“Do not try to change yourself – you are unlikely to succeed.”
(American author Peter Drucker)
“Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong” (Drucker, 2005). It makes intuitive sense that if you want excellence in performance you must work from your strengths although our organisations and schools often focus on change in weaknesses in order to improve performance. Drucker advises “You can only perform from strength, you cannot perform from weakness”. Original ideas on strength development suggested that you don’t learn about excellence by studying weakness, fixing weaknesses leads to improved weaknesses, not improved performance.
Drucker again “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence”. Why is this the case? Buckingham and Clifton (2001) say that is because of the way we are wired. The synaptic connections in our brains are unique pathways and some of these operate so smoothly and effortlessly that when they are firing we are what some authors talk about being in ‘the flow’. Synaptic plasticity can be improved but it is far more effective to be working with those connections (strengths) that exist already.
As we grow up we get told a lot of myths. When I was young my parents and teachers told me that “you can do anything you want provided you work hard enough”? Well, I worked pretty hard at some things and never been particularly good at them (playing the guitar being an example). Stick your head up and look over your partition. How many of your colleagues are working now with an innate ability. Statistics show that less than half do.
Ducker is pretty clear on this “do not try to change yourself – you are unlikely to succeed” (Drucker, 2005). That is counterintuitive to what a lot of people believe. Your strengths reflect you and you need to build on what is unique in you. Buckingham and Clifton say the same thing slightly differently – you don’t change as you get older, you become more of who you already are. You can’t get much more direct that this “Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their methods of work and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person – hardworking and competent otherwise mediocre – into an outstanding performer” (Drucker, 2005).
According to Tim Rath (2007) where there is opportunity to focus on strength staff are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to report having excellent quality of life in general. That seems to suggest to me, if you focus on building staff strengths chances are you won’t need to worry much about performance or engagement.
While some people will work with their strengths without ever thinking much about it the research suggests (Buckingham M., 2012) that a majority of people, over 70%, spend little or no time using their innate talents, that is bordering on being a crime. For them and the organisations they work in, performance can only ever be average.
Discovering your enduring, innate strengths is such a critical aspect to happiness at work and in other aspects of life. While it frustrates me that talent and joy is left undiscovered and unrealised, and – as I see it – so little is done in organisations to promote strengths, I see that ultimately it is an individual’s responsibility, people must do this for themselves.
Recognising your innate abilities enables you to refine them. Invest time in reflecting on your strengths and how these can be developed. Sometimes strengths are enhanced through technical training however strength development is often more about immersion and experience, being around others that complement and help build your strengths. You may have heard the expression that you are the sum of the five or six people you spend the most time around – so it makes sense to choose goodies that recognise and build strengths. Be prepared to say no to opportunities if they are not in your zone of strength and be prepared to volunteer your strengths to your team (Buckingham M., 2007).
Regarding weaknesses, Buckingham and Clifton (2001) advise to only fix a weakness if it is inhibiting a strength, otherwise disregard it. And as Drucker points out, you need to manage this yourself – do not expect if from your organisation.
Drucker says “we need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong”. Drucker is proposing to us very important questions. What are your strengths? Do you belong in your current role, the same role but done differently (which is usually the case), a different role or even in a different organisation? If you cannot identify and articulate your strengths then chances are you cannot clearly express your essence and I’m not sure where that leaves you.
PS: There are many ways to ‘discover your strengths’. Read the Drucker paper. It is particularly good as it has a wider lens than other authors, such as Buckingham, who largely write about strength development.
Buckingham, M. (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work.
Buckingham, M. (2012). Case For Strengths.
Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D. (2001). Now Discover Your Strengths.
Drucker, P. (2005). Managing Oneself. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review
Rath, T. (2007). Strengths Finder 2.
This article is poached and slightly amended from an intranet blog, with the permission of the author:
Mark Harris, Information Technology Manager at Te Tumu Paeroa.