Don’t dismiss weaknesses, embrace them.

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The fifth belief that Gallup’s forthcoming book, It’s the Manager, recommends organizations change is:

Belief #5: Millennials and Generation Z don’t want a manager who fixates on their weaknesses.

I like to think of strengths and weaknesses as two opposite poles on the same continuum. Try the following exercise with a pen and paper:

Divide your page into two columns. With absolute candor, jot down in the left column five things you consider to be your biggest weaknesses. Next, with the same candor, jot down in the right column five of your greatest strengths. This is no time for humility—identify what you believe to be your most important strengths. Then, compare the two columns. Chances are, in several cases you will notice the weaknesses on the left correlate to the strengths on the right—they are, in fact, their opposites. When over- or under-utilized, any strength in any given situation can become a weakness.

What this exercise starkly illustrates is that you cannot have strengths without weaknesses; they are two parts of the same qualities. A person who is a perfectionist with great attention to detail may not be timeous in his or her delivery deadlines. An individual who is warm and connecting might find difficult conversations and performance management very challenging.

I don’t agree with Gallup that weaknesses should be ignored, and that the focus should be only on the strength. Rather, see your strengths and weaknesses as an integrated trait of your personality or character. Then, instead of ignoring your weaknesses, focus on how best to find balance between the polarities that constitute both your strengths and weaknesses.

It is important that when having a performance conversation about someone else’s weakness, you take time to prepare the conversation. In doing so, identify the specific strength that lies behind the weakness you will be talking about. Highlight the value of that strength and how much more valuable it would be if the individual could balance it so that the strength doesn’t at times devolve into a weakness.

This approach is different from the well-known but ineffective “sandwich approach” where you sandwich the criticism between two compliments that could be unrelated to each other or to the criticism. Rather, take the time to identify the particular strength which is the obverse side of the weakness coin you have chosen to highlight. Then speak about both the strength and the weakness and how to manage them to advantage.

Here are some things to focus on:

  1. Train managers to appreciate that a successful performance conversation is one that inspires change, not one that is just checked off a list of management chores.
  2. Provide managers with regular 360° feedback about how successfully they have coached individuals to manage their strength-weakness continuum.
  3. Show managers how the strength-weakness continuum approach can be used to inspire changed behaviors and attitudes upward and sideways, not only downward. It is a respectful and non-threatening way to talk about needed changes.

As Gallup says, “A strengths-based culture helps you attract and keep star team members.”

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