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How to improve employee performance by focusing on strengths

Sharon Florentine | March 4, 2016
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.

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."

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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