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How Successful Organizations Maximize Employee Strengths

Posted by Paul O'Keefe on Jan 18, 2017 10:00:00 AM

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Based upon decades of research on human behavior in organizations, Gallup recently concluded: Strength-based management works. Employees who are encouraged to develop and use their strengths are more engaged and loyal. They perform better, produce more, learn their roles quicker and more positively affect their organization's profits.

Other outcomes of strength-based environments include more enthusiasm and commitment, greater effort and stronger work ethic. Additionally, workers who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged than their non-strength-exercising counterparts. For these reasons, it behooves an organization's leadership to develop employee strengths.

Defining Employee Strengths

A strength is defined as anything that produces “near perfect” performance consistently and effortlessly in a given activity. An activity that drains, even if done well, is not a strength. The test is whether a person experiences an intrinsic satisfaction or joy while doing the activity. Strength-based management focuses on and grows the strengths of a company’s employees. This management style is supported by research showing that it's better to spend time, energy and money investing in and growing the strengths of your employees rather than focusing on and developing their weaknesses. Does that mean you shouldn't be developing your employees' areas of need? No, not necessarily. It simply means that there's much to be gained from further developing their strengths. 

Strengths are Hardwired into the Brain and Give the Greatest Return on Investment

The reality is that each person has unique talents that are strongly wired into the neural network of the brain through the building of dense synaptic structures. These areas of strength present as behaviors that are performed well and with ease. Conversely, each person has certain behaviors that are weakly wired into the neural network with fewer, thinner synaptic structures - areas of weakness. Weaknesses are performed with difficulty and more effort. Those neural networks that have dense synaptic structures (strengths) grow the most and the best.

The opposite is true for weaknesses, which do not grow well. Any investment into a strength will grow that trait tremendously; whereas, investments in weaker traits may not yield the same level of growth. 

In the workplace, this means that focusing on and developing the strengths of your employees can be more effective than trying to fix, grow or improve their weaknesses. Understanding this, you realize its imperative to consider how organizations maximize their employees' strengths.

With that said, the amount of effort you put into developing your employees' strengths and weaknesses should depend on how those traits fit with your company and how they will help each individual grow as an employee and person. In many cases, even though the weaker traits may prove harder to develop, growing those areas could provide personal or professional value. 

Know Employee Strengths and Make Sure They Know Them, Too

Focusing on employee strengths is one way organizations maximize those strengths. As a leader, you must know the strengths and positive attributes of your employees in order to maximize them and best utilize opportunities for growth. Unfortunately, many people do not know their own strengths or they have an inaccurate perception of them. It is helpful to have your employees take a “talent assessment” or “strengths evaluation.”

Employees who know their own strengths are more productive and engaged. In fact, simply learning about their strengths and positive characteristics makes employees 7.8% more productive, and strengths-focused teams are 12.5% more productive.

Success comes easily for individuals when they're functioning in their strength areas. Make sure to reward them for it. Giving verbal praise and glowing feedback, particularly when it is in front of others, is a tremendous motivator. Verbal praise and positive feedback strongly affects motivation and workplace satisfaction. Being rewarded or praised creates positive chemicals within the brain that spur individuals to continue functioning in the way that earned them the praise in the first place. People like to do well, and they like to receive praise for it – it’s as simple as that.

Another way to recognize and materialize employee strengths is through an Employee Skills Assessment. If you have already administered one, make sure you’re acting upon it. Once you’ve instituted the practice of utilizing a skills test, you’ll be pleased with the insight such an assessment provides. Also, remember to assess your new hires in order to find the best fit, and reassess your veteran employees every few years in order to see if anything has changed.

RELATED: Leverage Your Introverted Employee Strengths (And Their Extroverted Coworkers)

Use Daily Contact to Maximize Employee Strengths

Effective managers have direct contact with their employees and empower or limit them through these interactions. Daily contact that is positive and strength-building empowers employees. The more frequent, positive and constructive the interaction, the more empowered workers feel and the more engaged they are in their work. Employees appreciate feedback that helps them grow. The more infrequent the contact, the more disengaged employees become. Neglected employees are the most dissatisfied, and have the highest risk of making mistakes or leaving the company.

