During my work as a performance management consultant and HR software specialist, I’ve been exposed to the performance management processes and appraisal forms of a wide range of organisations. A common theme in the majority of these has been a focus on identifying and discussing areas of weakness in employees. More often than not, following a competency / behavioural assessment or 360 degree feedback exercise, emphasis will placed on where the employee needs to improve, rather than what they are good at. Similarly, employees are often advised to focus on the things they need to get better at when devising their personal development plans for the year.

On the surface this would seem to make sense. Surely asking employees to focus on improving their weaknesses will enhance their performance? Not so, according to research.

What research tells us about strengths and weaknesses

One of the first studies to look into the effect of focusing on strengths and weaknesses in performance reviews was carried out by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2002, involving 19,000 employees and managers. They found that placing emphasis on performance strengths during formal reviews can increase employee performance by up to 36%, and emphasising personality strengths by up to 21%. Conversely, they found that emphasising weaknesses is a “performance killer”, decreasing performance by up to 27%.

Further research by Gallup found that managers who received strengths feedback showed 12.5% greater productivity and their business units showed 8.9% greater profitability. Yet another study by Linley, Nielsen, Wood, Gillett, and Biswas-Diener in 2010 found that that people who used their strengths were more likely to achieve their goals. There are numerous other studies which show the benefits of a strengths based approach when it comes to employee performance and employee engagement.

If we really think about our own experiences, this research shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’re all at our most productive when we’re doing something that we enjoy and which plays to our strengths.

Incorporating a strengths approach into your performance management

So we know from this research that focusing on strengths in performance discussions is likely to yield better results. But how can this be achieved in practice? Here are 5 practical ways to incorporate strengths in your performance management processes:

  1. Management training. When training managers in performance management skills, emphasise the importance of identifying and actively developing their team members’ strengths during performance discussions, rather than acting as ‘judge and critic’. Gallup have put together a useful strengths coaching kit for helping managers and teams to maximize their individual and collective talents.
  2. Feedback. Provide guidance to all employees on the importance of giving regular positive feedback and how to correctly balance it with constructive feedback. Research suggests that the balance of positive praise to constructive feedback should be around 3:1. Additionally, if you are using a more formal 360 feedback exercise (e.g. to support coaching), place greater emphasis on the areas in which the individual is strong, and how those strengths can be utilised, and focus less on their weaknesses.
  3. Personal Development Plans. Ask your employees to consider how they can further develop and leverage their existing strengths when planning their personal development needs.
  4. Objective setting. When setting objectives, ask employees and their managers to think about what projects or initiatives the employee could undertake that would play to their strengths.
  5. Role design. Encourage managers to think about how responsibilities and tasks can be best allocated between their team members to utilise their individual strengths.

How to identify strengths

Focusing on strengths relies on being able to identify them. Managers will be able to get an insight into their team members’ strengths by using a performance management tool that collates regular third party feedback. For more in depth analysis of strengths, the Clifton Strengths Finder Assessment is a well respected tool for identifying strengths and is relatively low cost. It can be purchased online, and is also included in the excellent book Strengths Finder 2.0.

How should weaknesses be addressed?

If we should be focusing on strengths, should we simply ignore weaknesses? I believe there is still a place for discussing weaknesses, but this should not become the centre of attention in performance and feedback discussions, as is too often the case.

Where the employee is under-performing, clearly weaknesses will need to be addressed. However it is important to be realistic about how far a weakness can be overcome. There are some things that people will simply never be good at, no matter how hard they try, so asking them to improve in these areas is likely to be a fruitless exercise and highly demotivating. Instead, in cases of under-performance, managers should think about whether the employee’s role could be restructured to make better use of their strengths, and reallocate work to other, better suited team members where possible.

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