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