Stop focusing on strengths if you want your company to systemically perform better

Bruno Rooselaer · 08 April 2021 · 6 minute read
Stop focusing on strengths if you want your company to systemically perform better

Over the years we've learned to focus on the strengths of employees rather than on their weaknesses. It motivates them, they are more productive and they are happier. But when companies apply the same approach, they develop organizational blind spots, and are guaranteed to become less competitive. What are the most critical hidden weaknesses in organizations, which business leaders and management need to know about?

You’ve probably heard the popular saying: Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Plenty of research done the past decade points to same conclusions. When it comes to improving our performance in the workplace, we produce better results when we focus on what we’re already good at (Gallup, 2014). And that makes sense, right? We’re happier, more confident, and time seems to pass quicky when we can fully use our talents and do what we love. The bonus for the organization we work in is that that focus on strengths leads to higher employee engagement, increased performance, and significantly lower attrition rates. And that’s mildly put. People who use their strengths every day are 3 times more likely to have an excellent quality of life (HBR, 2016 & Gallup, 2015), and 6 times more likely to be engaged on the job (Gallup, 2009). In the latter Gallup research, a random sample of 1000 US workers were interviewed and asked if their supervisor focuses on one of three things:

  • on workers’ strengths and positive characteristics
  • on workers’ weaknesses and negative characteristics
  • on neither of them.

The conclusion was startling:

  • 25% of the respondents indicated they were not encouraged to develop anything, and 40% of those people were actively disengaged.
  • By contrast, of the 37% of workers who indicated their employer focused on strengths and positive characteristics, active disengagement fell to only 1%, and engaged workers made up 61% of the group. That is twice the average of engaged workers in the US (36%) (Gallup, 2020), and six times (!) the average of engaged workers in Western Europe (10%) (Gallup, 2017).

This makes clear theres still a long way to go in this area. So focusing on employee strengths? Absolutely.


However. Along the way, many organizations seem to have taken this “focusing on strengths” credo and applied it on their organization, without realizing that the outcome can be detrimental to healthy and sustainable company growth.

Focusing on your organization’s weaknesses is essential for short and long term survival. Tools such as the obvious SWOT analysis, the lesser known SWT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses & Trends), Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, value chain analysis, business process mapping and such, are recommended to get to know obvious weaknesses of the organization, yet they are not sufficient to uncover all weaknesses. Here’s why: When using these tools, what you assess are the weaknesses of which you can detect that they are a weakness. In other words, after using these tools, your organization knows what it doesn’t know or where it needs to improve. And it can act on it. It can hire people to uncover these semi-blind spots and develop them, or it can hire consultants to quicky assess how big the semi-blind spot is, to eventually take better decisions on what to do with them. So what are critical common weaknesses that do not show up first-aid business tools? Here are a few to look out for:

Here are a few critical ones to look out for:

  1. Competence gaps of leadership: CEO’s naturally focus on the areas in the business where they – and by extension board members and shareholders - are most familiar with, and leave areas they are less familiar with to their supporting C-team. So far so good. But how do you know that the entire leadership team covers all essential areas for growth? Areas which made a strategic difference 5 years ago, but are now considered a strategic necessity? Emotional and social intelligence of leadership, a company purpose that sparks a positive emotional reaction and gives meaning to all stakeholders, a growth-minded culture to be more agile and innovative, awareness training to increase joy, focus and creativity, the importance of branding (and making sustainability, commitment to social causes and employer branding part of that brand), not to mention all technological challenges of the present day. Leadership is top sport, but assuming one can keep track of all the newest trends in all areas and understanding all the implications is an illusion. The ones who win are the ones who feel comfortable to (publicly) acknowledge they do not have all the answers, that no one expects them to have all the answers, and who are able to challenge themselves and their organization relentlessly with holistic x-rays. (Invision Consulting uses its Sustainable Growth Model as guide to make sure all critical areas for sustainable growth are covered. Contact us if you are interested in our 720° scan)

  2. Competence gaps created by hiring after own image: Organizations have a certain spectrum of expertise or competences. And the natural tendency within organisations is to hire people who fit that spectrum. A recruiter in an engineering company will want to hire job applicants with a master’s degree in engineering and as much engineering experience as possible. The “click” between recruiter and job application will reflect not only cultural fit, but also experience fit, and it is seen as proof that the job applicant fits the tribe. The recruiter sees and feels the similarity, so they prefer these accomplished engineers over engineers with much more variety in their background. In what I call developing organizations there are often no organizational guidelines yet to increase diversity and counter unconscious bias or similarity attraction of recruiters (CriteriaCorp, 2020) When the CEO is not familiar with similarity attraction and how focusing on diversity and equality increases profits (HBR, 2020), he/she is very likely to fall in the same trap and will surround him/herself with a C-level that reflects the experience and knowledge spectrum of the CEO. In other words, any CEO blind spot has the potential to become an organizational blind spot; hiring after one’s own image cascades down the org chart and given enough time, you will get an organization which is outstanding in their core expertises but dreadful in just about everything else. And while the top of the organization thinks they’re doing well, they miss out on critical profit due to low or mediocre employee satisfaction, slow innovation, organizational inefficiency, weak (employer) brand strength, triangular communication etc. Profit that may mean the difference between thriving or going bankrupt in times of global crises.  

  3. Not being open to feedback enough: It is easy to accept feedback or ideas from peers or colleagues we closely work with and trust. It is a lot more challenging to accept that people we do not really know, may know something about our organization that we do not know. Why is that? For several reasons:
    • Bubble vision: We all live in bubbles. Our bubble can be regarded as the abstract product of our habitat, our worldview, our experiences, our reasoning, and our comfort zone. It is when we have the curiosity to put ourselves in other’s shoes – when we step into the bubble of a customer or an employee for example – that we fully understand the problems they face. It is there that we can get the best insights critical to the success of our endeavours.
    • Lack of time: The higher up in the food chain one works, the more valuable time becomes. And the harder it becomes to make the time to fully understand the context and implications of a problem or idea that has been brought up. The more innovative and disruptive the solution, the more time it will often take to understand the entire context.
    • Lack of clarity: Leaders are trained by experience to be extremely concise. Entrepreneurs often spend months to learn how to convey exactly what they offer and how their offer is a solution for customers’ problems. Employees typically do not have this skill. This means it is easy to dismiss suggestions they have, as they typically do not know how to correctly frame their idea in the limited time CEO’s have available for them.

  4. Not asking where you as an individual can improve: Having blind spots is natural. Like a scissor that cannot cut itself, or a weighing scale that cannot weigh itself, we cannot see our own blind spots (hence the name). So we need an outside perspective to be objective. Researchers looked into the self-assessments of 500 leaders and the feedback of 10000 of their peers over a period of 15 years to identify possible blind spots. They asked leaders the top 3 things they felt they needed to improve upon, and they asked their assessors the top 3 things their leaders needed to improve upon. In 80% of the cases, that top 3 was completely different between leader and assessors. (Merryck & Co & The Barrett Values Centre, 2020). A side effect of asking this question to employees and contractors, is that it creates a psychologically safer environment for them. They will find it easier to step forward when they believe the leadership may be missing something.

In the end, the single most important question leaders can ask today to avoid personal and organizational blind spots, and essentially be better prepared for an unpredictable world is:

How can I do better as your leader?


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