A Coaching Power Tool created by Jean-Marie Kermeen
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
Only strength can cooperate. Weakness can only beg. Dwight D. Eisenhower
If the number of self-help books available is a gage for determining people’s need to constantly improve, it’s clear we are a society strongly focused on self-improvement. This also indicates how aware we are of our weaknesses. Why is this? It may be because we’ve struggled to accomplish something which is difficult or draining, or perhaps because someone else brought one (or more!) of our weaknesses to our attention. A common response to the identification of a weakness is to focus a large amount of time and attention on improving the weakness. However, if what we focus on expands, shouldn’t we focus our attention on what we do well?
From a very young age we learn to focus on our weaknesses. When in school, report cards provide feedback on what a student does well and where improvement is needed. Most children are encouraged to focus on improving the “C” received in math rather than spending more time and energy in the class where an “A” was received. Unfortunately, this focus on improving areas of weakness isn’t something left behind with childhood. It follows us into our professional and personal lives, as well. Like many parents once did, supervisors focus on where one’s performance needs improvement and bring those to the employee’s attention. Family members also feel free to point out any shortcomings they notice.
Humanist Carl Rogers’ theory of self-development proposes that the positive and negative feedback received during our formative years relates to what he refers to as “conditions of worth” and can affect a person’s self-esteem and the way they see themselves. The feelings which may surround the identification of areas of weakness—and the frustration which may accompany trying to improve upon these areas—can affect a person’s feelings of self-esteem as well as their self-perception (Coon, 2006).
Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, developed the hierarchy of needs (below). At the top of this pyramid, and the topic he was most interested in, was “self-actualization, the process of developing one’s potential and becoming the best person possible” (Coon, 2006). It is this desire for self-actualization that drives us to work at self-improvement and can drive our need to overcome areas of weakness.
What is a Weakness?
Before spending time and attention working on improving our areas of weakness, we must first identify whether or not it really is a weakness. In order to do that, ask yourself the following questions:
If you answered yes to all three questions, then you have identified an area of weakness.
What is a Strength?
Everyone is born with, or naturally cultivates, a set of gifts or talents that help them exceed in life. Some people enjoy meeting and talking to strangers, some have a head for numbers, others can plan strategically or analyze complex data. Best of all, working in an area in which one has a natural ability actually allows a person to excel at what they are already good at doing. They are in the “zone” where time seems to disappear because they are enjoying themselves. Most everyone would agree that when you are doing something you are good at and enjoy it doesn’t feel like work. This would be an indication of a strength.
Career Coach Cheryl Gilman, in her book Doing Work You Love: Discovering Your Purpose and Realizing Your Dreams, asks clients questions to help them identify different tasks or jobs at which an individual may excel, such as:
Gilman indicates these are your “gifts” and defines gifts as: “…something you are born with. It’s something you can do that’s as easy as breathing” (Gilman, 1997).
Another way to discover one’s strengths is to take the “StrengthsFinder 2.0” online assessment developed by “the late Father of Strengths Psychology, Donald O. Clifton” and a team of scientists employed by the Gallup Organization. Upon completion, this online assessment provides a report which outlines one’s top five talents (out of 34 total talents identified by Gallup) and how those five talents interact with each other. Gallup’s goal in developing this assessment was “…to start a global conversation about what’s right with people” (Rath, 2007).
Additional questions which may indicate you are working in an area of strength:
- Do you find you repeatedly gravitate towards the same type of activity?
- Are you able to do it effortlessly? Or, if it’s the first time, did you learn it very quickly?
- Are you good at it (either you recognize that you are—or others have told you)?
- Do you automatically do it? Do you feel like you are just “hard-wired” that way?
- Does it energize you?
As you learn and grow your brain is creating new synaptic connections. People who suffered a brain injury or stroke can re-learn how to do things and can create new synapses, but it takes an extensive amount of time—and physical therapy—for the brain to do this (just think about highway construction and how long that takes!) It is far easier, and much more efficient, for your brain to create new synaptic connections in areas of your brain where you already have strong connections. It is for this reason you are going to grow the most where you are already strong. Using your brain’s existing super-highway is easier than building a new one. Consequently, “…you will grow the most in your areas of greatest strength” (Buckingham, 2007).
If a true weakness has been identified as something that’s keeping you from making progress in your life or career, and it isn’t something which can delegate to someone else, then you will need to find a way to address it. Many times we can improve by gaining knowledge or through practicing a skill. Let’s say you need to make presentations at meetings, but don’t have strong presentation skills. You can attend a class on how to put together a presentation conveying the information you need to share (gaining knowledge). You can also rehearse the presentation over and over until you feel more comfortable (practicing a skill). By following these steps you will likely become passably good at presenting information at meetings, but it is unlikely it will become something that energizes you as much as working in your area of strength.
There are a variety of strategies that can be used when dealing with some of our weaknesses. One is to delegate it to someone else. Asking (or hiring) someone else who is strong in an area that you aren’t (e.g., hiring someone else do your taxes) allows you to focus on something you enjoy and are good at, while allowing someone who is strong in this area the opportunity to do something at which they excel. Partnering with someone who excels in areas you do not is another useful strategy used by many professionals. Support systems like electronic calendars, software programs, friends, etc. can support you when working on overcoming a weakness.
One of the biggest challenges is finding the motivation to make the change. Many times we are making the change due to an external request. However the motivation must be self-driven to be truly successful.
Clients who focus all their attention on their weaknesses—or what they don’t do well—may experience poor self-esteem, which is very disempowering. By utilizing a strengths approach, the client can focus on what they are doing right and can then consider ways to use their areas of strength to make the changes they desire. This approach empowers the client and enhances their self-esteem.
Although assessments are available to help identify one’s top five talents or strengths, the coaching process provides ways to learn what strengths our clients possess. Effectively utilizing powerful questions, like those suggested above, as well as active listening skills when clients are describing something that was successful, can help a coach identify a client’s strengths.
When helping a client address a weakness the following questions may be helpful:
- What is one area of weakness you are focused on improving?
- Why do you want to improve it?
- What approach do you usually take in this situation and what were the results?
- Can you think of a time when have you been successful in the past and what you did that contributed to the success?
- What strategy will you use in this situation to overcome it?
- Can you think of one thing that would get you excited about making this change?
- Can you identify a strength you possess that you could use to help you to overcome or neutralize this weakness?
Our desire to reach our full potential as human beings is an admirable trait. Because it is impossible to completely ignore our weaknesses, finding the best strategy to overcome them is important. We do need to be aware of our weaknesses, but because what we focus on expands, let’s focus our attention on what we do well, utilize our strengths to overcome our weaknesses, so we can grow even stronger.
Doing Work You Love: Discovering Your Purpose and Realizing Your Dreams, C. Gilman, 1997, IL: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company
Go, Put Your Strengths to Work, M. Buckingham, 2007, New York, NY: Free Press
Psychology: A Modular Approach to Mind and Behavior, D. Coon, 2006, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth
StrengthsFinder 2.0, T. Rath, 2007, New York, NY: Gallup Press