In her younger years, Luci came home from school one day with a report card. She got As in math, science, history, and reading, a B in spelling, but a D in writing.
Her parents, as you might suspect, focused only on the D. After a long argument, they sent Luci to her room to write them an explanation of the D. Instead, she picked up a science fiction book and read until she drifted off to sleep.
Years later, Luci found herself topping the sales board at her company. She received praise from her employers for the great client relationships that she developed. She also contributed creative ideas for new products and services. Building on her success, she applied for the sales director position, but didn’t get the job.
“Luci, you are a good communicator face-to-face,” the CEO began, before moving onto the dreaded, “But! … When I read your reports, I can’t follow what you’re trying to say.”
So, were Luci’s parents correct in insisting that she should have worked longer and harder on her writing skills?
Well, most of the research says no.
Build Upon Your Strengths Not Your Weaknesses
Studies show that trying to improve a weakness is far less effective than spending time building up your strengths. Working on weaknesses can become frustrating and may even lead to withdrawal. Research and performance consulting firm Gallup Inc., for instance, found that employees who are given the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs as those who aren’t.
Using StrengthsFinder to Identify Your Natural Abilities
Gallup’s research inspired Dr Donald Clifton and Marcus Buckingham to write the self-help book Now, Discover Your Strengths. It also led to the launch in 2004 of the StrengthsFinder website, a paid-for online personal assessment test designed to help the user develop their existing strengths.
The website aims to help people to develop sustainable skills, by building on each user’s personal character attributes and inherent strengths. If we do this, progress will likely be rapid and effective. Just as importantly, we’ll enjoy our work and avoid the painful time spent trying to improve our weaknesses.
Gallup’s study identified 34 unique personal character attributes, which it refers to as “talent themes.” Strengthsfinder aims to identify users’ top five talent themes.
Skills Diversity is Still Important
Luci was unaware of StrengthsFinder, but chose to endure her weaknesses while working on her strengths. She developed the strong social skills critical to building up successful client relations. She also used her natural academic ability in science and history to develop her knowledge of her company and the industry in which she worked. As a result, she was able to develop a talent for creative thinking, and offered her employer a number of insightful ideas for improvement.
So why did she fail to get that promotion? If you are familiar with focusing on your strengths instead of your weaknesses, then perhaps you know why.
What Luci failed to do in light of her poor writing ability was to partner up with colleagues whose strengths complemented her own. A colleague with a different skill set, who had particularly strong writing skills, for example, might have been able to give her advice or help her to write up her ideas more effectively. In fact, it is precisely this kind of situation that illustrates just how important skills diversity is in a team.
The Pros and Cons of Focusing Only on Your Strengths
In my opinion, there is great merit in emphasizing strengths-building over the mind-crippling work of improving weaknesses. However, be aware that using StrengthsFinder to help you to do this could result in a skewed or biased view. The questionnaire, which is designed to help people to identify where their strengths currently lie, is more likely to evoke responses of where people want their strengths to lie in the future. A more accurate and objective self-assessment is more likely to be achieved by asking others who know you well to fill out the questionnaire.
There is also the risk that you might “fall foul” of the Forer Effect. This concept proposes that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as unique to themselves. StrengthsFinder’s 34 “talent themes” are highly positive, even flattering, characterizations. And, as Forer’s research illustrates, people can fall into the trap of rating this positive feedback as “highly accurate,” despite the fact that it could apply to many people.
And finally, it’s important to be careful about ignoring your weaknesses altogether. I’m sure most of us can perform basic math functions on numbers up to 100. If not, good luck with the change you get at a restaurant!
One Final Note
Although we have discussed why working on our strengths is more effective than working on our weaknesses, we haven’t discussed how we can do this.
Firstly, your common sense will be a good guide. Aim to make the most of your natural talents, and add relevant skills to further these. At the same time, try to seek knowledge that will allow you to expand your boundaries. Doing this will not only help you to build up expertise in your field but it will also allow you to concentrate on the work that you really enjoy.
Please note that the assessment offered by StrengthsFinder.com is charged at a fee. MindTools has no direct affiliation with StrengthsFinder.com.