Strengths and weaknesses. Areas of command vs. areas of improvement. Stuff you’re good at on one hand, and stuff you’re bad at on the other hand.
People often present these characteristics at opposite ends of a spectrum or as absolutes. You might get similar feedback at work year after year, and even with nominal improvements, you might think, “Well, it’s just how I am.”
It can be confusing to try to address a perceived shortcoming; you may feel like you have to go against your nature to become good at something in particular for the job.
After all, if it were so easy, you would have addressed the shortcomings a long time ago and been done with it!
But what if you could use one aspect of your personality or skill set to improve another? What if the key to addressing shortcomings is exactly leveraging your strengths?
I believe this is absolutely the case.
Earlier in my career, I received repeated feedback that I was “too aggressive.” (I’ll save the gender commentary for another day.) The feedback was that my communication style and methods of interaction were alienating my colleagues.
My initial response was, “I can’t help it if they can’t match my passion for this work. That’s on them. Why should I ‘tone down’ my methods when I feel so strongly about the right path?” My manager advised, “Find another way. No one is going anywhere.”
I interpreted my situation as one in which I must go against my very nature to work with others who I liked and respected tremendously, but who had different work styles from mine, if we were ever going to be successful and meet our collective goals.
Can you guess how successful I was at not being “aggressive”?
I made it out of the work style maze that I found myself in, but it took years. Looking back now on the success I had getting out of that maze, I realize two things:
1. I had a little help from some smart leadership who reshaped the path I was working in, and
2. I stopped interpreting events at the extremes, and I relinquished “either-or” thinking.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but I used my strengths – my passion for the work – and redirected that strength in novel ways to get the desired outcome. Hindsight is 20/20.
You can do the same. And now that you know, you don’t have to take years to do it.
Shape the path when trying to address shortcomings
When thinking about strengths and weaknesses, we evaluate them within the context of the individual’s behaviors, activities, and contributions. But there’s an important factor that is often left out of the discussion, and that is the environment or circumstances. We take those completely for granted, and therefore, they are left out of the equation.
But what if, in addition to work you would do on yourself, work done on the relevant environment can make a significant difference on addressing weaknesses or shortcomings?
In the example I gave above, company leadership created “team leaders,” modifying the circumstances so that I was working primarily with only one other individual. This did two things: (1) I concentrated on engaging one individual who worked differently than I did, rather than many, and (2) the other team leader “translated” my passion for our work with a more palatable delivery method to others, bringing them onboard to changes more efficiently and without the build up of resentment and alienation that we had been experiencing up to that point.
Another benefit? The one-on-one nature of our team lead collaboration allowed each of us to begin to value our different working styles. We learned from each other. At appropriate times, I began to soften my delivery, and she learned to be more forceful when the situation called for it.
[Side note for recommended reading on shaping the path to enact behavioral change: Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath]
Move away from either-or thinking when it comes to strengths and weaknesses
The mind likes to compartmentalize by default. We can condition our minds to think less in absolutes and more in parallels and alignment. For the issue of strengths and weaknesses, solutions can come in many forms, including:
- Lessening absolute identity linked to an extreme (“This is just how I am,” vs. “I sometimes or often am like this.”)
- Making strengths and weaknesses situation-dependent (“I am conflict-averse when negotiating with clients but not when I am negotiating with vendors.”)
- Using one as gateway to another (“I am so passionate about work that I can direct the passion to learning active listening skills to more effectively communicate with others.”)
The last solution is one that people do not often cite as a strategy for helping employees work through their shortcomings.
Take advantage of the gateway strategy to addressing shortcomings.
There are 3 steps necessary to take advantage of the gateway strategy:
- Know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Is this too obvious? Perhaps, but ask yourself this: would you and your manager characterize all of your traits similarly? If you’re not sure, go through this exercise to come to consensus before you go any further.
- Name the shortcoming you want to work on. This is where the other two solutions – lessening absolute identities and exploring whether weaknesses are situation-dependent, can come in handy! When we move away from characterizing shortcomings as hard-wired, the mind will have a much easier time working on them.
- Brainstorm ways EVERY strength can be leveraged to address that ONE shortcoming. The bottom line is that there are multiple ways to address an issue, and what might resonate with Bill might not work for Sarah. In addition, a strength can be leveraged to address a shortcoming in multiple ways; it doesn’t have to be a 1:1 ratio. So this active brainstorming session is necessary.
When thinking about how to “leverage” a strength, think about the following:
- Can it be redirected, either to different people or situations, where the strength isn’t currently being directed?
- Can the strength be applied with more or less frequency to achieve a desired result on the weakness?
- In what situations are the weaknesses not as prevalent? What is it about those situations where strengths are employed more, and is it possible to recreate those conditions elsewhere?
Try these examples on for size.
For someone who is SOP-driven or guidelines-driven and is not very good at the EQ aspects of sales: that individual can create a “living” best practices document for them to execute on their sales messaging and process that might serve as an anchor for them and get them more comfortable trying different things. They can then update their best practices document as they learn.
For someone who is really great at making decisions on the fly in urgent and intense situations, yet doesn’t bring her team along in her decision-making process which leaves people alienated and confused: that individual can articulate why making decisions on the fly has value. She can expand that sense of urgency to her communication of decision rationale to others, so that the value of those decisions are not lost in execution.
For someone whose attention to detail is unmatched but keeps missing deadlines: that individual can break down the work in stages, and determine level of detail required at each stage. Redirecting attention to detail in execution of work to attention to detail in planning of work will no doubt serve well.
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