How can retailers help employees improve? (Hint: Not by criticizing them)

Photo: @Akshu via Twenty20
May 30, 2019


Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Some employees have more potential than others.”

“The best employees are well-rounded individuals.”

“People can reliably rate others’ performance.”

Most HR professionals wouldn’t take issue with these basic tenets. In a keynote at the recent Wharton People Analytics Conference, however, Marcus Buckingham flat-out called them “lies.”

The head of people and performance research at ADP Research Institute and a bestselling author, Mr. Buckingham is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the strengths-based movement in HR, which holds that leaders should help people recognize and exploit their existing strengths rather than focus on remediating weaknesses.

“The best managers individualize,” Mr. Buckingham explained about his research. “What they’re really doing is looking for every person’s source of strength and then leveraging that intelligently. They don’t fight against who you are.” He views the strengths-based movement as a critical change of direction from the (however well-intentioned) “remedial deficit thinking” that he says has traditionally characterized HR.

In Mr. Buckingham’s view, the very definitions of “strengths” and “weaknesses” need to change. We shouldn’t be thinking of the concept as “this is what you’re good at and this is what you’re bad at” because we could easily have a knack for a type of task we despise. Strength should be defined as an activity that energizes and engages you, he said, and weakness as an activity that drains you or drags you down even if you do it well.

Once these definitions are altered, he said, individuals become the best source of truth about their own strengths. For example, you may feel strengthened by the activity of finding patterns in data. A boss or teammate’s role, then, is to help you put that activity to its best use, perhaps suggesting you find a better way of demonstrating patterns or explaining them to people or finding patterns that can be acted upon.

Overall, Mr. Buckingham argues for a focus on the individual — and on people’s powerful and unique abilities as they themselves understand them — for their own benefit and that of their companies. “People are at their strongest when they’re standing in their strengths,” he said.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are employee development programs overly focused on fixing individuals’ weaknesses rather than building on their strengths? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of strengths-based organizations for individual and team development?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Individualized strength building must start at the top and be a part of the culture to be successful."
"Too often the environment is one of speed, get the tasks done, do as I say not as I do and if you don’t like it … quit!"
"Let’s change the word criticism to coaching and I think that puts a different spin on feedback."

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17 Comments on "How can retailers help employees improve? (Hint: Not by criticizing them)"

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Art Suriano
There are some excellent points in the article however when dealing with store employees too often the environment is one of speed, get the tasks done, do as I say not as I do and if you don’t like it … quit! The employee experience at store level usually comes down to the store manager who is capable of creating a pleasant working environment or not. Most retailers do not invest enough in training, let alone hiring enough staff, so the store manager is the one responsible for making or breaking the situation. He or she, if they’re smart, understand that to create a positive work environment they have to support their staff, make them feel part of the team, pay them compliments when applicable and if criticism is necessary, begin with something positive first. These concepts are not “rocket science” techniques, but too often you find the store manager who yells at employees, threatens their jobs if he or she is not satisfied with their performance and can make the job atmosphere completely unenjoyable.… Read more »
Rich Kizer

First: You can’t teach nice. So the starting point is to hire those whose attitude and experience shows that trait. With that basis, focus on giving them responsibilities and authorities to do their assigned role. Feedback and recognition are critical and must be a constant with management. When people feel appreciated by management, and know they have the abilities either taught or brought to the business, they will take ownership and develop pride which translates into great performance as the norm.

Carol Spieckerman

I like the revised definition of “strengths” and “weaknesses” presented in the article. It is far more relevant to newer generations of employees. In the old days, employees were encouraged to go in a straight line and myopically focus on one or two skills. These days, employees have many interests and see many options for their futures. Employers that tap into this multi-faceted, expansive mindset will win and employees will know when it’s real or just lip service.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

I’m a big proponent of Marcus Buckingham and Don Clifton’s work. I’ve given away many copies of the book “Soar with your Strengths” to store managers. The store manager has the most critical day-to-day contact with the staff on the front line who make a difference with customers. As Mr. Buckingham suggests, focusing on strengths requires an individualize approach.

