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:
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.