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How to improve employee performance by focusing on strengths

How to improve employee performance by focusing on strengths

Common sense says leaders should focus on addressing their teams' weaknesses to improve performance. If that’s your approach, you’re wrong.

What if everything you thought you knew about improving your IT workers' performance was wrong? Chances are, even if you're using 360-degree performance assessments and gauging performance against core competencies, you're focusing on the negatives instead of the positives, you're not seeing the performance gains you'd expect.

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Show me the data

In 2011, after years of data collection, global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company published Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage, based on extensive research that surveyed over 500 organizations and more than 600,000 respondents, 6,800 senior executives worldwide and aggregated information from approximately 900 books, articles and journals to determine how to most effectively assess, motivate and improve leadership within organizations.

What authors Scott Keller and Colin Price found flies in the face of conventional wisdom. In order to improve performance, you must focus not on improving weaknesses, but on improving existing strengths.

"This isn't new -- one of the earliest examples of this theme came from Peter Drucker in his 1967 book The Effective Executive," says Jim Clemmer, president of management consultancy The Clemmer Group. At the recent Pink16, an ITSM/ITIL conference sponsored by management consultancy, training and education provider Pink Elephant, Clemmer elaborated on Drucker's themes, quoting Drucker's book: "We can't build on weaknesses, you can only build on strengths. It's foolish and irresponsible to do so -- a weakness is a limitation and nothing else."

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Leverage strengths to improve

"All of these processes and frameworks, like 360-degree reviews, are aimed at removing weaknesses and limitations in systems and processes -- but you're never going to be able to remove those completely from people. The folks that are achieving their goal of being an extraordinary leader, as defined by 360-degree data, are getting there almost always by leveraging their strengths," Clemmer says.

Clemmer also cited research from Martin Seligman, Ph.D, and Michelle McQuaid, whose work in the area of positive psychology has had a major impact on organizational management and psychology. In their survey of approximately 1,000 employees, 78 percent reported that having a meaningful discussion of their strengths with a manager made them feel more appreciated, and 61 percent were more motivated, willing and able to perform better at work. On the contrary, when managers focus on employee weaknesses, performance declines by 27 percent -- versus a 36 percent improvement when the focus is on strengths.

"When you are having performance discussions and you come up with areas to work on -- you're most likely focusing on weaknesses, and much less time is spent building strengths and talking about how to make those even better. It's very disheartening, and really, what it comes down to is 'areas to improve' becomes a synonym for 'fix your weaknesses,' and that isn't effective," Clemmer says.

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Weakness versus fatal flaws

That doesn't mean you should just forget about weaknesses altogether -- there's a difference between what Clemmer refers to as weaknesses and "fatal flaws," which are areas that significantly, negatively impact your ability to do your job or be effective in a leadership role.

Focusing on building strengths starts with two initial steps, Clemmer says. The first is determining what a leader's top competencies are and the second is determining what organizational needs can be fulfilled by those competencies. Once those are determined, you can figure out where an employee's passion lies and try to align the three -- figuring out what their strengths are and how to apply those to account for both business needs and an employee's interests. "The leadership sweet spot is right in the overlap of those three. So you can use that to build plans and approaches that are situational, personal and customized," Clemmer says.

"The timing couldn't be better -- when I head back to work after the conference, I have to immediately jump into doing 360-degree performance reviews for my team. Knowing this mean,s I'll be more meticulous and methodical about highlighting and focusing on my team's strengths and seeing how we can build on those," say an IT manager for a large public university who wished to remain anonymous.

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