What is the best thing to do with a weakness? According to the Gallup Poll data, the most successful managers don’t normally try to fix an employee’s weakness. Instead, they work around it. Ignore it, if possible. While this sounds counter-intuitive to some, it actually agrees with what most of us have noticed in life. Consider coaching.

What would a football coach do with a short but fast player who has quick hands? Try to fatten him up and make him stronger? Of course not. The coach would place him in the defensive backfield where speed and agility are key. He would charge the small, fast guy with getting faster. Meanwhile, he’d take his biggest, strongest player and challenge him to become bigger and stronger.

Thomas had been written up as needing to work on his analytical skills for the last three years. His manager can do it again, but Thomas is probably not going to improve in this area. Is Thomas worth keeping? Absolutely!

He produces a high volume of work. The only thing needed here is for the manager to refocus his improvement efforts on things that were more realistic and valuable. Challenge Thomas to do more heavy lifting, just don’t assign him tasks that require heavy analysis.

It is customary for managers to focus their coaching attempts on correcting areas of weakness while praising areas of strength. They fall into The Weakness Trap, spending good energy on a bad idea. To achieve a team of fully functioning employees, Areas for Improvement are more productively focused on Strengths rather than Weaknesses.

Obviously, there are some weaknesses that must be improved upon in order for the employee to be valuable to the company. What is being questioned here is the absolute adherence to the concept of improving all weak areas. Wherever possible, focus the attention on enhancing the strengths and limiting the job description in the weak areas.

The same ideas apply at home. When a child walks through the door with a report card showing five As, two Bs and one D, what do we always talk to her about? The low grade, of course. We tell her how the sub-par subject matter is critical to proper growth and development and force her to spend more time focused on areas in which she’s potentially ill equipped to excel.

Instead of lecturing our mathematically inclined child on the merits of mastering English and Geography, if that’s where she’s behind, perhaps we’d be better served to encourage her to focus the bulk of her attention on Physics and Calculus, where she sits at the head of her class. After all, who cares whether the nuclear physicist that designs the first truly viable electric car can write creatively or explain haiku? And her computer or secretary can clean up her misspelled words.

So how do we avoid The Weakness Trap? Consider taking the following actions:

1) Design around weaknesses. Whenever possible, shift roles and responsibilities to give those who work for you a chance to focus on what they’re good at and what they enjoy. Fit the job to the people and the people to the job. Not all accountants have to have identical responsibilities. The same goes for supervisors, managers and executive assistants. Few of us are universally talented. It is more important to create a team that wins through working together than to mandate that all jobs with similar titles are carbon copies.

2) Shorten improvement cycles. If you have an employee that has a weakness that you can’t build out of her position (for example, a manager who can’t delegate), give her a limited amount of focused attention to make the improvement. In general, if she can’t start making demonstrable progress in a one to three month period, she is not worth spending additional time on. Great sports coaches move quickly when they determine that a player’s aptitude is insufficient for a given role. In business, time is money. Repurposing or replacing usually beat rewiring.

3) Focus on strengths. Do your homework to determine what people are good at. Things they have a competitive advantage at. Identify activities that give them energy. Knowing someone’s weaknesses is valuable information for selection and placement decisions. If they’re not tall enough, fast enough, agile enough (in other words, a poor match for the position), consider making a change. If you’re going to coach them where they’re at, however, the key is to take what they’re good at and make it better. Do that and someday the Gallup Poll researchers will be writing stories about you.

About the author:
Garold Markle is an author, executive consultant and speaker whose primary mission is to energize and engage the human spirit at work. He is the author of “Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review”. Gary has held senior-level human resources management and executive positions for four globally prominent companies including Exxon, and Shell Oil. For more about his books, consulting and teachings go to www.energage.comor contact him at glmarkle@energage.com.