Daily contact that’s positive helps to build a strong, enduring relationship, which is absolutely necessary for growing employee strengths. Frequent interaction that’s authentic builds trust. Strive for interactions that are encouraging and foster the strengths of your workers. With such interactions, your employees will open their hearts to you, which builds further trust.

Daily contact that focuses on observing and discussing employee strengths builds a deep relationship. They know you’re in their corner and won’t steamroll over them. This makes it much easier to discuss areas of need and work to improve them.

Focus on Strengths and Never Neglect Your Workers

Focusing on strengths bears much more fruit than pointing out weaknesses or ignoring your employees. The research backs that up:

  • Of those employees who felt their supervisor focused on their strengths, 61% were engaged (which is double the national average of 30%), and only 1% of such employees were actively disengaged
  • 11% of those who reported that their supervisor focused on their weaknesses and negative characteristics were actively disengaged
  • 25% of those employees who felt they were ignored, overlooked or neglected were actively disengaged

Ignoring, overlooking or neglecting employees produces the most disengagement and is most detrimental to the organization. It's better to focus on faults and weaknesses than nothing at all; however, supervisors who focus on employee strengths and develop these positive attributes experience the greatest benefit.

How exactly do you “focus on employee strengths”? You can start by placing workers in positions that correspond with their strengths. If they have no organizational skills but they are strong in creativity and ingenuity, then it’s not a good idea to put them in charge of something like planning project time lines. Instead, give them a creative project where they can explore their talent or have the freedom to run with an idea unfettered. Then, step back and see what they produce.

Also, place them in roles that stretch and challenge them in their areas of strength. Make sure to give them the resources and materials they need to meet the challenge. Check in often to see how they’re doing and to provide some informal coaching. Encourage them and watch them succeed with the task. Meeting a goal or conquering a challenge is such a satisfying feeling and provides the impetus to push harder and further.

So often in companies, management puts people in positions that draw upon their weaknesses. Why do they do this? One common reason is that management is simply filling vacant positions, rather than waiting for the right fit. Another reason is that they misjudge their workers’ strengths and put them in positions that draw upon their weaknesses and neglect their strengths, thereby setting them up for failure.

RELATED: 5 Symptoms Of A Toxic Work Environment & How To Eliminate Them

Have Frequent One-on-One Conversations about Strengths

This point ties into the need for daily contact between workers and their immediate supervisor. The more frequent the contact, the better, as long as it doesn’t become micro-managing. Meet periodically to talk about your employees' activities, the direction of their work, upcoming projects and the vision of the company. Make sure to talk with them about their strengths and where they fit into the company's vision. Push them to take risks or to delve deeper into their strengths. Innovation lies in stepping out of comfort zones.

When you talk to your employees, offer ideas for them to use their strengths in what they’re presently doing. Push them forward by suggesting activities they can do or projects they can be involved in. If you see their strengths, they will begin to see them too. This will only happen in a working relationship with someone they trust. Make sure you’re that person.

Empower Employees to Utilize Their Strengths

Supervisors either empower their employees to discover, explore and grow their strengths or they take away their sense of value and capability. Only a small number of employees in large organizations feel they're using their strengths on a daily basis, the vast majority feel their strengths are neglected. Ignoring their strengths, focusing on their weaknesses and not providing opportunities for growth leave employees feeling useless, unimportant and insignificant. This translates into dissatisfied, disengaged employees. For a happy, productive workforce, a strength-based work environment is necessary.

One of the ways you can empower your employees and grow their strengths is by encouraging them to continue their education. Furthering their education can only help them, which will also help your company. Take some time to discuss their skills and strengths. Pay attention to their aspirations and what they want to do next. Encourage them to attend a university, trade school, or other educational program to grow their employee strengths.

If your organization is truly committed to empowering its employees and growing employee strengths, it can offer flex time or flexible scheduling. This will enable your workers to go to school and keep their job. It can also prevent burnout because they’re not trying to take all of their classes at night after a full day’s work.

Finally, if your organization can fund, reimburse or partially pay your employees’ tuition and books in exchange for years of service, you will take great strides forward in growing employee strengths.

Position Workers for Success

Immediate managers either place their workers in roles and duties that push them to explore their strengths or they keep them in status quo positions that do nothing to challenge them to exercise their strengths. The optimal situation is to put them into positions or give them duties that cause them to explore their strengths and reach deeply. Placing employees in the wrong role, having them do the wrong work or having them remain in the same position without any new challenges is a setup for low productivity, disengagement and burnout.

