Enter the Manager

The story is told of the late martial arts master and movie star, Bruce Lee, that one day he came upon one of his students arriving early at the dojo.

“Why so early?” the master asked.

“I need a good hour to limber up enough to throw high kicks,” replied the student.

“And how long does it take you to prepare for low kicks?” asked Lee.

“Oh, those are easy,” said the student. “A short warm-up, at most, is all I need.”

“Practice your low kicks and forget about the high kicks,” advised Lee.

In response to the student’s shocked expression, Lee added: “Focus on your strengths and they will overcome your weaknesses.”

In making this comment, Lee contradicted a piece of common wisdom in both martial arts and business. Of course, just because something is labeled as “common wisdom” doesn’t mean that it’s wise or accurate; it may just be common. In this case, the persistent belief that the way to success is to focus on weaknesses is a both extremely attractive and subtly destructive.

The idea that if we could just take each person and “fix” each of their weaknesses we would end up with a team of super performers is highly alluring. The problem with this idea is that strengths and weaknesses are sticky: they reflect the complex facets of each individual. Bruce Lee’s student had a body that was not suited to stretching in a certain direction, and no amount of exercise was going to change that. What made Bruce Lee a skilled instructor is that he recognized that one size does not fit all. You must teach the actual person in front of you, not the theoretical person or the ideal person.

The simple reality is that each person has their own unique profile of strengths and weaknesses. A tall man with long legs may find head-high kicks relatively easy, while trying to get low enough to execute a hip throw would be extremely difficult. For the short person, however, the opposite is likely true. In a business environment, each particular profile may not be so obvious, but it exists just the same.

Now, I do get asked if there’s ever a situation in which everyone has the same profile, the same set of strengths and weaknesses. In fact, there is one group where this is true: the clone army in Star Wars. Because they are all identical, with identical profiles of strengths and weaknesses, it might not matter whether one fixes their weaknesses or builds their strengths. That said, their primary weakness, being unable to shoot straight, seems to be unfixable.

Star Wars aside, in the real world we’re dealing with individuals, not clones. No two individuals are identical, which is an important component of building successful teams: a baseball team that was comprised entirely of excellent pitchers and no outfielders would be at a serious disadvantage. Because each person is unique, not everyone will be able to do the same things: when we assume that every weakness can, and should, be fixed, we are implicitly saying that we’re dealing with clones, not individuals. In reality, each member of the team has different strengths, enabling the team to tackle a variety of different problems and develop different, innovative solutions.

You don’t get that by focusing on weakness. Rather, the secret is to build strength and figure out ways to render the weaknesses irrelevant: in other words, get away from the cookie-cutter approach to management and pay attention to the people in front of you. For example, at a certain service company, one sales team had an amazing “opener” combined with an equally amazing “closer.” The first guy was remarkably good at opening conversations with complete strangers and getting them interested, but couldn’t finalize a deal to save his life. His partner, on the other hand, was terrible at making those initial calls, but given an interested prospect, could close almost every deal. Individually, they were mediocre performers, together they were incredible! Rather than try to force to closer to become an opener or the opener to become a closer, their manager let each one develop their strengths and created a situation in which each one’s strengths overcame the weaknesses of the other. The team really was greater than the sum of its parts.

The reason this works is quite simple: people’s strengths and what gives them a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction for a job well done tend to go together. When it comes to employee engagement and effective goal setting, we know that people engage more deeply and passionately with goals that are personally meaningful and personally rewarding. Attempts to fix weakness generally fail because the person doesn’t find success in that particular area personally rewarding. Focusing on strength, on the other hand, means that you are always encouraging people to build up the things that they most enjoy, and that enjoyment motivates them to constantly work harder. When you “reward” someone by making them do tasks that they don’t find satisfying, you are destroying their motivation: instead of success being associated with a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment, it becomes associated with drudgery. Also, on a purely practical level, a ten percent gain in something that is already strong yields a much larger actual return on the time and energy invested than a ten percent gain on something that is weak.

It’s also worth noting that, as psychologists Gary Locke and Ed Latham point out, the high performance cycle of business is triggered in part by people feeling personal satisfaction and gaining increased self-efficacy from accomplishing challenging goals. This requires, however, that the goal be personally relevant as well. Building and developing strengths are almost always personally relevant goals, whereas goals focusing on weaknesses are generally imposed on someone. This latter, of course, reduces people’s sense of autonomy in the workplace, increasing stress and reducing motivation, thus short-circuiting the high-performance cycle.

Building strength also increases an employee’s feelings of competence, another key element of effective motivation. When people work hard and can see real success, they feel more competent. When you work hard at something and see little gain from that effort, a common result when focusing on weakness, your feelings of competence and self-efficacy are decreased. It’s hard to feel competent when you’re working extremely hard at something at which you simply never do well, and feel little sense of accomplishment in even when you do manage something that isn’t awful.

Another interesting side effect of focusing on strengths versus weaknesses is that people generally feel happier and more energized when they are recognized for doing well at something they are passionate about. When people are constantly being praised for working on weaknesses, the praise feels hollow or pointless. If you simply don’t value the result, doing it well doesn’t feel particularly praiseworthy. On the other hand, praise for excelling at something you love is highly energizing. Granted, it’s important to understand how each employee likes being praised: publically or privately, but that doesn’t change the basic point that praise for excelling at something you love is more valuable than for excelling at something you hate. The former builds feelings of competence, while the latter undermines them.

A team of clones may look like a great hammer, but not every problem is really a nail. A team with a variety of strong performers is capable of shifting and adjusting to meet each challenge in front of them. With practice, the team almost instinctively adjusts to put the right combination of people in the right place at the right time.

It is exactly for this reason that the best managers, like Bruce Lee and other master instructors, focus on developing strengths, not weaknesses.


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