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:
Higher levels of motivation
Greater professional success
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.