Why is it that we focus on weaknesses, not strengths, in the workplace?

Staff members are encouraged at their performance reviews to improve their weak areas. Does it not make more sense to concentrate on strengths?

So says Gallup, which has published a book on the subject by New York Times No 1 best-selling author Tom Rath. Doesn't it make more sense to concentrate on what you do well? That's Rath's argument based on decades of research by the Gallup organisation.

Concentrating on strengths is exactly what the world's most successful people ranging from Bill Gates to Lionel Messi did to get where they are. They spent thousands of hours developing what they do well.

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At an organisational level, employees who intentionally apply their strengths to their work increase the odds of their success. It's that simple, says Robyn Hart, senior consultant at Gallup Consulting.

When you're not able to use you strengths at work it's likely you'll:

* Dread going to work

* Have negative, not positive, interactions with colleagues

* Treat customers poorly

* Tell your friends what a miserable company you work for

* Achieve less on a daily basis

* Have fewer positive and creative moments.

Many people may be staring their strengths in the face, but until they can see them are held back in their careers or simply sit at their desks disengaged.

Finding your strengths can be hugely empowering, says Jennie Vickers of Zeopard Think Consulting.

Vickers paid an Australian-based mentor to guide her through discovering her own strengths, and now offers a similar service to clients.

"We rarely see the strengths in ourselves as clearly as others do," says Vickers.

"One of the best methods of finding your strengths is to have a conversation with somebody you trust who will help you.

"It needs to be someone who is gentle because if somebody spots something far too quickly you don't get the opportunity for that self-endorsement."

Vickers lets her clients talk about themselves and reflects what she hears back to them. Sometimes people hear their strengths for the first time. "Strength is where what you are passionate about bisects your expertise."

Sometimes those strengths are even sitting in performance reviews as mis-understood weaknesses.

Vickers herself gained clarity about her strengths through one-on-one mentoring by Matt Church, founder of the Thought Leaders Movement.

She'd often been viewed by employers as being slightly troublesome and she learned that her ability to take a different perspective was in fact a strength that could be harnessed, especially in fast-moving environments.

Despite being a lawyer and good with words, Vickers had never been able to articulate her strengths. One of her favourite keynote speeches is entitled Different is the New Normal.

"I used to get into pickles for having thought processes so radically different to people around me," she says. "People would say: 'Where the hell did that come from?' I would start to think I was wrong, whereas I was using my brain the way it was designed to be used."

Vickers has learned how to manage delivery of her strengths in context, without turning whoever is working with her into a stunned mullet.

She can now see how the occasional "negative" point in her performance reviews over the years was in fact a strength others didn't understand and she didn't manage.

Gallup, which provides a management consultancy service in New Zealand, found that only 1 per cent of employees surveyed whose manager primarily focused on their strengths were disengaged.

Not surprisingly, the organisation's consulting focuses on what executives and employees do well.

It provides staff with a copy of its book, Strengths Finder 2.0, and takes them through an assessment of their strengths.

The book gives an introduction to the concept of strengths psychology and then has a unique access code which enables the reader to complete a 30-minute questionnaire.

The results highlight each person's five top strengths out of 34 and provide ideas for action on each relevant theme.

Participants are then asked:

1. How does this information help you better understand your unique talents?

2. How can you use this understanding to add value to your role?

3. How can you apply this knowledge to add value to your team, workgroup, department, or division?

4. How will this understanding help you add value to your organisation?

5. What will you do differently tomorrow as a result of this report?

Gallup typically puts an organisation's executive team through the process first, says Hart, using a very similar book/questionnaire called Strengths Based Leadership, which is also available to the public. It will then move down to managers.

In an ideal situation everyone in an organisation would do the assessment. Some leaders have coaching sessions with the company to help implement their strengths.

Recently Hart spoke with a company that had bought 80 copies of the book for its employees. Because each book has a unique code to open up the online questionnaire and reporting, it cannot be shared or passed on.

Hart says one of the great advantages of knowing what employees' strengths are is that organisations can align people with complementary strengths. For example, if the organisation was attempting to woo a potential customer and needed to know more about it, an employee with "learner" strengths could be assigned to the team involved in that exercise.

If the company wanted to get into a new market it might seek out staff with "analytical" strengths. Or if the executive team was aware that one member had a strategic strength, that person would be singled out to be involved in any strategic planning.

Another advantage of identifying staff strengths is that managers and staff can seek help from those they know have complementary skills. This is no longer admitting failure.

"It gives [people] permission to go and ask for help and to accept that 'this isn't my strength'," says Hart. "It is very liberating."

In the book Strengths Finder 2.0, Rath says that done correctly, a strengths-based goal-setting process clarifies what the organisation means by success and whether each employee is achieving it. The costs of not finding employees' "strengths zones" are staggering for organisations, she says.

IT'S A PROCESS
* People's strengths are often right under their noses
* Focusing on an employee's strengths helps them become more engaged
* Understanding strengths allows complementary employees to be assembled in teams
* Highly successful people work to improve their strengths almost universally.