Buckingham: Focus on Strengths, Not Weaknesses

By J.J. Smith March 23, 2007

LOS ANGELES—Workers from five nations believe that improving their weakest job skills will increase their job performance, but they should be working to improve their strengths instead, a prominent employment researcher told the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2007 Global Forum Conference and Exhibition here March 21.

In 2000 and 2006, workers from China, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States were asked if building their strengths or fixing their weaknesses would help them be more successful on the job, said Marcus Buckingham, who has written four books on ways for employees to maximize their strengths and who was a keynote speaker at the 2007 conference. In 2000, 41 percent of workers said building their strengths would help them be more successful on the job, while 59 percent said fixing their weaknesses would help them, he said.

In 2006, 37 percent of workers said building their strengths would help them be more successful on the job and 63 percent said fixing their weaknesses would help, said Buckingham, who has a new book, Go Put Your Strengths To Work (Free Press, 2007). In addition, HR managers who say they build their strengths to achieve success are in the minority when compared to most people, he said. Because most people focus on fixing their weaknesses, it is clear that “we live in a remedial world.”

Nonetheless, most businesses focus on building teams that use employee strengths, Buckingham said, adding that when companies say “people are our greatest asset,” what they mean is that workers’ strengths are their greatest asset. But it is “tricky to build a strengths-based team when no one is working to build up their strengths,” Buckingham said. Data supporting that was gleaned from another survey where workers were asked: “When you talk with you manager about your performance, what do you spend the most time talking about?” Respondents could select “strengths” or “weaknesses.” From those choices, 24 percent of workers said strengths, 36 percent of workers said weaknesses, and 40 percent replied, “We don’t talk about those things here.”

In addition, only two out of 10 workers spend their days playing to their strengths, Buckingham said. In 2005, 17 percent of workers said they spend their day playing to their strengths, while in 2006 the percentage of workers who spend their days playing to their strengths dropped to 14 percent. The results suggest that “organizations have been inefficient in getting the most out of human beings,” he said.

Most people, no matter what they do, “have heard the calling of our strengths at least once a week,” Buckingham said. What HR has to do is “take once a week to most of the week.” But, before HR managers propose changes designed to increase employees’ ability to build up, or use, their strengths, those HR managers need to determine if they are part of the minority of from 14 percent to 17 percent of employees who spend their day playing to their strengths, he said. Because if HR managers are not playing to their strengths, then the manager is not ready to implement a program, he said.

J.J. Smith is manager of SHRM Online’s Global HR Focus Area.

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