Playing to your strengths

Coaching Achilles

Should you play to your strengths or tackle your weaknesses?

Almost all advice will tell you to play to your strengths, to avoid the deficit model. There’s sense in this. I recognise that you are unlikely to achieve greatness by shifting a characteristic from poor to average. At the same time, the decision really does depend on what your weaknesses are. If your fault is alienating every co-worker you come into contact with, I really wouldn’t bother honing your inspirational speaking style until you’ve sorted that.

A similar issue applies to strategic thinking. You will only win from your strengths, but you can certainly lose from your weaknesses. You may need to shore these up before playing to your strengths.

You can’t adopt a strengths-based perspective as a rigid rule. There must be some judgement. There are ‘killer’ weaknesses that mean you won’t get a chance at victory without tackling them. Ask Achilles. You may not ever excel in that domain, but you could neutralise it and move on to more productive things.

You must, therefore, first decide whether to accept or address a weakness. You can accept a weakness when it is not a catastrophic limit on your success and is hard to address. Weaknesses tend to be hard to change when they come from habits, values and motives. A weakness from a lack of knowledge can be remedied. For that reason, many of the most intractable flaws stem from things we know how to do but seem to avoid, forget, fumble, dismiss or neglect.

Weaknesses that you accept may be those that are the flipsides of your strengths. You can’t eradicate them without also sacrificing the things that make you great. Your high standards of excellence may make it hard for you to compromise, for example; your honesty may make it hard for you to negotiate; your vision may make you impatient with detail.

If you decide you need to address a killer weakness, you have four main options:

Avoid – simply avoid situations which bring your weakness to the fore and design your environment so that it steers you away from those situations. If you can’t control your appetite, don’t keep snacks in your desk drawer. If you are ineffective in the mornings, come into work later. This works if the tasks don’t need doing. If they are essential, you need a different option.

Balance – find a colleague or partner who is good at the things you are bad at. If you are a big picture kind of leader, get a detail-oriented operations chief. If you avoid confrontation, work with a stern head of HR. You have to know yourself for this to work. You have to be able to restrain yourself from blundering into the work of your partner. And you have to value the task even though you are not good at it.

Constrain – if the task cannot be avoided and must be performed by you – and if it falls into the category of things you know how to do but tend not to do – then a helpful tactic is to create rules and systems that force you to do it. If you intend to have difficult conversations but always seem to dodge them at the last minute, send out an agenda in advance which sets out the topic you are going to address. Schedule the hardest thing you have to do that day as the first thing you do that day (also known as “eating the frog” from the popular book by Brian Tracy). Go public with your policies and principles so other people can hold you to account. Automate procedures and set rules.

Learn – lastly, of course, if you simply don’t know how to do it, find out how to do it. You can also use knowledge to alter the effect of your enduring traits. For example, if you are risk-averse, that may not change much as an adult, but you can get a better understanding of the actual probabilities which affect your area of work. What appeared as big risks may appear reduced. Similarly, if you understand better the long term harm of not offering feedback to colleagues, you may be able to overcome your reluctance to hurt them in the short term.

Playing to your strengths is often good advice, but there is no rule in leadership that won’t lead you astray if you follow it blindly. Sometimes you have to tackle your flaws.

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