Play to your strengths

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Written by Tim Baker on 9 April 2014
This is an excerpt from The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Appraising Employee Performance (
Mary entered Sandra’s office with some trepidation, knowing that she was about to be appraised for her performance on the job after six months. Mary was concerned about Sandra’s appraisal of her work. Sandra is an accountant in a professional services firm. 
Sandra began with the question, ‘Now that you have been in this job for six months, what are the tasks you enjoy doing the most?’ Mary was blindsided; she wasn’t expecting this kind of question first up. She thought carefully for a moment and responded, ‘I guess most of the time I like dealing with our clients.’ 
‘Approximately how much of your day is taken up with clients?’ Sandra asked. ‘Not too much; maybe one in eight hours,’ replied Mary. ‘What is it about the client contact that you enjoy, Mary?’ probed Sandra. ‘I enjoy communicating with them to provide solutions to their problems. I find that it energizes me and I feel useful.’ ‘Yes, I agree this is one of your strengths, Mary. I get great feedback regularly from some of our valued clients.’ 
‘How can we work together to provide you with the opportunity to do more of this?’ asked Sandra. ‘Could I delegate more of the routine accounting work to one of the administrative assistants in the office and move you into a client liaison role? Perhaps we could make you the first point of contact for client requests, and that may entail you being out on the road more. That won’t happen overnight but we can work toward this,’ said Sandra positively. ‘That would be great, Sandra,’ replied Mary. ‘I would really appreciate that opportunity!’
The world of work, which mirrors society at large, is obsessed with spotting and overcoming employees’ weaknesses. As I mentioned in chapter two, we are socialized at an early age to focus on overcoming our weaknesses rather than building on our strengths. You will always get a better return on investment in time and effort by investing in the development of your strengths than by trying to overcoming your weaknesses. 
Our obsession with overcoming weaknesses
Think about it: All things being equal, spending an hour developing a strength or talent is a far better use of your time than spending an hour trying to correct a deficiency. You will learn faster, gain greater traction, and be more efficient and effective in building on a talent than in trying to overcome a weakness. As the saying goes: ‘What seems common sense is not always common practice.’ We are told at school to lift our grades on subjects we struggle with and maintain the good grades we get on subjects that come easily. When we enter the workforce, the traditional performance appraisal devotes a disproportionate amount of time to our weak areas and very little time on what we do well. So it is little wonder that we are obsessed with our weaknesses and take our talents for granted. 
According to Rath, Gallup has surveyed more than10 million people worldwide since the 1990s on the topic of employee engagement; that is, how positive and productive people are at work . Only a third of those surveyed ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement: “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day”. Of those who ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ with the statement ─ that is, those who felt they did not focus on what they do best ─ none were emotionally engaged in their job. The message is clear: If you want to engage the hearts and minds of people at work, you need to give them the opportunity to exercise their strengths and talents at work. 
Implications for learning
Our profession is often called upon to do the opposite; that is, develop people's shortcomings. Sometimes we are successful. But often the sponsors of the training are disappointed with the results. I think, as a profession, we need to think carefully about this issue of whether to build upon strengths or overcoming weaknesses. We probably should do both, but I would suggest more emphasis of the former. It is more cost effective; it often requires less time and skill as a facilitator, and generally speaking, you get better results. 
About the author
Dr Tim Baker is an international consultant and managing director of WINNERS AT WORK. He can be contacted via

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