The old school of management training must have told young managers to knock the weaknesses out of their employees. I experienced my fair share of this style of management in the early years of my career.
I was mostly given a list of weaknesses that my manager thought I should address. I was frequently reminded of failings that I had to overcome.
Even when a boss doesn’t tell us to focus on our weaknesses, most of us will do it independently. In employee polls several years ago, workers were asked if they thought that they should build their strengths or fix their weaknesses to be more successful in their jobs.1
Only 37% of them said that focusing on their strengths would help them be more successful. 63% said they should fix their weaknesses first, instead.
In another survey, employees were asked: “When you talk with your manager about your performance, what do you spend the most time talking about?”
24% said strengths
36% said weaknesses
40% replied, “We don’t talk about those things here”
I don’t remember being coached to double down on my strengths until much later in my career. One of my managers (thank you, Justin!) gave me a book by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman called First, Break All The Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (my affiliate link). Chapter 5 talks about how great managers focus on their employees’ strengths, not their weaknesses.
While this strengths-based approach is a better way to manage a team and yourself, you can’t completely ignore your weaknesses. Eventually, they may need to be addressed in one way or another.
Now, the million-dollar question posed by this newsletter is:
Should you FIX a weakness?
The answer is, “It depends.”
It starts with understanding what it means to call something a weakness. Then, you must uncover why something is a weakness for you. Finally, you have to assess what “fixing” that weakness means for you.
What is a weakness?
We talk about strengths and weaknesses so much that I don’t think we give a second thought to what they really mean. But, let’s take a minute and think about what a weakness is.
Buckingham says, “…a weakness is an activity that makes you feel weak. Even if you’re good at it, if it drains you, that’s a weakness.”
There is a difference between a weakness and a “nontalent", as Buckingham refers to it. A nontalent only became an issue/weakness when your performance depends on tapping into it. Otherwise, you could ignore it for your entire life.
I can think of many, many things that I’m not good at doing and never will be. I also don’t care about most of those missing talents and skills. But, I know that some of those items were moved into the “weakness column” when I was an employee.
It comes down to a mismatch between expectations and reality.
Thinking back on my time as a corporate manager and leader, we have a set of performance and behavioral expectations for our employees based on their role, level, and experience. When a specific employee can’t meet those expectations, we identify the associated activity as a “weakness” or an “area for improvement” (i.e., the new and improved way to refer to weaknesses).
Some managers want their employees to address their weaknesses simply because they exist. They represent a gap between expectations and execution. They want a specific level of performance; therefore, the employee must address the issue.
Of course, our perceptions of our weaknesses don’t only exist in the workplace. You may identify a specific weakness as a mismatch between your personal goals and the reality of your performance.
For example, maybe you love playing basketball, but you see your 3-point shots as a weakness. You have higher expectations for yourself than you’re able to deliver on the court.
Why is it a weakness?
Is anyone born with a natural strength at 100% of its potential? Even the most talented people have practiced for years to develop their skills, so they look like amazing strengths now.
There is a difference between a weakness and an undiscovered talent. Something that might be labeled as a weakness may simply be a talent you’ve never bothered to explore before.
Similarly, an "area for improvement" looks a lot like an undeveloped strength. Is it really a weakness? Or, is it just a skill you need to develop or knowledge you should acquire?
Understanding why something is a weakness is essential before making any decisions about what you’re going to do about it. Dig deeper to identify root causes. For example:
You lack skills, knowledge, and experience. This can be addressed and remedied.
You are afraid. This is more challenging to overcome than simple skill acquisition, but it is possible to push through fear to get to the other side.
You are missing the required talent, trait, or capability and will never have it. Trying to address a weakness that has this root cause will only result in frustration and misery.
What lies on the other side?
Given that you will most likely see a larger ROI by leveraging a strength vs. trying to improve a weakness, you have a critical question to ask yourself first. What lies on the other side of “fixing” this weakness?
Will you benefit?
Will someone else benefit?
Will the company benefit?
Ask yourself, "How does addressing this weakness serve ME? Not my boss. Not the company. Me."
It's valuable to work on areas for improvement when it serves you well. When something valuable that you want is on the other side of fear, it's worth investing in removing that obstacle. When a weakness blocks something that will help you achieve your goals — and you can actually do something about it — it's worth working on it.
However, sometimes you are asked (or forced) to work on a weakness purely for the benefit of your employer. It doesn’t come naturally for you, it will never feel like a strength, and you don’t want to do it. But, your job description requires you to overcome that weakness or risk being terminated.
If an employment situation sets you up for focusing on your weaknesses and not leveraging your strengths, you need a new job.
It's miserable to work for someone who does nothing but focus on your supposed shortcomings and is constantly trying to get you to change. Many people are unhappy because they are stuck in jobs that don’t tap into their potential and force them to struggle with their weaknesses every day.
