Strengths Matter

The economy has been tough. Things start to improve and then stagnate or retreat over and over. The optimists see the opportunities just across the horizon. But reaching the horizon is taking some time. In the meantime, many organizations are using this time to look at the strategic opportunities for the future. What are some of the critical issues that can give an organization a critical edge? 

One of the most critical issues for any vibrant organization will involve the most important asset of any business, the people of the organization. One of the most powerful ways to understand how to truly benefit from the best your workforce has to offer is to understand how strengths matter. 

True or False 
___ Each person in your organization can learn to be competent in almost anything. 
___ Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness 
(For the answers, read on…) 

When I am conducting the interview portion of a psychological assessment as part of the hiring process, I like to ask the potential candidate, “What strengths do you bring to this position?” This is seemingly an easy question to answer and its interpretation is relatively straight forward. It helps me to assess whether than candidate’s perception of strength is similar to the strengths that are revealed by the psychological testing. 

The question, however, invites a deeper look. Strengths are difficult for many people to describe adequately. The language of many candidates is broad and sweeping. If I listen carefully, I am not always clear about what relevant abilities or skills a candidate possesses or how that will have an impact on his or her performance for the organization. 

“I am a good communicator…” 
This is probably one of the most common responses to the question. It can be a response that only alerts me to what the candidate likes about himself or herself, but may tell me little about whether this is a true strength. Some people consider themselves good communicators because they like to talk. This does not always translate into effective action. I find it helpful to follow up this response with a request for a specific example of how this quality has been used in a professional situation.  

It is also important to learn more about the education or training this individual has had in communication. The native ability to communicate can be enhanced by systematic study of communication skills. There is an important interaction between talents (natural abilities or tendencies found within the individual person) and skills (development of specific technical knowledge and practice of a particular expertise). Both talent and skill are required for a strength to be applied in the workplace. 

“I am a hard worker…”  Some responses are vague. The “hard worker” is an example of a vague response that does not really describe a talent or ability the individual possesses. Does this mean that the candidate has exceptional focus and is able to attend to a project from beginning to end? Is this an individual who is highly motivated and will be a self starter on projects? Is it a person who is an “actor” rather than a thinker,” by that I mean someone who needs to be busy doing something all the time? It is more difficult for us to talk about strengths than about problems because we often do not have a well developed vocabulary for strengths. We have many words to describe anxiety but fewer to describe a feeling of inner calm. 

It is often important to help candidates to think about their strengths more deeply and to identify where that is helpful in their work life. Sometimes these strengths do not fully match the job description. Should the organization look for a different candidate or change the nature of the job? This may depend on the nature of the strength the candidate brings to the workplace. The right set of strengths can yield enormous benefit. 

In order for these benefits to accrue, the candidate must become aware of where he or she is best. Future training will ideally focus on those strengths, so that the employee refines the best of what he or she has to offer. Organizations that hire on the basis of strengths rather than simply filling roles will have a workforce that, according to research, will be 33 to 40% more productive. 

True or False 
False  Each person in your organization can learn to be competent in almost anything. Even the most talented individuals are not equally good at everything they do. This is a problem that entrepreneurs and small business owners frequently encounter because there are fewer resources in small organizations. As a result, many try to do it all, ending up doing nothing really well and feeling frustrated because their true talents are not being used. It is more cost efficient to focus on core strengths and to outsource tasks to organizations that will contribute their strengths in the areas of critical need. 

Then I ask a follow up question, “What do you think are your weaknesses?” This turns out to be a considerably more difficult question for the candidate. Some respondents try to avoid answering or even assert that they do not have any weaknesses. Others pause but admit that they don’t know what weaknesses they have. 

The response to this question in more difficult to interpret and sometimes requires some probing to make the meaning of the response clear. 

“I don’t know…”  
I am surprised that candidates will attempt to assert that they do not know if they have a weakness. By the time they are scheduled for the psychological assessment portion of the hiring process they have been through other interviews. Those interviewers have also been probing to discover the potential weaknesses of the candidate and frequently have asked the question as directly as I.  
If a candidate still does not know, I have to suspect that they have either not thought deeply about their role in the organization or they are so nervous that they are not able to formulate a good response. Either possible interpretation is troublesome.  Does an organization want a candidate who either does not think deeply or who is too nervous to formulate his response? 

“I don’t have any weakness…” 
The potential is much worse when the candidate asserts that he or she has no weaknesses. First, every candidate has both strengths and weaknesses. No one is ideally suited for every aspect of a job. Even the entrepreneur who starts his or her own business will encounter some aspects of the work where he or she excels and other aspects that will be more difficult. Denying that you have a weakness does not imply that you are the one candidate that is without fault. 

Denial of weakness in the job interview might signal that this individual will be unable to admit weakness or mistakes on the job. That will prove to be a roadblock in teaching the candidate to perform at a high level in this position. The supervisor or manager will have difficulty knowing which areas need emphasis because this new hire will not reveal what he or she already knows or what seems confusing. 

A bigger problem is that the employee who will not admit mistakes or weaknesses may be unwilling to ask for or accept help.  He or she will not function well on a team. It may be difficult to share responsibilities. He or she will have the tendency to blame others when things go wrong rather than to admit a problem and get the appropriate help to correct it.  

If this candidate truly does not believe that he or she has any weaknesses for this job, it signals a woeful lack of insight. If he or she is unaware of weakness there will be a high risk that this individual will be prone to making foolish decisions.  

Generally, those who cannot face their weaknesses and discuss them openly will find it more difficult to take full advantage of the most powerful aspects of teamwork. In an effective team, interdependence is crucial. Each member of the team is able to rely on others who have skills and expertise that round out the team skills. 

True or False 
False.  Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness. When people work hard to correct their greatest weaknesses and they succeed, the best they can do is become average in that area. It is a weakness because they have neither the talent nor the interest to learn that area in the first place. When people attempt to grow in their areas of strength and succeed, by contrast, they become excellent in that area. Adding the refinements from learning and the development of additional skill will increase the value of the talent and interest that is already present. 

No one has strengths in all areas. Accepting weakness as real will allow the employee to let go of that area and find someone else who can take up the slack. That employee will then be free to act on his or her strengths and those are the areas where he or she will contribute the most to the organization. 

Nurturing the strengths of the people in an organization requires new ways of thinking. It may involve reorganizing teams to allow each member to bring unique strengths and to rely on other members for the areas where he or she is weak. It may involve rethinking training, to send people for additional education to capitalize on their abilities rather than to try to teach them to compensate for their shortcomings. It may even require leaders to think differently about jobs, redesigning roles to fit the talents of the people in the organization. It could lead to the competitive advantage that propels your organization to success.