Should you play to your strengths or work on your weaknesses

This has been a widespread debate for decades among leaders and managers, and there are cases to be made for each approach. Focusing on strengths leads to higher levels of engagement and productivity (in certain areas), and developing weaknesses eliminates potential blind spots that could derail your career. 

Although it's important to differentiate yourself with strengths, they can also be your greatest liability, often creating a false sense of security and limiting job growth. Developing weakness helps round out your skillset, but also detracts away from the opportunity cost associated with maximizing strengths. 

You get the dilemma. But what if there was a way to do both? What if there was a way to maximize strengths while developing weaknesses? 

Enter strength bundling. 

I first got the idea of strength bundling from Dr. Katherine Milkman, Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. 

In her research, Milkman found that people could improve the odds of positive behavioral change by bundling less desirable tasks with more enticing ones. The example she provided was working out while reading your favorite trashy novel. She called it "temptation bundling."

After spending the last few years in talent development, I believe the same principle can be applied to the strengths versus weakness debate. 

In my organization, we take each employee through an assessment called the Predictive Index (PI). The PI helps us identify an employee's workstyle and the associated strengths. Employees are then encouraged to leverage their natural abilities. We found the practice to drive employee engagement, increase team diversity, and collaboration. 

However, every workstyle has its limitations. 

For example, I'm what the PI calls a "Collaborator." Base on my profile, my strengths include aspects like mediation, relationship building, listening, and teamwork. Areas of challenge include detail orientation, difficult conversations, and working in a fast-paced or "fire drill" environment. 

In my current role, I could probably do just fine playing to my strengths and mitigating my weaknesses. However, I have broader aspirations. I'd love to have my own team one day. Part of being an effective manager requires a certain level of detail orientation and comfortability with conflict. 

Although my PI profile suggests these areas are weaknesses, that doesn't mean I'm incapable of developing them. They're just going to require more energy. 

As an example, imagine that you're more of an introverted employee. You love analytical and structured work, and do your best thinking in the privacy of your own office. Now, imagine if you were asked to give a presentation in front of your organization's executives on intangibles. Terrifying, right? 

I bet that you'd power through it, but afterward, you'd be mentally exhausted. Any task from that point on would take twice as long as it usually does because you wouldn't have the energy to focus--A.K.A, burnout. 

This is what happens when managers try to develop their employee's weaknesses solely -- they unintentionally throw them into the deep of development, which robs them of their energy and engagement. We tend to do this to ourselves as well. 

Instead, try strength bundling to maintain the energy it will require to persevere.

Using the example above, if you're trying to develop presentation skills, try giving the presentation on a detailed process or system that you like and know intimately. Or, better yet, on the results of the analysis you just performed. In this case, your strengths in detail orientation and analysis will carry you through the daunting task of presenting. Your natural abilities will give you the energy to overcome your weaknesses. 

There will come a time when we will have to address our weaknesses to progress. Rather than hiding from them, try bundling your weaknesses and strengths to ensure that you maintain motivation and don't burnout.

Published on: Dec 17, 2019
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