The question for senior management is whether they will apply the same individual approach to front line managers and give them adequate time to work with their staff.

Sounds great. Research supports the long term success of this approach. However it is very difficult in practice, especially in a tight labor market where it’s hard to find anyone to fill a slot.

Individualized strength building must start at the top and be a part of the culture to be successful.

Dave Bruno

In all walks of life, happy employees are productive employees, and I would argue that in retail, happy employees are also higher-converting employees. While we must all perform some work tasks that aren’t necessarily fulfilling, if 75 percent of our days are spent doing things we like to do, then we have a pretty good shot at being happy at work. If we fill our stores with people that enjoy their jobs, they will be better ambassadors, they will create positive energy that shoppers will definitely recognize, and most importantly they will give the store a real chance to differentiate from sterile digital shopping experiences.

Tom Dougherty

It is a fine balancing act between motivating employees to step up and managing less-than-expected behavioral issues.

Being overly critical depresses morale. I remember, many years ago, a very senior mentor of mine said to pay more attention to whom I hire as opposed to focusing on changing the behavior of those I had hired.

Sage advice.

Andrew Blatherwick
Retail has long been an industry that suffers from short tenure in the job, particularly in the store environment. You can always tell a good store manager from a poor one not only from the sales but also from the atmosphere and morale of the staff. Unsurprisingly, these two things go hand in hand. Good leadership skills are typified by managers who know how to get the best out of people. A mix of carrot and stick is usually necessary but in that order and with the weighting on carrot. Good managers know this. However you do need to point out weaknesses, not as criticism but as a development opportunity. Retailers need to help managers with as much information as possible to support them in their staff management, but the good ones will always shine through. Retail is a very fast moving, unforgiving environment. We have all seen macho management culture in retail where managers think to be positive is weak. If this culture pervades through the organization then the good managers find it hard… Read more »
Charles Dimov

Too many times fixing weaknesses takes center stage. I agree with the premise that managers need to focus on team members’ individual capabilities and strengths – then work with that. I fully support the research that basically points to working on strengthening, polishing, and helping employees shine brighter with their strengths, rather than focusing too much time on remedials, or improving on weaknesses.

Naturally this has to be within reason. If an employee has a habit of rudely chewing gum loudly with their mouth open, in front of customers — this needs to be addressed to ensure you are representing your brand professionally.

All told, you are just going to get better performance and improvements when you help associates do better at what they already do well. That’s what they like, and will learn at – most readily.

Ian Percy
This is NOT about weaknesses or strengths. It’s about fit, application, and purpose. On my bucket list is a book I need to finish titled “All Children are Gifted!” I may settle for a bumper sticker. If a kid is gifted in the creative arts (“strength”) but quite pathetic in things mathematical (“weakness”) most schools would send a report home about how that kid simply must work on their math. My “must work harder” list was extensive! And yes, that is the approach most organizations take toward employees too. The problem, even if a strength is recognized, is that little thought is given to where that strength (gift/talent/ability) should be directed. For all who read or write in this space, the wonderful reality is that your strength or gift has you, you don’t have it. That means inherent in its possession of you is also your purpose and destiny. Find that and your strengths will look after themselves. The mistake we make is that we try to apply another’s strength to our purpose and then… Read more »
Ben Ball

A privately held, global CPG company I once worked for is well-known for the principles that guide its business strategy — some formal and some less so. One of the “informal” operating principles that I heard often was “we do only what we do best — we hire the best to do the other things we need for us.” While not one of the formal principles, I always thought this one had very high impact on the business. People are the same. We have things we do well and that is what we should be used for to optimize our impact. Mitigating weaknesses needs to be a priority when the weakness impedes the ability of the individual to effectively employ their strengths. A common example is interpersonal issues. Beyond that, do what you do best and “hire” the rest.