Positioning your workers for success may take a little extra effort on your part. You will need to observe your employees and know their strengths. Remember: In this endeavor, you’re looking to maximize employee strengths. You may have to jockey them around to get them doing the tasks for which they’re best suited. Be open to moving workers out of their areas of need in your company. You may even consider pairing up workers who “match” each other (one individual’s strength is the other’s weakness and vice versa). In a “fitted” pair, they can help each other. You may even consider putting them into teams of more than two.

Grow Employee Strengths in a Team

Strength-based collaboration is an excellent vehicle for helping employees grow their strengths and discover those of their colleagues. Initially, roles may need to be assigned if you understand employees’ strengths better than they do. Over time your employees will get to know their colleagues and their strengths and will be better equipped to arrange their own teams. Meetings, round tables and brainstorming sessions are great ways to get team members to share their strengths and deepen their understanding of their colleagues' strengths.

As a strong supervisor, it’s wise to push your employees into greater innovation, further upward movement and greater challenges. It’s easier to do this when they’re in teams and can encourage, support and push each other forward as well. Once you have collaborative, productive teams, make sure to sit down with each of them periodically and check in. Is everyone satisfied and working hard? Is every member producing and carrying their own weight? Keep an eye on your teams, but don’t hover. Provide mentoring and coaching, and remember to give plenty of public praise for their successes.

You will see the greatest return on your investment if you develop the strengths of your employees. In a strength-based work environment, employees learn their roles more quickly, produce more and significantly better work, are more engaged and stay with the company longer. Focusing on and growing employee strengths is sure to increase your company's profits as well. Having a strength-based work environment is beneficial to your company and bears the greatest fruit.

Real-Life Examples Of Employee Strengths And Weaknesses

It’s easy to discuss employee strengths and weaknesses in general terms, but most people want to see real-life examples of employee strengths and weaknesses. It helps to “connect the dots” when anecdotal experiences are shared. Let's look at some real world examples of employee strengths and weaknesses and parse out some nuggets of wisdom while we’re looking.

See a (Good) Thing and Make It Happen...or Don’t

One of the first examples of employee strengths and weaknesses can be seen in the tale of two bosses. One is a present supervisor; the other is from years ago. The present boss–let's say her name is Helen–is one of those phenomenal people who can see an employee’s strengths long before anyone else can and then, has that special capacity to develop that strength. Many employee have been hired by Helen (often against the reservations of others) and grown into tremendous leaders. It makes you wonder: What is it about Helen that allows her to see the hidden gem inside people? How is she able to perceive it amidst all the gunk and pull it out? Not that she sees hidden gems in all people. Helen has passed over plenty of applicants, seeing something in them that declares, “Not suitable!” Later those same persons are hired by one of her colleagues only to catapult that colleague into a world of misery.

Of course this takes the ability to see people clearly - the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. Helen shows that you have to be a visionary when it comes to people. You have to able to see people clearly, envision them excelling in their strengths and then help them to build upon them.

The flip side of this strength is not being able to perceive other people clearly and thus hiring individuals whose strengths do not add to the organization and who simply possess too many shortcomings. This was the case with prior supervisor who had a penchant for hiring self-interested, unmotivated, rude gossips. If there were positive traits, it was hard to find them in the messes these coworkers made. Of course, the department bogged down quickly.

“I Can Do That for You” vs Negative Nellies and Neds

There’s nothing like working in a positive, energetic and customer-service driven, “I can do that for you” department that is headed by a boss who is the epitome of this exact ethos. There's an example of this involving a boss we'll call Roxanne. She was this sort of person through-and-through, and that’s what she hired. As a rule. Every time. She had a peculiar ability to see whether a person was a nay-sayer, a Negative Nellie or Ned, while sitting in an interview. Her odd radar delved deep into the hearts of individuals and ferreted out their true sentiments and motivations. As the boss, she also had the notable trait of never going negative herself. Take a lesson from her: Nothing can groom employees better to be positive, enthusiastic, team players, but to see their supervisor constantly and consistently embodying those very traits.

