more energy and
High performance can only come from a place of strength. When the right people are in the right roles, and they continuously develop themselves, the organization can reach optimal levels of performance; and with great leadership and a sound strategic plan, the organization is bound to succeed.
But it can’t always work this way. Sometimes we hire the wrong people, or we hire the right people but put them in the wrong roles. According to strength-based development, what should be done? Should we focus on their strengths even though they are not likely to perform at a high level? Are they likely to be engaged in their job if they are not applying their strengths at work each day? Does strength-based development suggest that we should ignore weaknesses and focus exclusively on strengths? At what point should employee weaknesses lead managers to make a change?
One common mistake people make as they apply the strength-based approach to management, is they think that it is about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and ignoring the brutal fact of reality. None of the strength-based theorists advocate this position, nor does the research suggest that this is how to apply these ideas. Sometimes strengths can overpower weaknesses—but sometimes weakness can also overpower strengths. If Shaq’s weakness is his ability to shoot free-throw shots, he more than compensates for this with his rebounds and inside shots. His weakness is not likely to eliminate him from the starting lineup. However, if a point guard could not shoot well—and they can’t improve through training—they should not get any playing time. Weakness can disqualify a person from a position, regardless of strengths in other areas.
To make a strength-based approach work, an organization should spend a lot of time ensuring that the right people are selected for a position in the first place. When promoting, move people toward roles that help them use their strengths. Once you have the right individuals in the right seats, learning and development should focus on developing skills, knowledge, and
According to strength-based theorist Donald Clifton, a weakness is anything that gets in the way of excellent performance.
Some weaknesses can be fixed, and others may be minor if the person has well-developed strengths that compensate for their shortcomings. Some weaknesses must be dealt with.
Jack Zenger calls a severe, unfixable weakness a “fatal flaw.”
If someone has a fatal flaw, they need to move to a role where their weakness cannot harm the organization, or more often, they should be removed from the organization. Fatal flaws include lack of interpersonal skills, lack of integrity or character, failure to produce results, the inability to embrace change, and lack of accountability.
The problem with fatal flaws is that they have far-reaching effects on an organization. They don’t just slow the performance of one position. Tolerating fatal flaws in even one employee can often create a drag on the whole organization. Poor performance and severe weaknesses are two of the most visible elements in an organization. When high-performers are expected to work with a fatally-flawed employee, or when they see it tolerated or even rewarded, the organization is likely to see its culture impaired with crippling symptoms such as low morale, job burnout, gossip, lack of focus, to name just a few. These symptoms become even more severe if the fatally flawed employee is in a highly-visible position. Bruce Wilkinson said at our 2007 Business Meeting, “If you can’t change people, you have to change people.”
These ideas are not opinions, nor is this fluffy motivational speak. These concepts are based on rigorous scientific research. But how should business respond? Each organization has its challenges and culture to match with these realities. Perhaps the best thing senior managers can do is get very clear about their company’s performance standards and what they will do when those standard are met (rewards?), and when they are not met (make people changes?). Another thing that can be done is to implement disciplined processes for hiring and developing talent.
In conclusion, there are some practical things that individual employees can do to apply these ideas. We can seek to discover our strengths by inviting feedback from others. We can also set measurable goals to develop and use our strengths at work each day. There is no better way to enjoy your job than to be doing what you are best at, every day.