Employee strengths and weaknesses discussions should be purely strategic — with examples!

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In my previous posts (here and here), I explored the often absurd and damaging results that often occur when pursuing discussions about an employee’s weaknesses.  In many cases, managers are formally requested to discuss with their employee’s strengths and weaknesses during the annual review process, with confusing, if not angering results.

Absurd, damaging, confusing, angering – these are pretty harsh words.  But surely, Walter, there have to be times when discussing weaknesses with an employee is appropriate?  Of course there are!  They should be strategic and collaborative discussions that are designed to drive the organization forward using the abilities of the employee.

Instead of having a discussion about the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, the discussion should be centered around where the employee’s skills – whether strong or weak – best fit in the organization’s needs, and how they can be leveraged to the maximum benefit for both the organization and the employee. 

Here are some example situations.

In the example of Zinedine Zidane, one of the world’s greatest footballers of all time, imagine a discussion the Team Manager has with one of Monsieur Zidane’s identified weaknesses:

Team Manager: “Monsieur Zidane, you are the best midfielder on the team, if not the world, but you are not very good at goaltending.  That is a weakness of yours.  Should we consider putting you in goal this coming year to improve your skills here?   Perhaps half the time you could play goalkeeper?” 

Zidane:  “We have a perfectly adequate goalkeeper, as well as a back-up goalkeeper.  I think I should continue to play in midfield, as that is where I am strongest at playing. If you have a need to identify an emergency goalkeeper, I think that other players could fill this need well.”

Team Manager: “Yes, but you are weak in goalkeeping, so you could improve your skills in this area.”

Zidane: “Is it really necessary to do this, and are you crazy?”

The team manager has identified goaltending as Zidane’s weakness, and offers a “solution” to it.  It’s an absurd idea — moving Zidane to goalkeeper– and if this conversation were to leave the room between Zidane and the Team Manager, the Team Manager would likely be fired for being crazy and stupid.

Now imagine a similar conversation with a top salesperson:

Manager:  “Jeanette, you lead the team in sales with our highest volume customer.  We have a new customer, but they have a reputation for being very difficult and picky with a few of our other sales people, and we did fail to deliver a few times.  To repair this, we could remove you from our top customer, and put you in front of the difficult customer, and have our lower performing salespeople work with your existing customer.” 

Jeanette:  “It depends on what your strategy is:  Do you want to risk lowering the high volume of sales with the existing customers, and have me take on the task of turning around a customer?  I have never had to do this before, because I built the relationships with my existing customers from the ground up, so you are asking me to do a turn-around job.  Is that what you want me to do?”

In both of these examples, the “weaknesses” are clear:  Zinedine Zidane, while a very good athlete, is not very good at goalkeeping, and he would prefer to do what he is best at.  Jeanette, the top salesperson, is “weak” at turn-around business because she has been focusing on not creating that problem in the first place, and instead on maximizing sales. It is fair to say she could be strong in this area compared to others were she to pursue it, just as Zidane could very well be a good goalkeeper.  In both of these cases, the employee agrees what the “weaknesses” are, but are they actually weaknesses?  They weaknesses are, in fact, the result of smart strategic decisions established long ago.

It was a very smart decision to put Zinedine Zidane in midfield, and it was a smart decision to put Jeanette with the top customer.  Making a switch could make sense, but it has be a strategic discussion for what’s best for the organization, and not a way of “removing” a weakness of the employee.  I could imagine a scenario where the three goaltenders on the team get injured, and M. Zidane, as the best athlete on the team, fills in.  Or in Jeanette’s case, the upside of her working with the “difficult” customer could be huge, and it is worth the risk of losing some sales with the existing customers. 

When you discuss strengths and weaknesses – are they centered around the employee’s ability and their gaps?  Or are the discussions centered around how best to leverage the employee’s ability to meet the strategic needs of the organization?  What are your experiences?

In my next post, I’ll further compare the current method of discussing employee strengths and weaknesses on an annual performance review with a better-designed strategic discussion of an employee’s ability, actual and potential.

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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 .


6 Responses to “Employee strengths and weaknesses discussions should be purely strategic — with examples!”
  1. Hi Walter: Have not had a chance to review previous editions of this discourse – Have you discussed “rating systems” (anchored or not) and the dangers of rating too early in the performance evaluation discussion process & unilateral “rating” Vs. collaborative rating?


  2. Great questions —

    I have discussed whether to evaluate employees/teams based on both the ‘what’ they did and the ‘how’ they did it. (http://managerbydesign.com/2010/01/how-to-use-the-what-how-grid-to-build-team-strength-strategy-and-performance/). But mostly as a strategic view of your team and how to coach to higher performance.


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