Should You Focus on Strengths or Weaknesses?

Last Updated Oct 17, 2011 1:45 PM EDT

Should You Focus On Strengths Or WeaknessesThere's a fairly heated and polarized philosophical debate going on in management circles. The question is this: should managers focus on their and their employee's strengths or weaknesses?

Everyone seems to have an opinion:

  • One camp says focusing on the positives is more effective and motivating.
  • The opposing side says the key to professional growth is overcoming limitations.
  • Others can't make up their mind and try to wordsmith their way out of the dilemma with tricky lines like "exploit strengths while managing weaknesses."

As with all complex issues in the real business world, the answer is none of the above. The real world isn't black and white and there's no single answer or silver bullet that will work for every manager, organization, or situation.

For example, as we discussed in 20 Powerful Management Truisms, "If you've got loads of strengths, it's okay to ignore your weaknesses. If you've got loads of weaknesses, you better work on them." Executives like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison come to mind. They weren't perfect managers, but they got by, right?

That said, nobody likes to hear vague answers to tough questions these days. We live in an ADD world of sound bites, quick fixes, top 10 lists, and everything in 500 words or less. Prescriptive advice. That's what everyone wants. Okay. I can do that.

The real answer is this. The problem with focusing on strengths is that, regardless of whether you're talking about people, products, or companies, in a highly competitive global market like we have today, the only thing that matters is differentiation, i.e. strengths relative to others.

And, in my experience, it's simply too easy and attractive for people to BS themselves into believing that they, their organization, their product, whatever, is better than it really is. What causes most managers and companies to fail is their lack of objectivity and perspective.

It's great to believe in yourself, but the truth is that competitive reality will trump self-confidence every time. In other words, focusing on your strengths and positives only works if it's true. And most of us simply lack the perspective to know the absolute truth.

In reality, what distinguishes successful managers, executives, and leaders from the pack is that they understand the importance of knowing what they don't know. They're self-aware and, most importantly, they're aware of their shortcomings.

You don't necessarily have to fix them. But you do have to comprehend them and, if they're limiting your ability to achieve your or your organization's goals, find an effective way of mitigating them or compensating for them.

Here are the three most important reasons why you need to be able to see yourself objectively to get anywhere in business and management:

Finding the right career and position. Many, if not most, people spend their careers as square pegs trying to fit into round holes. At any point in your professional development, finding the right place, in terms of position and type of company, is a decidedly non-trivial matter.

Staffing and leading an organization. Until you understand your own strengths and weaknesses in the context of the needs of your organization, you can't effectively complement them and successfully staff an organization with the right people in the right functions.

Marketing a product or service. The key to doing business - to marketing and selling anything - is deriving a value proposition that articulates why your product is better suited to meet customer needs than competitive products. If you're not willing to hear the cold hard truth about yourself, that same myopia will cripple your business sense.

    As for how to achieve that critical level of objectivity and perspective, there are three things that you, indeed every manager, should seriously consider:

    Listen to the right people. Surround yourself with people who challenge the status quo and are competent and confident enough to tell you the cold hard truth. No yes-men. No sugar-coating. And listen hard to what they tell you.

    Don't drink the Kool-Aid. Spend more time understanding what problem you're trying to solve that the competition isn't doing so well than telling yourself that you've got the coolest widget. Don't drink your own Kool Aid.

    Have the courage to be honest with yourself. Each of us - even the most accomplished and successful executives - has a dark place where his innermost fears of incompetence reside. Find the strength and courage to go to that place. Be open to what you find and genuine about it with yourself and others.

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