Help Your Employees Develop Their Strengths—Not Their Weaknesses

Deliberately Assist Your Employees to Regularly Practice Their Strongest Skills

Using online resources to deeliberately practice and develop a skill.
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A management philosophy, that flies in the face of conventional thinking, compels you to help your employees develop their strengths by deliberate practice. This is a substitute for helping employees develop their weaknesses, a concept more traditional in management thinking. But does helping employees develop their weakest areas of performance ever make any sense? Not really.

This theory of helping employees develop strengths was proposed by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in "First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently." The recommendations were made as a result of the Gallup organization's interviews with 80,000 managers who were rated as effective performers in their organizations. (Gallup also identified the twelve most important factors for employees to become or stay engaged at work.)

On top of trying to complete their daily work and achieving their annual goals, employees have a finite amount of time for development. Spend time on what matters. Develop employee strengths—not weaknesses, and in the process, train your management philosophy and company culture.

How HR Managers Can Hone Their Strengths

Using an average HR professional as an example, the majority are good with people and good at conveying the simple, common sense, applicable information. Many HR people are not very good with mathematical story problems and other mathematical concepts—although exceptions exist. No matter what, some HR professionals will never be good at solving complex mathematical problems. Could they get better? Probably. But, why not spend their time honing their strengths?

Yet, the traditional approach to developing employees, one of the critical factors in employee motivation, has been to identify weaknesses, often during an annual performance appraisal meeting. The employee is then sent to training, given mentoring and coaching to help, or just told to "get better" at whatever his or her weak area is.

Now, if the area of weakness is critical to the employee's job success, developing the weaker area might make sense. But, it is more likely that the employee is just in the wrong job—a job that does not take advantage of their best strengths. Consider matching the employee's best skills to your company's needs in a different job.

In another example, think about an employee who has always been a good writer. Giving the employee the opportunity to write every day as a part of their job description will strengthen their writing skill. Writing is a perfect example of a skill that you can develop if you approach it with deliberate practice a number of times a week.

Once the employee started writing every single day, with hours of practice and a deliberate commitment to growth, they continued to develop the strength and became a better contributor to the business. This is an example of a mutual win—a win for the employee and a win for the employer. Imagine the difference and the frustration if the employer had asked the employee to spend her time trying to develop a skill she didn't already have in her tool bucket.

You have an equivalent example in your own life—or your reporting employees do. What skill should you deliberately develop daily for your own career development and your employer's needs?

Why Develop Employee Strengths With Deliberate Practice?

Experts and people who have studied the topic of helping employees develop their strengths as opposed to their weaknesses provide analysis about why this practice is important and worthy of your consideration.

"Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them," said Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the Conradi Eminent Scholar of Psychology at Florida State University, in Tallahassee.

Additionally, Stephen J. Dubner at the "Freakonomics" blog weighs in with these thoughts:

"A while ago, we wrote a 'New York Times Magazine' column about talent—what it is, how it’s acquired, etc. The gist of the column was that 'raw talent,' as it’s often called, is vastly overrated and that people who become very good at something, whether it’s sports, music, or medicine, generally do so through a great deal of 'deliberate practice,' a phrase used by the Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson and his merry band of fellow scholars who study expert performers in many fields."

In the column cited in the quote above, Anders Ericsson concludes that:

"…the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers—whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming—are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

"Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love—because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't 'good' at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better."

So, it seems there is truth to the power of developing your strengths and deliberately practicing the areas you want to improve. You also have to love their plug for love your work, a concept that is discussed frequently by HR practitioners because of its power to impact your work life. Do you agree?

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