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Prof. Dr Willem Mastenbroek
Prof. Dr E. van de Bunt
Drs C. Visser



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Negotiating as emotion management
Prof. dr. W.F.G. Mastenbroek
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Managing strengths in three steps

Coert Visser

Hide not your talents, they for use were made.
What's a sun-dial in the shade?
- Benjamin Franklin

Excellent performance is based on strengths

This article is a follow up of Effective managers pay attention to strengths. That article explained how excellent performance is primarily based on identifying, applying and developing strengths. The statement is supported by solid research by Gallup. However, in everyday practice most (HR) managers seem to take strengths for granted and focus first and foremost on identifying and eliminating weaknesses and deficits.

Large-scale international research by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton (2001) has shown that effective manager do not emphasize weaknesses and limitations but strengths. From their research it has become clear that effective managers are led by the convictions that everyoneís talents are lasting and unique and that the greatest opportunity for development for each person lies in the area of their greatest strengths.

Strengths are talents + skills + knowledge
The authors define strengths as a talents completed with skills and knowledge. Skills and knowledge can be developed very well providing talent is there but talent itself can not, or hardly, be developed. Strengths can thus be developed by identifying talents and completing them with skills and knowledge. Of course, weaknesses and limitations donít have to be denied or ignored. After all, eliminating impeding limitations can be a necessary requirement of good performance too.

Step 1: Identifying talents

Talents are not only recognizable in good performance but also in things like interests, affinities, gratification, and speed of learning. Below you will find some examples of questions you can ask to identify talents and strengths of employees (Visser & Thissen, 2002).

Clues                        Example questions

1. Performance

When does the employee perform exceptionally well? An indication of a talent is often consistent good performance. One thing is important to point out: even if the employee does not perform to well on the whole you can focus on strengths by identifying those situations in which the performance did exceed expectations.
2. Fast learning   What kinds of new knowledge and skills does the employee acquire with above average speed?
3. Interest Which activities does the employee love to do?
4. Gratification Which activities and tasks give the employee the most gratification? When does the employee talk with great enthusiasm about his or her work? What accomplishments is the employee most proud of? What made these so special?

Step 2: Applying and using Strengths

Identifying talents is only a first step. After that you can start to really manage base don strengths. Managers often say that they are motivated to do so but donít know how. A manager in a technical company said:

ďI would love to contribute to the development of the strengths of my employees. But how exactly do you do that? In appraisal conversations I often canít think of anything else to say about strengths Ö than that they are strengths. And then the conversation again focuses on weaknesses and problems.Ē

Here are some suggestions about what to do with strengths. These suggestions can be used both by the managers and by the employee.

Action Explanation      
1. Apply the strength consciously Help employees to use their strengths. This may seem like forcing an open door but many people often leave their strengths unused. Help the employee to see that it is wise to use strengths consciously. Applying strengths when they are unasked for is a waste of your talents and can be annoying to others. What is often seen as a weakness is actually a strength in a situation or at a time that does not ask for it. The question thus is: when is the time right to use your strengths?
2. Develop the strength Help employees to complete their talents with knowledge and skills. Some ways to do this are practicing with others, doing a training, and teaming up with experienced colleagues.
3. Challenge the strength by applying it on a higher level Help employees to learn to stretch their strengths step by step by applying strengths on a slightly higher level (a bit more complex, a bit more challenging).
4. Apply the strength more broadly Help employees to find new applications for their strengths (in which other situations might the strength be useful too?

Step 3: Managing Weaknesses

As mentioned before, it is really not necessary to ignore or deny weaknesses and limitations. Not only would that be asking too much of people, it can also be just plainly useful to acknowledge problems and to take away hindering factors like weaknesses and limitations. But the way you do that is important. Donít try to turn real weaknesses into real strengths. This will most likely be a complete waste of time and lead to frustration both with you and the employee. How to do it more effectively? Here are some suggestions. 

Action Explanation   
1. Improve just a bit When an employee clearly displays a weakness (for instance, he is consistently doing things wrong) demand from him to improve the skill in question to an acceptable level.
2. Use resources Help employees to utilize circumstances, procedures, tools, and systems to compensate their weaknesses.
3. Makes weaknesses irrelevant Help employees to make their weakness though their strengths: develop them to such a level that clients, colleagues, etc donít mind about your weaknesses anymore.
4. Find a partner Help employees to find people that complement them. Their weaknesses can be compensated by strengths of others. In addition to this: help employees develop attention to and appreciation for diversity and strengths of others and help them to see how other peoples strengths help to compensate their own weaknesses.
5. Stop doing it When employees are weak in something it can be an option to just stop doing the task. This can imply that the employee must switch jobs but in most cases this will not be necessary. Often, it will be possible to assign tasks in such a way that people can focus largely on things they like to do and do well. The main reason this is possible is that people differ a lot in talents and interests.

Case: Devilís advocate

A management team developed a new strategic marketing policy. As the leader of the team, Peter had been slightly irritated by Ed, the controller. What bothered him in Edís behavior was that he seemed to be negative and critical whatever the topic of the discussion seemed to be. The team members viewed Ed as overly critical and thought he was slowing the team down. Peter wanted to the coming session to be successful. That required everyone to be actively involved in designing the new marketing strategy so that there would be a broad foundation for whatever new policy would come out. Peter explicitly asked himself how he could use Edís critical attitude in this strategy design process. He realized that the new strategy would have to be communicated to all stakeholders of the organization, like the personnel and the board. Peter knew t hose stakeholders would ask many critical questions about the new strategy. Edís critical approach could help the team to prepare well for any possible objections and critical questions. He arranged the process so that the first phase was aimed at identifying strengths, weaknesses, chances and threats and the formulation of a draft strategy. In the second phase he asked Ed to play the role of the Devilís advocate. Ed played this role very convincingly and to everyoneís satisfaction this helped to significantly improve the strategy and the way it had to be explained.

Management and self management

Hopefully you like these tips and see their use in you job as a (HR) manager. The suggestions are intended principally to be of use for you in your management responsibility. But they may also be useful for the way you manage yourself. After all, you own performance is also served best with a strengths-based approach. 


Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D. (2001). Now, discover your strengths. Simon & Schuster
Visser, CF & Thissen, M.J. (2002). Effective managers pay attention to strengths.

Coert Visser is a consultant and training using a positive change approach. This approach is focused on simply helping individuals, teams and organizations to make progress in the direction of their own choice. Coert wrote many articles and a few books. More information: Dutch website, English website.

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