5 Effective Ways to Manage People's Strengths

Forget shoring up your team's weaknesses; make their strengths world class.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #552

Today is an exciting day at Green Growing Things plant store. It’s annual review time! Annual reviews are important. The owner Bernice calls in her employees. She asks each to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Together, they come up with a personal development plan to shore up their weaknesses. 

But why? Although business results come from day-to-day management, Bernice has all of her people working on fixing their weaknesses. That’s the wrong way to go about it.

Annual reviews aren’t very effective. We think they are, but we’re gullible, aren’t we? A 1998 meta-analysis found that annual reviews were more about people having their voice heard and less about changing their performance. In other words, annual reviews are for kvetching. Let's take a look at a better way—effectively managing people by using their best qualities.

1. Focus on strengths.

Consider Bernice’s employee Europa. Europa's emotional intelligence is off the charts. She is the secret overlord of the Eastern Bloc, which she holds together through sheer force of personality (augmented, of course, with control of a small arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons). But when it comes to computer skills, she still thinks of a mouse as cat food. 

Although Europa’s development plan could concentrate on shoring up her weaknesses by sending her to computer class, at the very best, she’ll never be more than mediocre. Focusing on weaknesses is a great way to produce people who are mediocre-to-average. 

If, however, she concentrates on taking her already-impressive persuasion skills and boosting those, she’ll be absolutely world-class before long. 

And her personal development plan doesn’t have to focus on building her skills; she could spend her time applying her strengths in new ways. Dominating the Western Bloc, for example. 

2. Decide which strengths framework to use.

There are different frameworks you can use to help you determine your strengths. The Gallup Organization studied thousands of managers and published their book StrengthsFinder. The research was clear: having people concentrate on their strengths was better for both the people and the organization.

You need a way to decide what constitutes a strength.

You need a way to decide what constitutes a strength. It could be a skill. Europa thinks of emotional intelligence as her strength. Tech-skills, on the other hand, are a non-strength. But she surely has other strengths worth exploring.

StrengthsFinder lays out 34 strengths. Some are skills, like "Win others over." Europa has that one in spades. She can walk into a room full of strangers and have them eating out of her hand in no time. And she doesn’t even use a whip.

Other Gallup strengths are qualities. For example, my #1 strength is "Achievement. "That’s not a skill, it's a quality. Rather, it’s a horrid mental pathology that leaves me feeling perpetually unfulfilled unless I’ve accomplished something significant every day. Every day. Every. Single. Day. Did I mention I need this every day?

I wish I had the strength "Ellen DeGeneres’s Best Friend," but I don’t. I have "Achievement." It sucks to be me.

There are other breakdowns to help people discover their hidden (or not so hidden) strengths. VIA Strengths  is another strenths framework. In this system, my number-one strength is "Creativity." "Ellen’s best friend" doesn’t even appear in my top 15. 

3. Profile your people

Once you've selected a strengths framework, profile your people! Find out each person’s strengths. Discuss those strengths with them. Take the time to understand how their strengths appear in their life and work. Since you’ve heeded my advice telling you to keep profiles of important people, you have a profile for them and can add their strengths to that profile.

If someone is already using their strengths throughout their life and job, great! Europa is already "Winning others over" every time she convinces a country leader to swear utter and complete fealty to her every whim. 

If someone isn’t using their strengths, great! This gives you an easy way to help them turbo-charge their results.

4. Match strengths to assignments.

Use your people's strengths to match them to a job. Every strength can be a force for good or for evil.

Let's say that analyzing situations in great, painstaking detail to arrive at carefully considered conclusion based on data is your strength. If you pursue a career as a scientist, you’ll be brilliant. Your research results will be complete and analyzed impeccably. 

Every strength can be a force for good, or a force for evil.

If you get a job as an air traffic controller, you’ll suck. In that role, you need to take in a situation and make rapid assessments. If you see a fast-moving purple dot, you have to decide if it’s a UFO or a landing plane. By the time you do a super-deep analysis, the UFO will have abducted your colleagues and your shmoopie, and it will be coming for you next.

Strengths are an asset or a liability relative to the task where they’re applied. So help people figure out how to apply them in places where their strengths will be an asset. Are there available assignments that will play to someone’s strengths? Can you help them maneuver into those assignments?

5. Create teams of complementary strengths.

Europa’s world domination impulses are a great fit for her strengths. But she does occasionally have to use a computer (think “launch codes”). Rather than taking her attention away from her strengths, she can be paired with someone whose strengths complement hers. Melvin, the IT director, for example.

Melvin loves mice. The kind with buttons. And he is more than happy to help her do regular backups, troubleshoot problems with the VPN, and install Linux in a separate partition on her hard drive.

She doesn’t really know what any of that means, nor should she. Melvin can put his technical excellence to work, while Europa concentrates on bringing the next world leader into her secret cabal. Prime Minister Theresa May is about to step down, which means there is work to be done.

When it’s time for an annual review, don’t put your attention on weaknesses. Managing to strengths is the way to go! They’ll be happier. You’ll be happier. They’ll accomplish far more, and your company will, too. Choose a good strengths framework that has action implications for your company. Profile your people, and match them with jobs and teams where their strengths can be an asset for them. Then match complementary strengths so the entire team has a full set of world-class strengths.

Bernice is so impressed with the Europa/Melvin partnership that she’s made it official. He’s whipping Europa’s technology know-how into shape, and she’s putting her full attention on packing for her trip to Britain. I asked her plans and she just said, “Qué sera sera.” 


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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.