So, when you’re considering what to do about a weakness, start with your assessment of how much it matters in your life. Some weaknesses may be harming your professional development. Some may be interfering with achieving happiness in your personal life. But, some issues will mean absolutely nothing to you.
The strategic approach you take with a weakness varies based on how important it is for you, your future, and if something valuable is waiting for you on the other side of it.
Ignore the weakness
I should probably say, ignore the nontalent. If you lack talent, skills, or knowledge in a specific area, but you absolutely don’t care about it, then it’s not a weakness. It’s certainly not a weakness worth improving.
We all have thousands and thousands of nontalents. Ironically, one of my sons brought up one of my “nontalent areas” this evening.
He said that I wasn’t tall enough to qualify to be a Division 1 college volleyball player. He’s applying to colleges, so I guess he was looking into it?
Guess how much I care about my height “weakness” when it comes to qualifying as a volleyball player? Absolutely zero.
I’m sure you have weaknesses/nontalents that you don’t care about, as well. Don’t waste a single minute thinking about them.
Manage the weakness
The best leaders help their employees intelligently manage their weaknesses while focusing on getting the most out of their strengths. Some skills or behaviors aren’t part of the core job description, but they can become annoying distractions and derail progress when they struggle with them (e.g., attending meetings on time).
You can do this for yourself, as well. If a weakness is getting in your way, you don’t necessarily have to get better at it. You can leverage different strategies to manage it and make it a nonissue.
Restructure your processes to work around the weakness.
Set up a support system to help you manage it (e.g., my calendar reminders help me when I get so focused on a task that I might miss a meeting).
Hire an assistant to handle that task.
If you can, delegate your weakness to someone much better at doing that task.
Partner with someone who complements you and balances your strengths and weaknesses.
Reduce the weakness
In some cases, it is worth reducing or eliminating the negative impact of a weakness. You can’t ignore it. You can’t work around it. You know you can’t turn it into a strength. But, you can “sand off the rough edges.”
I’ll give you an example from my professional life. I’m very introverted, and my networking skills are a weakness.
That type of social activity doesn’t come naturally to me. When I engage in typical networking, I feel drained and require days of solitude to recover. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not.
However, I run my own business, and professional networking is a must for me. When I force myself to be more social, it helps me attract new clients. When I withdraw, which is my natural tendency, my business suffers.
Networking and being social will never be a strength for me. It simply isn’t my personality. But I can’t ignore it or fully delegate the activities either.
So, I strategically engage and use various techniques to connect with people to reduce the negative impact of my weakness as much as I can.
Embrace the weakness
When someone else tells you what your weaknesses are, you lose power. When you try to mask a weakness that you’ve given more importance than it is worth, you suffer from impostor syndrome.4
My weakness of being too compassionate as a corporate executive became my strength as an executive coach. I decided to embrace it instead of trying to eliminate it. I claimed it instead of trying to hide it.
I took away the power from a few of my past bosses, who told me that my kindness was a weakness. I redefined my career and changed my role in the world to play to my strengths.
Maybe it’s just my belief, but I think the world has enough cruel people running around. What the world needs is more people who care. We need more people who are trying to help others. So, I chose a new path.
One day, you may find that you are tired of managing a weakness so that you can fit into a job that is no longer serving you well. You may choose to lean into it, accept your so-called “weakness,” and create a new path that unleashes your full potential.
Transform a weakness into a strength
I think we also have many “weaknesses” that are actually undiscovered talents and undeveloped strengths. They are only weaknesses because we’ve never bothered to explore what would happen if we invested in them.
I did this with public speaking. In my case, I had avoided it because of my fear. Fear of failure. Fear of judgment. Fear of looking foolish.
I decided that this was a weakness that I had to fix. I could tell that it was holding me back in my professional career.
I looked on the other side of fear and saw how much public speaking could transform my life. I witnessed successful leaders calmly taking the stage and happily engaging with audiences. I watched people’s careers take off because they were comfortable presenting.
So, I stopped hiding from it, avoiding it, and working around it. Initially, I thought that I would slightly improve my weakness so that I could tolerate speaking in front of others. But, a funny thing happened along the way.
I fell in love with public speaking. Over the course of a few years, I transformed a weakness driven by fear into one of my most valuable strengths.
Perhaps the latent potential had always been there, but I had never tapped into it? I don’t know. But I’m glad that I did.
I saved this section for last because I think there are times that you can invest in something that you may have incorrectly defined as a “weakness.” You have an opportunity to turn it into something great.
But, only you can see the potential of making that investment. You’re the only one who truly understands what lies on the other side of your fear.
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” ― George Addair
This week’s professional development challenge
⭐ Document your strengths and weaknesses
I want you to think about yourself from your earliest memories up until the events of yesterday. More importantly, think about how you want to be perceived and remembered. Most importantly, aspirationally, how do you want to see yourself?
Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who runs a supportive online community. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.