It’s one of the most common — and annoying — interview questions you’ll encounter, “What are your weaknesses?” Gurus tell us to offer up obvious non-weaknesses like perfectionism, or dogged determination. It’s funny that we all possess weaknesses, but rarely are we allowed to admit it openly. And sometimes we don’t even admit it to ourselves.
We’re taught to shore up our weaknesses from an early age. If we struggle with something like math or English, we might find ourselves in remedial classes, getting tutoring and spending an inordinate time on those areas of difficulty.
For this reason, even as adults we view ourselves in terms or weaknesses and deficiencies. We notice the half emptiness of the glass. Due to this perspective we end up trying to overcome our weaknesses, which often has a low payoff. For example, if you aren’t particularly gifted with words or public speaking, you might find yourself compelled to spend the next few years taking night classes in writing and then joining your local Toastmasters International to improve your skills. After years of hard and sometimes painful work, you may develop into a decent public speaker.
This determination to improve on a weakness certainly feels admirable, but what if you happen to have a natural knack for design? As in, it takes you mere minutes to come up with creative solutions for improving the design of something, like a physical product or app interface. Without having invested all that much effort, you’ve already got a great baseline understanding of this discipline. This is a strength. Now imagine that instead of focusing all those hours on improving your speaking skills, you went to design oriented classes and workshops, and worked on projects in your off time to hone your skills. You could turn yourself into a rockstar designer, and actually enjoy the process instead of struggling.
So your two paths look like this: Path A, the arguably more difficult path, results in you being a decent public speaker and designer. Path B, which is most likely more enjoyable, results in you being an extraordinary designer. Which do you think makes you more valuable in the workplace, and leaves you most satisfied?
Focusing On Your Strengths
Instead of worrying about your weaknesses, concentrate on your strengths. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of focusing on our strengths. Some of these include increased happiness, lowered stress levels, more energy and better health. Likewise, when we concentrate on our strengths we also develop much faster.
For most of us, we can only hope to go from poor to average with regard to developing our weaker skills. However, going from good to great is a much smoother and ultimately more satisfying experience. When we run into challenges in a strong aptitude area, we’re more likely to have the energy reserves to persevere.
If you’re a manager, I implore you to focus more on your employees’ strengths. Certainly, all employees need a baseline competency in the various facets of their job roles, but you will get much more engagement by focusing on your different employees talents. In StrengthsFinder 2.0, Tom Rath points out that when managers focus on their employees’ weaknesses, there is a 22% active disengagement rate, versus only 1% when there is a focus on strengths. He goes on to reveal that, “people who … have an opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.”
Managing Your Weaknesses
While focusing on your strengths is one piece of the puzzle, managing your weaknesses is another. A couple of approaches are creating systems and using partnerships.
Keeping organized is one of my weaknesses, so I use technology as my system to manage this weakness. For instance, I’m not the best at creating well-organized files for my various writing and marketing projects. This is the reason that I love and use Google Docs. It has an amazingly fast search function that searches not just file names, but the documents itself. This means I never have to worry about organizing my files. Everything is searchable.
Partnerships are another way of managing weaknesses. At a previous job, when I worked on a customer support team at a tech company, I had a friend and co-worker who struggled with writing up technical instructions. She could do it, but it took her longer than average. However, she was magnificent on the phone and could turn an irate customer into her long-lost best friend. I, on the other hand, did not enjoy this type of phone work, yet I excelled at crafting easy to understand emails for our customers. Regularly, I’d help her out by writing or editing her emails and in turn she’d take care of some of my phone follow-ups. By partnering together we were able to be more efficient for our company and make our own work experiences more pleasant.
Strengths Will Always Win Out
Despite our conditioning to do the opposite, we should focus on our strengths as often as possible. I like to imagine my strengths as my left hand (I’m a righty). Sure, I could spend a bunch of time and energy training myself to use my left hand for writing, art, and other dextrous activities, but I’d get a lot heck of a lot more bang for my buck by using my right hand.
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