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

Employee strengths and weaknesses

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. Per­for­mance man­age­ment itself often suf­fers from a bad rep­u­ta­tion, which is often because organ­i­sa­tions haven’t refined their processes.

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. Anoth­er cru­cial fac­tor is that, more often than not, staff appraisals focus on weak­ness­es over key employ­ee strengths.

Dur­ing tra­di­tion­al 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 approach may seem sen­si­ble, there’s a lot of research sug­gest­ing that it’s wis­er to con­sid­er what your employ­ees already bring to the table. Accord­ing to a 2019 study from Gallup, only 10.4% of U.S. work­ers felt engaged after receiv­ing neg­a­tive feed­back, and four out of five said they were active­ly or pas­sive­ly look­ing for a new job.

What research tells us about employ­ee strengths and weak­ness­es in per­for­mance appraisals

One of the first stud­ies look­ing at the effect of focus­ing on key strengths and weak­ness­es in per­for­mance reviews was car­ried out by the Cor­po­rate Lead­er­ship Coun­cil (now Gart­ner) in 2002. The sur­vey involv­ed 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 book, also con­firm­ing that a focus on improv­ing strengths improved per­for­mance much more than when staff appraisals focused on weaknesses.

In more recent research, a 2020 study from Tilburg Uni­ver­si­ty inves­ti­gat­ed the effects of strength-based per­for­mance appraisals, find­ing that those per­for­mance rat­ings focused on strengths were asso­ci­at­ed with stronger moti­va­tion to improve among employ­ees. Strength-based feed­back is a con­tin­u­ous­ly devel­op­ing area of research, with sev­er­al more stud­ies show­ing the ben­e­fits of a strengths-based approach to employ­ee per­for­mance and engagement.

These find­ings give us tremen­dous insight, but if we think about our expe­ri­ences, they shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. We’re all at our most pro­duc­tive when play­ing to our strengths and com­plet­ing tasks we enjoy.

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 unique strengths. They must then be allowed to use these to con­tribute to some­thing big­ger than them­selves. Research sup­port­ing this state­ment showed 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.

How know­ing and using strengths ben­e­fits organisations

In a study by Rigo­ni and Asplund based on data from 1.2 mil­lion employ­ees world­wide, 90% of organ­i­sa­tions using a strengths-based approach report­ed a 9 – 15% increase in employ­ee engage­ment and 14 – 29% increased prof­it. Peo­ple who use their strengths effec­tive­ly are wide­ly report­ed to ben­e­fit from the following:

  • Improved well-being

  • High­er lev­els of motivation

  • Greater pro­fes­sion­al success

  • High­er self-confidence

  • Low­er stress levels

  • Greater job satisfaction

  • Improved rela­tion­ship build­ing at work.

Iden­ti­fy­ing and using employ­ee strengths can only ben­e­fit organ­i­sa­tions, mak­ing them stronger and more high­ly per­form­ing than their com­peti­tors. When a work­force is encour­aged to play to its strengths, it becomes ener­gised, moti­vat­ed, and effective.

Incor­po­rat­ing a strengths- based approach into your per­for­mance man­age­ment system

We know from 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”.

  • Inform man­agers 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. 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

Although every­one has strengths, it’s com­mon for employ­ees to have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing them. A person’s strengths may come so nat­u­ral­ly that they don’t realise them, so man­agers must sup­port their teams to recog­nise and appre­ci­ate their unique qualities.

To suc­cess­ful­ly focus on strengths, we must first recog­nise them. Man­agers will gain 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, the Clifton­Strengths Assess­ment is a well-respec­t­ed and rel­a­tive­ly low-cost tool for iden­ti­fy­ing strengths. It can be pur­chased online and is also includ­ed in the excel­lent book, StrengthsFind­er 2.0.

Reg­u­lar dis­cus­sions with employ­ees about their strengths will also help them pay clos­er atten­tion to what they’re par­tic­u­lar­ly good at. Con­tin­u­ous feed­back can help work­ers recog­nise their strengths and apply them more effec­tive­ly to their work.

How should weak­ness­es be addressed?

If organ­i­sa­tions and man­age­ment teams should be focus­ing on strengths, does that mean we should ignore weak­ness­es? Put sim­ply, no. There is a place for dis­cussing employ­ee strengths and weak­ness­es, but weak­ness­es should not become the pri­ma­ry focus in per­for­mance and feed­back dis­cus­sions, as is cur­rent­ly too often the case.

Where the employ­ee is underper­form­ing, weak­ness­es will need to be addressed, and these dis­cus­sions remain a help­ful devel­op­ment tool. 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. It’s nor­mal for there to be a range of indi­vid­ual strengths and weak­ness­es with­in a team, and the key is to make the most of these to ben­e­fit your organ­i­sa­tion. Allow­ing for flex­i­bil­i­ty con­cern­ing job roles and func­tions will result in hap­pi­er, more engaged and more high­ly moti­vat­ed employees.

If you’re look­ing to over­haul your per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem and imple­ment strength-based reviews, find out how our lead­ing per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware can help you do it. Book a free demo of Clear Review today, and our expert team will help you boost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and engagement.

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