Employers need to focus on strengths

Productive Focus

By Derek Parker

The emerging economic recovery in Australia means employers and employees have to focus on using and building their strengths rather than trying to address weaknesses, according to employee engagement and productivity expert Marcus Buckingham.

"In general, society is fascinated by weaknesses," he says. "Societies often cultivate a fear culture in the hope that it will improve the individual. In the workplace, this means that employees do not play to their strengths. They spend too much time trying to improve their weaknesses because that’s what society expects. And they believe that their weaknesses have the potential to derail their career.

"In fact, there is a lot more benefit to a company in helping a nine go up to a 10 than a three go up to a four."

Buckingham founded training company TMBC in the US in 2007 to create strengths-based management solutions for organisations worldwide, and recently conducted a series of seminars in Australia.

"Managers also tend to put too much weight on their employee’s weaknesses. Performance reviews, for example, often take the form of identifying problems and saying what needs to be added, which can send the message that strengths and successes are not valued."

Buckingham cites figures from polling firm IPSOS showing that 48 per cent of Australian workers say that they focus on their strengths, with 52 per cent concentrating on their weaknesses. There is a clear gender imbalance, with 73 per cent of women aged 35 to 50 likely to focus on weaknesses, while men split 50-50.

"The women in this group say that they cannot afford to focus on their strengths, as they have too much to juggle," Buckingham says. "That view might be understandable, but it certainly isn’t sustainable over the long term. Emphasising weaknesses simply wears you down."

From an employer’s perspective, the critical issue in an economic recovery is the development of comparative advantage. The most effective way to do this, Buckingham says, is to encourage employees to work on what they do most effectively.

"About 70 per cent of Australian employees believe they have sufficient freedom in their workplace to re-design their tasks to everyone’s advantage," he says. "Employers should be willing to support that sort of initiative, and they should also be willing to support training options that help people develop their strengths and, if the organisation is large enough, offer postings or transfers that help provide experience in a proven area of expertise.

"Employers need to foster a culture of `doing your best work’, and if they create that organisational credo they will find that employees find it a better way of working as well: not only more productive but more satisfying."

Buckingham believes training is wasted if it is aimed at trying to give all members of a team the same level of skills in all areas.

"A team does best when it is a well-rounded group of sharp individuals, rather than a collection of well-rounded individuals,” he emphasises. "You want the skills to be complementary, so they can be leveraged effectively.

"If a large company wants an example of how make best use of the strengths of its people, it should look at a small entrepreneurial company. This type of company has an inherent bias towards strengths.

"Whether you are looking at individual employees, teams, or the whole company, the key to success is working out what you do well, and then pushing that strength as far as it can go."

Article from The Australian, July, 2010.

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