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Staff Appraisals Focus on Weaknesses — Let’s Shift the Focus to Strengths

Illustration of a man holding up a bar.

When employ­ees think of per­for­mance man­age­ment, they often think of the neg­a­tives — here’s how to build on strengths in the work­place and cre­ate more pro­duc­tive and hap­pi­er employees.

Most employ­ees hate per­for­mance reviews. In fact, per­for­mance man­age­ment itself often suf­fers from a bad rep­u­ta­tion and, when you have worked in the field for a while, it’s easy to under­stand why. Some­times organ­i­sa­tions become set in their ways and refuse to adapt or embrace new per­for­mance man­age­ment trends. Some­times, com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­down is the prob­lem and infre­quent con­tact dri­ves a wedge between man­age­ment and employ­ee. One oth­er fac­tor is that, more often than not, staff appraisals focus on weak­ness­es over key employ­ee strengths. Dur­ing behav­iour­al assess­ments or per­for­mance review dis­cus­sions, the empha­sis is placed heav­i­ly on the neg­a­tive — where the employ­ee needs to improve — rather than high­light­ing, and work­ing with, employ­ee strengths.

Though this might sound sen­si­ble on the sur­face, research has come to light that sug­gests it is a wis­er move to con­sid­er what your employ­ees already bring to the table.

What Research Tells Us about Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the first stud­ies to look into the effect of focus­ing on key strengths and weak­ness­es in per­for­mance reviews was car­ried out by the Cor­po­rate Lead­er­ship Coun­cil (now Gart­ner) in 2002, involv­ing 19,000 employ­ees and man­agers. They found that plac­ing empha­sis on per­for­mance strengths dur­ing for­mal reviews can increase employ­ee per­for­mance by up to 36%. When empha­sis­ing per­son­al­i­ty strengths, per­for­mance improved by up to 21%. Con­verse­ly, the study found that high­light­ing weak­ness­es is a​“per­for­mance killer”, decreas­ing per­for­mance by up to 27%.

Fur­ther research by Gallup found that man­agers who received strengths feed­back showed 12.5% greater pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and their busi­ness units showed 8.9% greater prof­itabil­i­ty. In 2011, McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny pub­lished a paper that sim­i­lar­ly con­firmed that a focus on improv­ing strengths improved per­for­mance much more than when staff appraisals focused on weak­ness­es. There are numer­ous oth­er stud­ies that show the ben­e­fits of a strengths-based approach when it comes to employ­ee per­for­mance and employ­ee engagement.

If we real­ly think about our own expe­ri­ences, this research shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. We’re all at our most pro­duc­tive when we’re doing some­thing that we enjoy and which plays to our strengths.

The Psy­chol­o­gy of Pos­i­tive Think­ing and Focus­ing on Strengths

The father of Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy, Mar­tin Selig­man, once said that for an indi­vid­ual to be real­ly hap­py and live a mean­ing­ful life, they must first recog­nise their own unique strengths. They must then be allowed to use them to con­tribute to some­thing big­ger than them­selves. Anoth­er source agrees, show­ing that when peo­ple tried using their strengths in new ways each day for just one week, they were hap­pi­er and less depressed six months lat­er. Fur­ther­more, a focus on strengths has been shown to make employ­ees more cre­ative and engaged while they are at work.

Incor­po­rat­ing a Strengths Approach into Your Per­for­mance Man­age­ment System

So we know from this research that focus­ing on strengths in per­for­mance dis­cus­sions is like­ly to yield bet­ter results. But how can this be achieved in prac­tice? Here are five prac­ti­cal ways to incor­po­rate strengths in your per­for­mance man­age­ment process­es:

  1. Strength-focused man­age­ment train­ing — When train­ing man­agers in per­for­mance man­age­ment skills, empha­sise the impor­tance of iden­ti­fy­ing and active­ly devel­op­ing their team mem­bers’ strengths dur­ing per­for­mance dis­cus­sions, rather than act­ing as “‘judge and critic”.
  2. Let man­agers know about the pos­i­tive to neg­a­tive feed­back ratio — Pro­vide guid­ance to all man­agers on the impor­tance of giv­ing reg­u­lar pos­i­tive feed­back and how to cor­rect­ly bal­ance it with con­struc­tive feed­back. Research sug­gests that the bal­ance of pos­i­tive praise to con­struc­tive feed­back should be around 3:1. Addi­tion­al­ly, if you are using a more for­mal 360 feed­back exer­cise (e.g. to sup­port coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions), place greater empha­sis on the areas in which the indi­vid­ual is strong and how those strengths can be utilised, and focus less on their weaknesses.
  3. Lever­age skills in Per­son­al Devel­op­ment Plans — Ask your employ­ees to con­sid­er how they can fur­ther devel­op and lever­age their exist­ing strengths when plan­ning their per­son­al devel­op­ment needs.
  4. Con­sid­er strengths dur­ing the objec­tive set­ting phase — When set­ting objec­tives, ask employ­ees and their man­agers to think about what projects or ini­tia­tives the employ­ee could under­take that would play to their strengths.
  5. Con­tem­plate employ­ee key strengths dur­ing role design — Encour­age man­agers to think about how respon­si­bil­i­ties and tasks can be best allo­cat­ed between their team mem­bers to utilise their indi­vid­ual strengths.

How to Iden­ti­fy Strengths

Focus­ing on strengths relies on being able to iden­ti­fy them. Man­agers will be able to get an insight into their team mem­bers’ strengths by using a per­for­mance man­age­ment tool that col­lates reg­u­lar third-par­­ty feed­back. For a more in-depth analy­sis of strengths, the Clifton Strengths Find­er Assess­ment is a well-respec­t­ed tool for iden­ti­fy­ing strengths and is rel­a­tive­ly low cost. It can be pur­chased online and is also includ­ed in the excel­lent book Strengths Find­er 2.0.

How Should Weak­ness­es Be Addressed?

If we should be focus­ing on strengths, does that mean we should ignore weak­ness­es? Put sim­ply, no. I believe there is still a place for dis­cussing weak­ness­es, but this should not become the cen­tre of atten­tion in per­for­mance and feed­back dis­cus­sions, as is too often the case.

Where the employ­ee is underper­form­ing, clear­ly, weak­ness­es will need to be addressed. How­ev­er it is impor­tant to be real­is­tic about how far a weak­ness can be over­come. There are some things that peo­ple will sim­ply nev­er be good at, no mat­ter how hard they try, so ask­ing them to improve in these areas is like­ly to be a fruit­less exer­cise and high­ly demo­ti­vat­ing. Instead, in cas­es of underper­for­mance, man­agers should think about whether the employee’s role could be restruc­tured to make bet­ter use of their strengths and real­lo­cate work to oth­er, bet­ter-suit­­ed team mem­bers, where pos­si­ble. There will always be a nat­ur­al vari­ance and indi­vid­ual strengths and weak­ness­es in a team — make the most of them to your organisation’s ben­e­fit. Allow­ing for this flex­i­bil­i­ty with respect to job roles and func­tions will result in hap­pi­er, more engaged and more enthu­si­as­tic employees.

If you’re look­ing to over­haul your per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem and imple­ment strength-based reviews, book a free per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware demo today. Our expert team will help you on your way.

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