Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth

Managers spend a lot of time worrying about the weaknesses of their employees. “If only I could get her to perform better we would have a really great team.” And countless more along that line. Companies have performance evaluation systems that focus attention on how employees should overcome their weaknesses by additional training, supervision and mentoring, and, above all, more work on self-improvement by the employee. Perhaps this focus on weakness flows from an educational system that has always been more attuned to the “Cs” and “Ds” and what must be done to raise those scores, rather than building on the strengths. Our focus on overcoming weakness is reflected in a saying like, “You can become anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough.”

In the management world, Peter Drucker, the great god-father of modern management, spoke clearly about this matter way back in 1966 in his still prescient and useful little book, The Effective Executive (still in print). “The effective executive fills positions and promotes on the basis of what a man can do. He does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength…. Performance can only be built on strengths. What matters most is the ability to do the assignment. Strong People always have strong weaknesses too. ”

More recently, others have also come to see that when it comes to both people and organizations the only way to build for results is to build on strengths. One example of this is the work of the Gallup Organization and Marcus Buckingham and Donald D. Clifton in Now, Discover your Strengths ( (Free Press, New York 2001) and Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0 (Gallup Press, New York 2007).

Focusing on strengths engages the best attributes, skills, and experiences. Focusing on strengths engages people where they have the most passion, energy and success. Focusing on strengths focuses on the activities that people have already demonstrated results. Focusing on strengths creates a positive relationship because you a talking about activities that the employee is good at and has the best chance of producing good results. Managers should focus their attention on how to be sure that every person is working on their strengths as much as possible.

There is another reason for this focus on strengths, it removes a crutch that managers use to avoid taking complete responsibility for their performance and the performance of the organization – the myth of lousy personnel – “If I only had better people, I could get my organization to really perform.” More on this at another moment.