Recruiting and retaining talent is the highest priority in many companies. Discovering employee strengths is a popular strategy. Why wouldn’t management want to know if a candidate or employee had “the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity?” (That by the way is the definition of strength according to Gallup.)

discover your strengthsAs a matter of fact, identifying strengths has kept Now, Discover Your Strengths near the top of the most popular business book lists for over a decade. StrengthsFinders, its complementary self-assessment, continues to be quite popular as well. Why not? It’s easy to complete. It has tremendous credibility with Gallup’s name behind the research. And discovering employee talent is essential in workforce development and planning, a critical competent that make-or-break a company’s strategy.

So what could possibly go wrong when a company and its managers focus on strengths for selection and development? Why aren’t strengths a slam-dunk success formula for “near-perfect” performance every time? Why do so many people with the “right” strengths crash and burn when hired and promoted? Why do so many high-potential “A” players end up filling up the roster on the “C” team?

The answer is quite simple. Most employee performance failures can be summed up in two reasons. And both have to do with management’s obsession with its focus on strengths.

The first reason will be obvious – one of those “duh” moments you get after you hear it. The second won’t be so transparent but is backed by new paradigm-shifting research (psychological and neuroscientific) about why high-potentials fail so often.

Let’s start with the obvious reason first.

1. You can’t ignore your weaknesses.

The reason that Discover Your Strengths resonates so well with management and employees is because it’s the easy response to managing performance. It has tremendous face validity. Why not just keep doing what I’m good at and ignore the rest? Why not just pick the low-hanging fruit? Improving your strengths is typically easy. Even if not easy, it’s rewarding because people enjoy what they are good at doing.

Managing your weaknesses is hard. Learning to manage weaknesses takes awareness, time, and most difficult of all – it requires effort, a trait that is significantly lacking in many people these days. Ironically effort is one strength that every employee should have – from the CEO to the custodian. But ironically a focus on strengths as the source of talent actually stymies learning, growth, and development.

Here’s how discovering your strengths typically works. If I’m not good with analysis, working with people, or discipline, why worry about it? If I’m better at dealing with the here-and-now and not with planning and time management, why not just let others figure that out for me? If I’m not very good at speaking to large groups or engaging with strangers, why not just give me an office job where I can close my door and put on my headphones? If I’m not good at adapting to continuous change, why not just give me more time?

I think you’re starting to see the picture. You CAN’T ignore weaknesses. No matter how strong strengths are, you can’t ignore weaknesses.

As I often advise my clients, the value of a 90% good job match score (strengths) is that it’s a good indicator of high potential. Unfortunately the negative impact of the missing 10% is what might often differentiate outstanding performance from mediocrity. Weaknesses often explain the difference between achievement of potential and missed expectations.

Admittedly sometimes the weakness is insignificant or a low priority. It is easily overcome and managed. At other times it’s important but masked and compensated for by all the strengths. But all too often it’s the weakness that is the fatal flaw – the individual’s Achilles Heel. As roles, responsibilities and environments change, it’s the weakness that could bring the top performer down and extinguish the glow of the high-potential.

Even Gallup admits the utilization of StrengthsFinders has been distorted:

Unfortunately, our research and scientific findings have been distorted. Some believe that Gallup’s approach to individual and organizational development consists solely of focusing on strengths… In no part of our business would we advise ignoring areas of weakness. The result would be detrimental to an organization’s bottom line — and likely an individual’s career. (Source, click here.)

 So here it is. Rule #1 –Do NOT ignore weaknesses.

Let’s move on to the second reason why relying on strengths alone is a likely path to performance disappointment, dispassion, and missed expectations.  Click here to read Rule #2.