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Why you must build on your strengths, NOT focus on trying to fix weaknesses

January 9, 2017

Business owners and leaders looking to get the best out of themselves and their team will frequently spend a lot of time and effort searching for, and trying to improve on their weaknesses.

However, this is a completely counter-productive approach that can lower employee engagement and ultimately damage a business’ chance of success.

Here Jan Mühlfeit, Former Chairman of Microsoft Europe and author of The Positive Leader: How Energy and Happiness Fuel Top-Performing Teams explains why business leaders and owners need to stop focussing on fixing weaknesses;

One of the most worrisome aspects in the modern workplace is our obsession with ‘fixing weaknesses’. Not too great at giving presentations? Then you need to spend more time practicing. Are your budgeting skills under par? Well, go on a course and keep working at it.

Misguided leaders and business owners will spend whopping amounts of energy, money and untold hours, days, weeks and months trying to address the legion of discernible faults in themselves, their teams and their organisations.

In a way, this is understandable. It’s human nature to look for problems to solve, weak spots to erase, wrongs to right, and gaps to fill. However, people aren’t machines – they’re not cars or computer devices. We can’t just fix or replace their faulty parts and expect everything to be working perfectly afterwards.

Why you shouldn’t focus on fixing weaknesses

This practice of fixing weaknesses is flawed because it causes us to overlook the things that actually make us great: our strengths.

Strengths come from our inherent gifts and talents; the things we do well naturally and which we enjoy. It’s by playing to our strengths that we produce our best work and make our weaknesses irrelevant.

It takes a lot more time and energy to go from being bad at something to being ‘average’ than it does to go from being naturally good at something to becoming a megastar. And trying to get to grips with tasks that you hate or struggle with is dispiriting to say the least.

Too many people are unhappy because they’re enslaved in a job they dislike, where they’re unable to use their strengths. There is a clear employee engagement deficit with survey after survey indicating that only around one third of UK workers are engaged with their job.

People who maximise their strengths are more engaged

Decades of Gallup research has shown that there’s a powerful connection between level of engagement/job satisfaction and the degree to which people are maximising their strengths on the job. Researchers found that people who have the chance to focus on their strengths:

  • Look forward to going to work
  • Have more positive than negative interactions with co-workers
  • Treat customers better
  • Tell their friends they work for a great company
  • Achieve more on a daily basis
  • Have more positive, creative and innovative moments

When people are forced to ignore their talents to struggle with their weak spots, all sorts of productivity and performance problems crop up, and stress becomes commonplace.

Job burnout is a special type of stress – a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. It can not only impact an organisation’s costs, but also employee health and wellbeing.

Research has linked burnout to many health conditions, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, and depression, as well as increased alcohol and drug use.

How positive psychology can help you to be a better leader

Positive Leader

The solution for burnout and other modern leadership challenges lies in positive psychology. This is the study of what fosters happiness, fulfilment, and optimal human functioning, as opposed to depression, disorder, and the other negatives of life which are the focus of traditional psychology.

As a relatively young scientific field, positive psychology offers hopeful guidance for out-of-balance leaders, and puts the spotlight on unlocking the full potential of our strengths and doing what we love, not slogging away on the areas where we can, at best, only be average.

If you play to your weaknesses by trying to fix them or endeavour to change your character, it simply doesn’t work. Sustainable success (and happiness) can only come when you’re in alignment with your natural abilities and positively inspired by what you are doing.

A great leader succeeds by building on their ‘signature strengths’, and they work around their weaknesses by letting other people in their team fill in the gaps. What’s more, they encourage their teams and organisations to do the same.

Caring about people’s unique strengths makes them feel valued and important, which is a bonus for reaping their respect and enthusiasm for your vision.

Only when you’re being yourself and living your strengths can you make the most positive impact around you and win devoted followers who are willing to go to the wall for you.

RELATED: How happy employees can boost your bottom line – 5 Happiness strategy stories

Finding and unlocking your strengths

That’s why it’s crucial to shape your leadership role in a way that enables the greatest possible use of your strengths. If you aren’t too sure what your strengths are? There are lots of ways to find out:

Self-assessment tools

Take advantage of the umpteen survey methods around to discover your untapped strengths and get a glimpse into your weaknesses. Try StrengthsFinder 2.0, Via Survey, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test, the DISC model and/or Realise2.

Ask others to hold up a mirror

Seek alternative perspectives from people who are familiar with you at home and in the workplace, so you can get a clear reflection on your talents.

Tell your life stories

Take a walk down memory lane to identify strengths and passions that have arisen through past encounters and experiences. Think back to your schooldays, your old community and previous workplaces for valuable hints of what you’re good at.

Your likes and dislikes

Explore your interests and turn-offs as clues to where you’re likely to find your best performance.

Leadership isn’t just about you

Remember that leadership isn’t just about you: it’s also about your team and the people you depend on to do your job effectively.

Make sure you have a balanced team who bring a variety of complementary strengths to the table, and that each individual is filling a role that utilises their unique talents. This not only makes your job easier, but also generates confidence in your teammates and gives them a greater feeling of engagement with their tasks.

A strengths focus is how you create the blueprint for a ‘flow based’ organisation, where everyone finds challenge and satisfaction in their work.

I’m a strong believer in the value of coaching to unlock the best in people and enable them to live and work according to their strengths. Regular coaching helps to build trust between you and your team, largely because it establishes you as a partner who is interested and invested in them and their work.

I used it consistently with all my teams at Microsoft, and I can wholeheartedly say that watching your people grow into their roles and develop their strengths is by far one of the most rewarding experiences of being a leader.

Are you and your team applying your respective strengths to their best advantage?

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for Bytestart by Jan Mühlfeit, Global strategist, executive coach and mentor, Former Chairman of Microsoft Europe, and co-author, with Melina Costi, of The Positive Leader: How Energy and Happiness Fuel Top-Performing Teams (published by Pearson) which is available at all good bookshops and via Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

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