Over the years, I’ve obsessed about our team’s weaknesses. With this mindset, it was easy to pick out shortcomings when thinking about anyone. Not enough attention to detail. Not a team player. Lacking in strategic thinking. Slow to anticipate. Dismal under pressure. Zero confidence when talking with clients. Can’t problem-solve.
This emphasis on identifying weaknesses motivated me to push the team to get better and, in some cases, led to personnel moves that either got rid of the perceived weakness or balanced it out with a new hire. But over time, I’ve come to see that viewing the team primarily through a lens of weakness can have a very demoralizing and negative effect on culture and employee development. Rather than lamenting and stressing out over weaknesses, why not shift some of the energy towards identifying strengths and finding ways to amplify what we’re doing well?
I decided to put myself through an exercise: list out my entire team and write down what I think are each person’s strengths. The results of the exercise showed me that there’s a lot to gain by embracing each person’s strengths. Below are some thoughts I came away with from the exercise:
#1) I need to know more about everyone’s strengths
I struggled to write specific, descriptive strengths for many people. Part of the reason was expected: I work closely with a select number of people on a daily basis, so my observations are bound to be uneven. But I know that with keener observations and key conversations, I can greatly expand what I know about our team’s strengths. The next step for me is to make these observations and conversations systematic so I can get a steady feed of information about what people believe are their own strengths and the strengths of their team members.
#2) I need to define what I mean by “strengths”
What am I really talking about when I say that I want to understand people’s strengths? I noticed from the exercise that a lot of the things that I considered “strengths” were really just basic perceptions. Hard-working, personable, professional. I don’t know if those necessarily qualify as strengths. I think exploring the concept of strength in detail will be helpful. I remember when our team took the StrengthsFinder test a couple of years ago and how it helped to facilitate discussions about strengths in very specific ways. I’d like to figure out a framework for observing strengths. Right now, my initial approach will primarily look for strengths that manifest in interactions with clients and team members and also in the execution of assigned tasks. I’ll also make a note of behaviors like extra-curricular professional development activities and volunteer leadership responsibilities to see if I can identify strengths.
#3) What does strength amplification look like?
It sounds really good in writing: “We’re going to amplify everyone’s strengths.” But what do I mean and how will I go about taking action? I think it’ll depend on the identified strengths. If it’s an underutilized strength, it might mean finding more or different opportunities for that individual. If it’s something that the individual exhibits in abundance, then perhaps recognition, encouragement, and modeling for other employees could be the approach.
I think the concept of weaknesses and strengths boils down to an individual’s habits. Habits that result in valuable contributions to the company’s business and culture are what we often determine to be strengths. Habits that detract, distract, or undermine the company’s business and culture are what we think of as weaknesses. I want to find ways to encourage and enforce good habits. I want to praise and recognize them as well. For this to happen, I’ll have to put in the work to truly understand our team’s strengths.