Focus more on employee strengths

Employee Strengths

I’m not a manager — although I sometimes joke that my dog is my Chief Solutions Officer, so maybe I am — but it seems logical to me that managers should focus on employee strengths. Too often, though, the focus is on the weaknesses. I’d argue this largely comes from (a) managers not understanding accountability and (b) managers being scared of their own manager, and thus being terrified of “single point of failure” down the chain. There’s a nice old workplace saying that “shit rolls downhill,” and indeed it does. This majorly gets in the way of any focus on employee strengths.

So basically, here’s the premise: if you are a manager or leader in a business, you kind of have two approaches you can take with an employee:

  • “Fix” them or make them what you want
  • Use their strengths on certain projects and don’t let them touch other projects

For example, let’s say you’ve got a creative employee who isn’t very detail-oriented. This happens a lot. In that case, put that person on the creative projects — and leave them off client/customer work that needs a lot of box-checking. Most managers wouldn’t do this, would scream “All hands on deck” repeatedly, and would essentially force the employee into a box where he/she can’t succeed. You know what happens when you put an employee in a box? He/she tries to get out of the box.

There’s actually documented financial research that it’s better to improve your worst employees — by playing to the employee strengths — than to over-focus on your best employees. Most managers miss that, though.

Employee strengths and strengths-based leadership

Let me be real clear on something here. If someone came and told me about “strengths-based leadership,” I’d probably gag on a burrito and collapse on the floor in a heap. It’s Buzzword City. But it’s a real thing, and there are numerous books about it and all that. (“Books vet people and ideas!” — Ralph Wiggum.)

As detailed on Forbes, here are the four tenets of strengths-based leadership:

  • Align, don’t fix (just discussed this above)
  • Build diverse teams
  • Create a culture of transparency
  • Don’t manage, but empower

See? ABCD!

OK, now — if you’ve ever had an office job for even 12 seconds, you know almost none of this stuff ever happens.

“Align” would typically be replaced by “put some employee I don’t care for on an improvement plan in an effort to fire his ass.”

“Build” would typically be replaced by “find people like me who will kiss my ass and develop my team in that fashion.”

“Create” would normally be replaced by “withhold information down the business chain to increase my own relevance.”

“Don’t” would normally be replaced by hair-trigger management.

Fun world we work in, eh?

How employee strengths hit the bottom line

Bunch of research from Gallup on employee strengths in this new article from Harvard Business Review. The study looked at 49,495 business units encompassing 1.2 million employees. It was across seven industries and 22 countries. Not a bad sample size.

When a company focused on employee strengths, here are the metric increases they tended to hit:

  • 10%-19% increase in sales
  • 14%-29% increase in profit
  • 3%-7% increase in customer engagement
  • 9%-15% increase in engaged employees
  • 6- to 16-point decrease in turnover (in low-turnover organizations)
  • 26- to 72-point decrease in turnover (in high-turnover organizations)
  • 22%-59% decrease in safety incidents

If you went to a senior leader at a company and said “You can drop turnover by 16 percent and increase profit by 29 percent,” how quickly would it be until he hugged you? I’d guess maybe 1.5 seconds? I might be off on that.

So we now see that:

  • Employee strengths have bottom-line implications (across a big study)
  • Most managers screech, bellow, yelp, holler and shout before focusing on employee strengths

What now?

How to focus on employee strengths

The HBR article gives a bunch of generic advice like “Begin with senior leadership!” No shit. Every initiative has to begin there; that’s called hierarchy. The problem is that senior leaders typically don’t care about people issues. Go to a SVP and talk about “employee strengths.” They’ll punch you in the throat and scream “No time, I’m chasing new revenue streams!” They get bonus’ed off new revenue. They don’t get bonus’ed off “focusing on employee strengths.” You gotta remember that.

This is a little bit similar to employee recognition ideas. What if managers kept charts like this?

Employee Strengths Chart

This doesn’t seem super hard to me. Sure, it’s another thing to keep track of or monitor — but if you’re a manager and making more money, why can’t you do that? (Dirty little secret: the extra money has to mean extra responsibilities. It has never worked the other way.)

Now, there’s documented research that 68 percent — 7 in 10! — of managers don’t care about their employees’ career progression. We’ve also got some research that only 34 percent — 3.5 in 10! — of managers can name two strengths of their direct reports.


Clearly we’ve got a long way to go here, but the chart above could be a simple start for many. I’d estimate it’d take about 10-12 minutes per employee to fill this out. Let’s say you have 10 direct reports and do this every two weeks. That’s what, 240 minutes a month? So 4 hours or so? You sat in at least 11 hours of pointless meetings. This actually has a point.

The psychology of the employee strengths problem

Here’s something to realize about evolution: your brain is wired to predict threats. That’s a big deal in a work context. When you say “employee strengths,” you acknowledge that someone down the chain has strengths. To many bosses, that’s a threat. “You mean this subordinate is coming for my job! Never!”

That’s a little bit drastic — what I just typed — but I mean, many bosses are like that. I’ve had probably 9-12 in that category, and I’m just one turd guzzler.

It requires a boss with a high degree of self-awareness in order to focus on employee strengths. Unfortunately, we don’t promote self-awareness people up the chain — because many of the most self-aware people would never want to be managers at companies. They’d rather go do their own thing. We promote target-chasers, and then the problem becomes worse. Phrased another way: stop promoting assholes.

Work needs to be about more than protecting your perch and getting the most for yourself. At some level, it needs to be about the employee strengths on your team.

Any other thoughts on employee strengths and how to develop them properly?

Ted Bauer


  1. I mostly disagree. There is nothing wrong (of course) with recognizing strengths. But to ignore the “flat side” of performance is not respectful to the person (by being honest with them) nor addresses potentially serious derailers. The study you cite could be reporting results that are due to the Hawthorne Effect; naturally people will do better if/when all of a sudden, there is change that focuses more attention on them. The biggest negative correlation to performance comes from people who are ignored; getting negative feedback engages employees more than those who are ignored.

    • Understood. I think the broader point I was making is how managers think about and evaluate “strengths.”

    • “people will do better if/when all of a sudden, there is change that focuses more attention on them. The biggest negative correlation to performance comes from people who are ignored; getting negative feedback engages employees more than those who are ignored.”

      I see where you’re coming from, David. In an ideal system, engaging an employee by providing negative feedback is likely preferable to no feedback at all; at least the employee feels as if they are a valued member of the team, even if their contributions aren’t up to spec with what the employer’s looking for. Negative feedback can be very valuable both to the employer (addresses gaps in performance to fill critical organizational needs) and the employee (helps them understand how they can perform better).

      However, I think a lot of managers use “negative feedback” as an excuse to vent their personal misgivings about an employee. As Ted is wont to mention, workplaces are a lot more emotional than we generally acknowledge them to be. That emotion affects how we view our colleagues and direct reports. In one of my past positions, a performance review veered into territory that wasn’t appropriate for the workplace. I realize I’m extrapolating off of one example, but I get the feeling a lot of people have experienced similar incidents.

      I think negative feedback can be highly valuable if presented professionally, succinctly, and with a road map for how an employee can improve in the future.

  2. I believe most people would improve their performance in “weaker” areas if given the respect and support to use their stronger ones. Bosses often tell people how negative they are and to buck themselves up, focussing on the negatives. This rarely does anything other than create more negativity and cynicism in the recipients. Feedback is good of course but that needs a. to work up as well as down and b. The giver needs to understand how to give it respectfully & supportively.I I rarely have observed that happening in our hierarchical workplaces. Excellent article Ted.

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