The flip side of this is when the boss came on, there was one administrative assistant who was a Negative Nellie in the department. Nellie was rude, uncaring and had no inclination toward providing excellent customer service, which was the majority of her job description. Unfortunately, she had been hired by a previous supervisor who valued qualities other than customer service, kindness and positivity. 

Here's an example of Nellie's usual behavior (this may seem minor, but it's very telling): One day an “uber-supervisor” came into the department on the way to an important meeting and needed a couple of copies made. She tasked Nellie with making the copies to no avail. She reminded Nellie again, this time more strongly, adding that she was under a time crunch herself. Nellie was distracted by other work that she believed was more urgent and still did not get around to making the copies. Finally, the boss ran out of her office, exasperated with Nellie's unhelpful attitude. But, Roxanne didn't show her exasperation, rather she gave big smiles and soothing words. She took the papers from the uber-supervisor, exclaiming, “Let me do those for you and deliver them to you in your meeting” and went to make copies. Nellie still hadn't moved. She never got the point.

This is just one of many real-life examples of employee strengths and weaknesses. This is what being a positive, energetic and customer service driven employee looks like in the real world as well as being nay-saying, negative, unsupportive team member. Which one do you want for your organization? Which one are you?

Who Wants It: Micromanagement or Responsible Freedom?

It doesn’t get any simpler than this: Do you want to be controlled or free? Do you want micromanagement or flexibility? This battle is frequently waged in the workplace and can take on various forms: supervisor to subordinates, colleague to colleague and, on rare occasions, subordinate to supervisor.

There was once a supervisor, "Rick", who was an extreme micromanager. Every step his employees took (or didn’t take), every keystroke on the computer keyboards, every second of the workday, he monitored them and often gave a judgment of their actions in an unfair, unpredictable and fiery way. As he once said, “I own you while you’re at work.”

No. No. And No! There are so many things wrong with that belief and practice. Out of that intense micromanaging, he created a highly inefficient, “un-innovative,” unproductive, tense environment. Brilliance, creativity and productivity do not flourish when your employees feel like they’re being watched and judged constantly.

Rick wasn’t a standalone example. There have been many coworkers who watched their fellow coworkers - only looking for mistakes and failures. They were always on the spy for who they felt came in late, left early, went to the bathroom too much, etc. They kept an imaginary scorecard in their minds of what they were doing versus what their coworkers weren’t doing. Generally, with micromanaging colleagues, you have to have a micromanaging supervisor who enables them or a negligent supervisor who creates a power vacuum that the micromanaging coworker rushes to fill. Such micromanaging, whether by a supervisor or a colleague, is stifling to productivity, creativity and enthusiasm. It quickly creates a hostile environment. 

Freedom, on the hand, is freeing! For a company to function at peak capacity and productivity, it must foster a freedom borne of mutual respect and a common vision. There are plenty of environments where everyone “whistled while they worked.” It’s a wonderful place to be: Ideas flow, collaboration happens, and innovation bursts forth and yours can be one of them! 

Note: It's important to make sure employees are still responsible and accountable while working freely. It's best to allow employees to earn their freedom. Being free does not mean working without assignments, goals, and guidance; it simply means that, in many environments, employees will become more productive if they are allowed to figure things out and develop approaches that work best for them. Like any employee, this freedom should be accompanied by guidance and feedback. 

Turning Employee Weaknesses Into Strengths

Weaknesses. Strength building opportunities. Development needs. Areas for improvement. Whatever you call it, all employees have them...

Research shows that although people have inherent weaknesses and strengths, it’s most beneficial to focus on and grow the strengths. However, that doesn't mean you should ignore weaknesses.

At times you may find some of your employees have weaknesses that can’t be ignored; instead, you will have to work on those weaknesses. In fact, turning employee weaknesses into strengths can be done in a step-by-step process.

1. You, as a leader, must have a clear view of your employees’ weaknesses and how, if they’re transformed into strengths, they will positively impact the organization.


This sounds like common sense, but it’s not. In order for a company to truly thrive and go forward with innovative ideas, its management team must be able to accurately assess all employees for their strengths and weaknesses.

Management must be able to push employees to grow their strengths in new directions, but they must also be able to see their employees' weaknesses for what they are and how those weaknesses impact the organization. 


You must assess your employees in order to see their weaknesses

One way to figure out your employees’ weaknesses and strengths is by observing their day-to-day activities, productivity, etc. Another route is to have your employees take a skills test, which will give you data points by which you can make your decisions.

