Only 34 percent of managers can name the strengths of their employees. WTF?

Manage Through Employee Strengths

In the course of writing this blog, I’ve come across some (admittedly designed as clickbait) headlines about management and leadership that really depress me. For example: “82 Percent Of Managerial Hires Are The Wrong One.” Ditto: “95 Percent Of Managers Don’t Understand Motivation.” Also: “60 Percent Of Managers View Respecting Their Employees As Something They Don’t Have Time For.” It’s all kind of a joke at some level; it does make me step back and think, “Well, the employee-manager relationship is inherently doomed.”

Here’s some new stuff from Forbes on managers knowing the strengths of their employees. It opens with these stats, based on the 2015 Strengths At Work Survey: only 34 percent of managers can name the strengths of their direct reports, and only 32 percent have had a conversation with their direct reports about their strengths in the past three months. So basically, line up 10 managers. 3/10 will understand the strengths of their people. I fully realize that most managers think products and processes are more valuable than people, but this is still an insane stat. You work with people and expect deliverables from them, and yet you can’t ID their strengths? (And weaknesses?) Pull your head out of your ass and away from your Outlook calendar for a second, good sir or madam. Your people can actually be an advantage. 

The latter stat — the one about 32 percent having a discussion about strengths — doesn’t actually surprise me, because I think everyone has known for a long time that the performance review (as currently constructed) is kind of a joke and should probably be blown up.

Brief personal interlude: at the end of college, I used to tell my friends all the time that if you want to be socially relevant in a college setting, you need to interact with people and “play to their strengths, but play away from their weaknesses.” I used to get mocked for this statement all the time. In reality, there might be a kernel of truth to it.

There are a few more positive stats you can throw at this concept — for example, per Gallup, managers who focus on their employee’s strengths are 86% more likely to achieve above-average performance as opposed to managers who don’t. 71% of employees who believe managers can name their strengths report feeling more energized and engaged by their work; that goes back to this idea about purpose at work, which is very hard to achieve and companies often get wrong but should be something that an employee can justifiably expect from their employer.

Overall, this doesn’t surprise me. My current manager could probably name 3-5 strengths of mine, and that’s good — but before that, I don’t think I’ve had a manager who could name even 1-2 for several years. For example, I largely try to define myself (when I can) as a writer. While I’ve written a lot of things for a lot of people by now, most of the actual job titles I’ve had involve marketing or managing webpages for companies; I often write in those roles, but it’s not the primary aspect listed or in the job title. I’ve had a ton of managers (half-a-dozen if not more) who ask me to write something, I do it, and then they say, “Oh, you can write?” They had no idea because it’s very much a Breakfast Club thing: “You see us how you want to see us… the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions…” That’s because the hiring process sucks a dong, and headcount legitimately gets in the way of thinking strategically about a new hire.

Still, the bottom line: take some time and invest in a relationship with your employees. You don’t have to be best friends, no. (Many people fear this idea.) You can go around and talk to them and learn their ideas and passions and strengths, though. I know you’re busy, but it’s a small thing that can make a huge difference.

Ted Bauer


  1. Ted – Michelle McQuaid’s strength is hype. If you have a close look at the research on strengths you will find its underwhelming – despite what Michelle’s says.

    If your concerns are about Manager’s connecting with people then there are better ways to do this. For example active constructive responding.

    Strengths aren’t the answer and Positive Psychology researchers are starting to acknowledge this.

    It’s only the hype-sters who keep flogging a dead horse

    • I think the Michelle stuff is only part of the “bad manager quilt,” you know? But I appreciate you providing context here.

      • Yep – the quilt is a complex tapestry of nuance.

        As a manager it becomes a little tiring listening to the rhetoric of consultants (like Michelle) who couldn’t practice what they preached when they worked yet have the audacity to claim to be gurus.

        And the secret of good management – agility. The ability to be curious about what works for different people. But as a manager this is really exhausting.

      • Right. But wouldn’t you argue part of the higher salary is that you manage PEOPLE now and not just targets? I agree with you that consultants are predominantly people who could never practice what they preach, though.

      • I have been a manager on and off for about 20 years now. The off part is when I get sick of managing people. The on part is when I move into more challenging roles which always include people management.

        Currently I have a great team because I got to recruit them. They have lost of autonomy and have been recruited because their strengths align with the job role.

        I think its all very well to critic managers (and I have had a fee bad ones) but inevitably bad management is often associated with system issues.

        More than often you have to take less than desirable shortcuts to get the job done.

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