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Popular Advice to Stick to Employee Strengths Ignores the Helpfulness of Improvement Feedback

I’ve noticed a trend in management literature that’s grown over the last decade, and it’s still building momentum. Lots of articles and books are telling us to manage people’s strengths and give up on asking them to change or learn new skills. The messages go like this:

  1. Find people’s best capabilities and focus your coaching on increasing them

  2. Stop trying to get people to do what they’re not good at

  3. Re-assign responsibilities to align with what people are naturally good at

  4. Catch people doing something great and praise them for it

  5. It’s impossible to get people to do things contrary to their innate strengths, so don’t even try

  6. Stop providing improvement feedback because it demoralizes people

  7. If you need different skills on your team, you should probably hire them in

Positive feedback is a good thing

I totally agree that recognizing and amplifying strengths is an important part of employee development. The whole team benefits from knowing what works well and I often recommend asking your team members who are great at something to spread their gifts, serve as “go to” experts, and coach others on these skills. I recommend praising, promoting, and giving raises to your star players with skills that are in high demand.

But it’s not the only thing

I think it’s destructive to give up on the innate human ability to learn, grow, and significantly change. We are hurting employees by withholding feedback that can be hugely beneficial for them personally and for the performance of the whole organization. It’s patronizing and, in my view, manipulative to deny them frequent, helpful feedback improvement feedback. While we’re all smiles and attaboys and presuming everybody’s happy, employees are stagnating, not “getting” the critical skills that will make them more competitive in future, and pulling down performance in the team and in the company.

Recent research, including hundreds of interviews I have conducted myself in diverse organizations, consistently points out that our team members want, more than anything else, to know the truth about what they are doing well, what we’d like to see improved, and how to advance in their careers. They want transparency and they want it on a frequent basis. The idea of their bosses sitting around trying to script out a conversation that sticks only to strengths is contrived at best, and destructive to employee development at worst.

So how can you development strengths and improve weak areas in a motivating way?

1. Keep giving positive feedback, as long as you speak honestly

Both positive and improvement feedback are needed. When you discuss the employee’s effective behavior, explain how it contributes to the business. For example:

“You’re explaining your solutions in a easy-to-understand way. Customers who talk with you are rating our support services highly”

2. Also offer suggestions for improvement

Focus on how the individuals could make an even greater impact on the team’s goals. If there are problems, be honest about what is not working well, and explain how it pulls down the performance of the business on financial, customer, or other goals. Make sure to close the loop by reaching agreement about how they can improve their performance. If they’re excellent in one or more areas, you may want them to train or lead others. A promotion may be overdue and there will be new things to master. It’s fascinating to know that star performers respect you more if you give them something new to learn or improve on!

3. Always ask for their feedback back to you

As you offer feedback, ask each person:

“How can I help you improve?”

“How, in your view, can I better lead the team to reach our collective goals?”

What to avoid

  1. Acting parent-like and patting them on the back just to create a feel-good environment. Be specific in your praise and link it to goals–yours and theirs.

  2. Giving all-negative feedback. Just like all-positive feedback, it lowers your credibility because everyone knows they have some strengths and some weaknesses. Recognizing both strengths and improvement needs, naming them, and giving examples actually builds trust!

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