Once you’ve figured out the weaknesses of your workers, you must move to the next step.

Envision how those weaknesses can be cultivated into strengths that positively impact the organization

Finding weaknesses and faults for the sake of finding them, with no intention of growing the individuals beyond their weaknesses, isn’t a strong form of management. This sort of management is laissez-faire negligence at its core. Once you find the weaknesses within your employees that are negatively affecting the company, you must begin to envision how these weaknesses can be developed and honed into strengths that affect the organization in a positive manner.

You need a long-term view. You must be able to see years down the line into what the company will need in order to thrive. Once you’ve ascertained that, then you can begin the work of growing your employees out of their weaknesses into strengths that benefit all.

2. You must get the employee on board with the task of changing their weakness into a strength.

This is often a very difficult thing to do. Most people do not want to see their faults and failings, whether they’re at home, school or work. Further, having a supervisor point it out stings; however, it should not be avoided. 

A good place to start with the task of getting the employee on board is to broach the subject during a routine evaluation or an informal talk session. This step must be handled with tact, civility and empathy because you want them on your side. You don’t want your employees to feel that you’re beating them up or tearing them down as you share their weaknesses and their negative impact upon the organization. 

You must be able to flesh out in what way the weakness obscures a strength. As Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable and NY Times best-selling author, states, “Hidden in your weaknesses are your strengths.”

It’s your job as a leader to help work on those weaknesses until the strengths begin to show. If you can’t persuade the employee to get on board voluntarily, you may have to resort to putting them on an action plan that you ensure is enforced.

3. Develop a “Next Steps” plan with the employee.

You must have an executable goal. If you don’t have a goal that is manageable with clear check-up points, you stand the chance of losing all buy in. Make sure the plan isn’t too long or overwhelming. It should hit one or two key issues that need to be addressed. Within each of these issue-points, you and the employee must create a detailed, step-by-step plan for working on the weakness.

KISS and make a SMART Plan.

One piece of advice that has evolved from its advent in the tech world is “KISS,” which is an acronym for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Strive to keep the plan simple and not overly detailed, wordy or confusing. Also, keep the action plan SMART. The goals must be Specific, Manageable, Attainable (Accepted/Agreed), Relevant (Realistic/Reachable) and Time-Bound (Time-sensitive and executable within a reasonable time-frame).

4. Provide your employee with the support structure necessary to turn weakness into strength.

One of the worst things you can do to your employees is demand an outcome without giving them the necessary resources with which to succeed. This is often the case with expecting workers to grow and improve. As a leader, provide your employees with the resources they need to be successful.

Provide Clear Direction

Often a management team will tell their employees that they want a different outcome but they don’t tell them how to get there. As one struggling employee once lamented, “I don’t know what I don’t know. It’s not like I want to be non-compliant or insubordinate. I’m not doing this because I want to. I’m doing this because I don’t know how to do what you’re asking.” That employee stated with the greatest clarity what is often the issue with employees needing to change. You will have to provide the “know” and the “how” so they’ll know what they need to do and how to do it.

Offer Strong Mentoring and Modeling

Any employee working to turn a weakness into a strength is going to need plenty of mentoring and coaching. This does not mean the quick “How’re you doing?” as the mentor walks by in the hallway. No, they’ll need solid one-on-one time with feedback. Tied into mentoring and coaching is a need for modeling. 

You CAN do this! You can turn employee weaknesses into strengths.

With step-by-step planning, diligent work, plenty of coaching and buy in from the struggling employee, change for the better will happen. You can turn employee weaknesses into strengths. So, go ahead and invest in your workers. The benefits far outweigh the investment. Your company and your employees will thank you for it.

What Do You Want for Your Company?

Thinking of employee strengths and weaknesses in theoretical terms is easy. The interesting, fruitful pursuit is the application of these concepts: What do they look like in the real world? What are some real-life examples of employee strengths and weaknesses? Surely, as you think about your organization, you have your share of real world examples. Which supervisor are you? Which employee are you? Heartfelt, honest examination and introspection of your real life examples of employee strengths and weaknesses can only bear fruit for your organization.

You may also be interested in these employee development posts:

To learn more about the benefits of employee development, contact Edge Training at 800-305-2025.

Topics: Employee Development

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