Why You Should Ditch the Conventional Approach to Leadership

“What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”

Psychologist and business executive, Dr. Don Clifton, asked himself this question over five decades ago and would spend the remainder of his life exploring the answer. Today, he's remembered as the father of strengths-based psychology and the founder of the CliftonStrengths assessment.

Dr. Clifton discovered that when you focus on what is right with people, you’re equipped to position them to do more of what comes naturally to them, resulting in greater employee engagement, productivity and profitability.

This is the heart of the strengths-based approach to personal and professional development. This approach stands in contrast to the conventional approach to leadership that most leaders adopt (usually without intending to!) in their organizations.

In this blog, I’ll share with you the major differences between a conventional and strengths-based approach and strongly advocate that leaders make the switch and adopt a strengths-based approach. Then I’ll share several practical strategies to help you build this kind of transformative culture in your organization.

Ditch the Conventional Approach

A conventional approach to personal and professional development focuses on fixing weaknesses and assumes that weakness fixing will lead to more success. Leaders who adopt a conventional approach hope to maintain the strengths of their team members, but pour most of their time, energy and resources into improving weaknesses. In its simplified form, it looks like the following:

Step 1: Observe and evaluate individual team member

Step 2: Identify problem or improvement areas

Step 3: Develop an improvement plan to address problem areas

Step 4: Discuss progress every six months or on a yearly basis

On the surface, this seems intuitive enough. Sure, it’s important for us to identify our vulnerabilities and blind spots and work to correct them. And yes, we can and should continue to grow in our roles. But if you consider the assumptions and implications of this approach, you’ll find it’s demotivating and outdated. Focusing on weaknesses doesn’t help employees thrive and flourish in their roles.

When leaders use a conventional approach, they rely on annual performance review processes that haven’t been proven to substantially benefit the employee or the company. In fact, according to Gallup, only 14% of employees strongly agree that the performance reviews they receive inspire them to improve.

Today’s top talent is not satisfied with an annual performance review and an improvement plan. They don’t just want a boss.

They crave coaching and development from their leaders.

They want us to help them develop their talents into strengths.

They want us to help them identify ways to apply those strengths to tasks that don’t come as naturally to them.

I have a friend who was working in a management role within an organization for six months before he received any meaningful feedback about his performance. At first, the lack of communication made him feel uneasy, but he eventually decided that no feedback must be good feedback. He was blindsided when his supervisor communicated frustration about his strategy in a six-month performance review. Turns out, his supervisor was unhappy with his performance but had been waiting until the official review to communicate it.

My friend stayed for one more month and then decided to move on.

When debriefing with me, he said, “It wasn’t that my boss had negative feedback to give me-I expect that in any job. It was just clear to me that there are cultural problems in an organization that doesn’t communicate early and often about performance and progress.”

He was right.

Conventional approaches are culture-killers.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years when it comes to developing my staff. In my first few years of training, supervising and developing graduate teaching assistants, I used a conventional approach. I communicated expectations, evaluated my staff members in the classroom once a semester, and then had a 1-hour meeting in which I probably spent 10 minutes affirming him/her and 50 minutes identifying weaknesses and creating strategic plans for improvement.

Looking back, I see why so many on my staff were discouraged.

I was weakness obsessed.

And I made them weakness obsessed.

But when I adopted a strengths-based approach, I saw an immediate change in their confidence and performance.

Adopt a Strengths-Based Approach

Weakness fixing prevents failure; strengths building leads to success.

A strengths-based approach to personal and professional development means that we focus on each person’s strengths and manage around weaknesses.

It doesn’t mean we pretend weaknesses and vulnerabilities don’t exist. It doesn’t mean we only shower our team members with praise and avoid correcting or redirecting them. It doesn’t mean we are naïve to their limitations and blind spots.

It means that we make a strategic decision to focus on their strengths. It means we take the time to discover and develop their talents-those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that come naturally to them.

It means that we coach and develop them to:

  • Name and understand their dominant strengths and the strengths of team members

  • See clear connections between their individual and collective strengths and past and present successes and challenges

  • Create strategic partnerships in light of performance objectives and goals

  • Apply their strengths to plan, analyze, and direct their actions and behaviors

  • Use what already comes naturally to them to manage around weaknesses

To do all of the above, we must be engaged with our team members and provide feedback on a consistent basis. This is how our employees learn and grow.

So What's the ROI?

I’ve talked with some leaders who’ve expressed apprehension about the strengths-based approach, because:

  • “What if it makes them lazy?”

  • “They will take it for granted.”

  • "They won't think they need to grow."

  • “I’m afraid they’ll use this as an excuse to perform poorly”

In my experience, this line of thinking surfaces because we are a weakness obsessed people. As leaders, we are prone to focus on our own weaknesses, feeling guilty for all the things we are not, instead of focusing on the unique and specific value we bring to our roles and organizations.

Then we project those feelings onto our team members. We fear that adopting a strengths-based approach will mean our teams and organizations won’t improve or grow.

But research shows that adopting a strengths-based approach has the opposite effect. In fact, when leaders and organizations used strength-based strategies, they see all sorts of benefits.

The Gallup Organization conducted a large study, examining companies and organizations using a strengths-based approach. This study included 49,495 business units with 1.2 million employees across 22 organizations in seven industries and 45 countries.

They found that 90% of the groups studied had performance increases at or above the following ranges:

  • 10% to 19% increased sales

  • 14% to 29% increased profit

  • 3% to 7% higher customer engagement

  • 6% to 16% lower turnover (low-turnover organizations)

  • 26% to 72% lower turnover (high-turnover organizations)

  • 9% to 15% increase in engaged employees

  • 22% to 59% fewer safety incidents

But the benefits didn’t stop there.

They also found that 67% of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths are engaged in their jobs. In contrast, that percentage drops to just 2% when employees disagree that their manager focuses on their strengths.

Even small improvements in those areas would be worth it.

How to Make it Happen

Adopting a strengths-based approach does require a shift in thinking and behavior. But the good news is that there are simple and proven strategies you can start using immediately that will make a big difference.

And it will be worth it.

To get started:

  • Do a quick audit/evaluation of your leadership philosophy. Have you been focusing on weaknesses? If so, how can you commit today to champion the strengths of your team members?

  • Identify the talents and strengths of each individual team member. Pay attention to the tasks they consistently perform with ease, excellence, and enjoyment. Ask them which parts of their jobs come most naturally to them. And if you'd like to use a research-based assessment to help you identify the talents of your team members, we recommend the CliftonStrengths© Assessment. If you'd like more information about this assessment and ways you can use it in your organization, you can reach out here and we'd be happy to send you more information.

  • Assess the strengths of your team as a whole. What do you already do well? How can you build on that strength and manage around team weaknesses? Ask yourself if you need to reposition some of your team members based on their strengths.

  • Download our free Building a Strengths-Based Culture Cheat Sheet for lots of practical ideas and strategies that can help you lead with a strengths-based approach after discovering your strengths.

If you want to build an exceptional workplace where employee talents are valued and developed, join the millions who’ve ditched the conventional approach and adopted a strengths-based approach instead.

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