Bonus! Five more reasons why discussing weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging

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In my previous post, I described five reasons discussing weaknesses with an employee often seems so awkward, despite the best intentions.  Yet, managers are frequently asked to do so on an employee’s annual review form, which, by design, creates some unnecessary and damaging conversations.  Here are five more reasons discussing weaknesses with employees fails:

6. The damage of ‘one good thing, one bad thing’

As I delineated in a previous post, it is a damaging activity to engage in “one good thing, one bad thing” approach when discussing an employee’s performance.  In short, if an employee has basic ethics and skills, then they are trying 100% of the time to do good work.  This makes the chance that an employee performs an equal amount of good things (strengths) and bad things (weaknesses) absurdly low, and any discussions around this will seem strange and as though the employee is being attacked unnecessarily by management.  That’s because it is an unprovoked attack on the employee.  The employee has already gone through an extensive selection process and has been put in that situation by management, with the expectation to succeed.  Calling out weaknesses implies a new expectation: that you actually expect the employee to bring value to the organization half the time, and cause damage to the organization half the time.   You are in essence asking the employee to describe the ways they cause damage to the equation, or at least it seems that way.

7. People have unlimited weaknesses!

Perhaps this is an obvious point, but when you engage in a discussion about a person’s weaknesses, it can seem like an invitation to discuss all of the things in life that the person is bad at.  That person has spent their entire life finding ways to avoid doing things they are bad at or have no interest in.  They have, to the best of their ability, made systemic and strategic choices to try to do things they are good at.  Why bring up the bad things?  When you ask about someone’s weaknesses, you are actually asking them to bring up all the things that they are bad at, and have, for the benefit of society and their own sanity, stopped pursuing.  They have instead tried to pursue things that they can do, if not at an elite level, then at an adequate level.  But let’s discuss those things you are bad at.

8. You are asking for weaknesses in the areas of strengths

As a corollary to the previous point, when you ask for someone’s weakness on a performance review, you are actually asking, “How are you weak in the area that you are strong?”  So you are strong and do so many things right, but now you have to talk about the things you do poorly in the areas that you do well.   Say you are good at sales, but how are you weak at sales?  Perhaps one answer is, “I am weak at telling you where I am weak in areas that I am strong.”

9. Identifying weakness implies a certain permanence, inability to change, or stamp on the overall character of an employee

When discussing an employee’s weaknesses, the intent may be to improve your employee. But identifying a “weakness” implies that you are identifying a permanent flaw in the employee.  As described in the behavior-based language primer, using generalizations does not work, and risks creating unnecessary and pointless arguments between you and your employee.  Discussions should center around the areas that an employee needs to do differently (also known as providing performance feedback) in order to perform the job better.  It isn’t necessarily a permanent weakness that is preventing this.  It is more frequently the current priorities, surrounding environment, and job expectations that create these “permanent” weaknesses in an employee, which would be completely different in a different circumstance.  In many cases, a different situation could reveal that the supposed weakness was actually a strength.

10. Is it a weakness or perceived weakness?

Discussing weaknesses is a pretty dicey proposition, but when you start discussing weaknesses that are perceived and not actual weaknesses, you are taking a conversation with your employee into an abyss.  Here’s an example:  Joe is very unfriendly to co-workers.  Thus, his weakness is that he is unfriendly. Put that down on the review.  That’s the perception was developed because Joe hasn’t attended a team lunch recently, was observed not saying hello in the morning, and seemed to have a frown on his face.  In actuality, Joe was in the process of solving a very difficult problem for the CEO, was entirely focused on it, and ultimately solved the problem.  He wasn’t focused on keeping the ‘friendly’ equilibrium in the office during this time.  Hence, Joe is unfriendly.  This is a perceived weakness that could stick, even though Joe just solved a big problem.   Could it be argued that Joe is the most friendly person in the office by stepping up and actually solving the problem that was important to the CEO, saving the hinds of everyone else in the office?  I think Joe would.

In sum, I think that diving into discussions about weaknesses is a bad idea.  While it may stimulate discussion on areas of difficulty, it does not necessarily surface what the employee’s actual weaknesses are, and even if it does, they will not really help you in making decisions.  Management design needs to find ways to focus on how managers generate great results from employees, rather than try to uncover and brand weaknesses on employees.

Of course, there do need to be coversations between an employee and a manager on how to get better.  In my next post, I’ll provide examples of how discussions about weaknesses can, in fact, be strategic and useful, but you’ll note, it isn’t via asking, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


4 Responses to “Bonus! Five more reasons why discussing weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging”
  1. Pat says:

    We all know from the sitcoms how dangerous it is to ‘discuss’ weaknesses–especially between husbands and wives.

    When I was teaching years ago, I was asked to fill out the same evaluation as the principal. I was so afraid that the principal had observed some of my short comings, I avoided the ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ column. The item I can remember was ‘grooming’ or ‘professional dress’–I wanted to say excellent or very good, but I remembered that there were days when my shoes needed polishing, so I dared not. The principal was a very nice man, and his comment was, ‘You are much too hard on yourself.’ I suppose that was my greatest weakness.

  2. When discussing weaknesses, there always seems to be some brinkmanship between the two parties. What do you reveal about your “weaknesses?” What can you say that is a weakness that is not a “weakness?” High tension!

  3. another Walt guy says:

    As an employee when I made mistakes I felt a sense of failure so now as a supervisor when I discuss a mistake made by an employee I tell them their mistake was a very good learning experience. I have found when they do have problems they will come to me and ask for for help and not try to wing it alone.

  4. Great point, “Another Walt guy!” Too often managers make it seem like conversations about problems are something that are designed to ascribe permanent problematic aspects on an employee, when these convesations instead should be designed to learn from them — both the manager and the employee.

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