Shep Hyken
Mr. Suriano’s comments below echo my thoughts. In retail, there is often an element of speed that can get in the way of giving the customer the best experience. That said, some employees are better at it than others. They key to building good employees starts with first hiring good people that have potential. The right attitude, personality, capabilities, etc. are all important. And hiring people who are capable of using good judgement is of the utmost importance. Do that and empower them to do their jobs. As for training to weaknesses and strengths: Buckingham knows the focus should be on strengths. That’s what the best companies do. It’s hard to see when you’re trying to fix a problem. If someone has a weakness, correct it, but don’t try to turn it into a super ability. In sports (I actually hate sports analogies, but sometimes they work) you put people in a position based on what they are good at. For example, in hockey (Stanley Cup Finals are happening as this comes out) a defenseman… Read more »
gordon arnold

Employee development programs should, and most often do, focus on the goal of the intended training program’s support of a necessary function(s) and/or task. Employees that are finding it difficult to comply and excel into the process are wrongly encouraged to retrain and practice that in which they are essentially inoperative. Much of this disappointing result could be discovered during a properly prepared search and interview process. The astronomical costs of screening for background and substance abuse have put aside the need to determine a candidates ability to perform. So after spending thousands of dollars to find candidates that are “employable” companies will depend on training and retraining programs that are intended to bypass the need for candidate/employee assessment. Is it any wonder why there is high turnover and low morale?

Ananda Chakravarty

At certain points in an organization these factors might matter — especially for employees in the back office or in tech. However, this is not the case for retail. The average rate of turnover in retail is above 62 percent. Tasks are remedial and in many case repetitive. Hiring is almost constant. Training is completed so that tasks in the store are completed. Growth for the employee is usually an afterthought and employees are hired to do a fixed set of tasks, not to grow within the organization. The few organizations, e.g. Costco or luxury brands, that are able to bring on deeper talent with longer tenures usually have specialized skills or are managed differently and might see gains. Retail is a much more fluid environment. It’s usually the manager that matters most. Employee development programs are just not impacting whether you have a no-show on the floor for the day.

Mel Kleiman

Let’s change the word criticism to coaching and I think that puts a different spin on feedback.

If you as a manager do not tell your employees what they need to do to be successful or maybe even more successful, then you are setting that person up for failure. Most of us would learn more when people tell us what we are doing wrong rather than what we are doing right. If a manager is not willing to help people do their job by having tough conversations, they are setting that employee up for failure.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Retail industry thought leader
7 months 22 days ago

Labeling and focusing on individuals’ “strengths” and “weaknesses” to improve performances is often demoralizing for employees. Focusing training on emulating the skills of top performers is a new approach that is gaining traction. When raising my own children, the best advice we ever received on child rearing was to use “positive reinforcement” to get the behavior we wanted. The same holds true for managing people in the workforce.

New software enables retailers to measure the sales performance of each individual to identify top performers. Analyzing the skills of the top performers and building video-based training modules for these skills have proven to be an effective way to turn “B” and “C” level employees into “A” performers. We have even built these skills into in-store guided selling modules to create via Q&A the desired cross/up sell.

Negative reinforcement produces negative comps!

Ralph Jacobson

It’s a tough thing for retail store-level management (because that’s what we’re primarily talking about here) to consistently provide constructive, focused attention on individuals. I’m not making excuses, I’m just telling it from an “I’ve been there” point of view. However, if store management can focus on their key department managers, and those managers take on a management number of individuals, then this can definitely work.

The key is to be consistent. Coaching that is only opportunistic without planned interaction typically falls short in effectiveness. I do see strength-based focus as a positive way, and perhaps more likely way, for managers to get into the habit of consistent feedback and coaching.

Cathy Hotka

One familiar topic at the Store Operations Council meeting is mentoring sales associates. Most of them want to contribute and bring new ideas. They’re looking for a chance to shine. Great managers will offer encouragement and look for ways to build them up.

"Individualized strength building must start at the top and be a part of the culture to be successful."
"Too often the environment is one of speed, get the tasks done, do as I say not as I do and if you don’t like it … quit!"
"Let’s change the word criticism to coaching and I think that puts a different spin on feedback."

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