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Why performance appraisals should focus on strengths

Illustration of a man holding up a bar.

Dur­ing my work as a per­for­mance man­age­ment con­sul­tant and HR soft­ware spe­cial­ist, I’ve been exposed to the per­for­mance man­age­ment process­es and appraisal forms of a wide range of organ­i­sa­tions. A com­mon theme in the major­i­ty of these has been a focus on iden­ti­fy­ing and dis­cussing areas of weak­ness in employ­ees. More often than not, fol­low­ing a com­pe­ten­cy / behav­iour­al assess­ment or 360 degree feed­back exer­cise, empha­sis will placed on where the employ­ee needs to improve, rather than what they are good at. Sim­i­lar­ly, employ­ees are often advised to focus on the things they need to get bet­ter at when devis­ing their per­son­al devel­op­ment plans for the year.

On the sur­face this would seem to make sense. Sure­ly ask­ing employ­ees to focus on improv­ing their weak­ness­es will enhance their per­for­mance? Not so, accord­ing to research.

What research tells us about strengths and weaknesses

One of the first stud­ies to look into the effect of focus­ing on strengths and weak­ness­es in per­for­mance reviews was car­ried out by the Cor­po­rate Lead­er­ship Coun­cil 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%, and empha­sis­ing per­son­al­i­ty strengths by up to 21%. Con­verse­ly, they found that empha­sis­ing 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. Yet anoth­er study by Lin­ley, Nielsen, Wood, Gillett, and Biswas-Diener in 2010 found that that peo­ple who used their strengths were more like­ly to achieve their goals. There are numer­ous oth­er stud­ies which 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.

Incor­po­rat­ing a strengths approach into your per­for­mance management

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 5 prac­ti­cal ways to incor­po­rate strengths in your per­for­mance man­age­ment process­es:

  1. 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’. Gallup have put togeth­er a use­ful strengths coach­ing kit for help­ing man­agers and teams to max­i­mize their indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive talents.
  2. Feed­back. Pro­vide guid­ance to all employ­ees 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), 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. 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. Objec­tive set­ting. 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. 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 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, should we sim­ply ignore weak­ness­es? 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 under-per­form­ing, 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 under-per­for­mance, 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.

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