Five reasons why focusing on weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging

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Many managers are asked to discuss with their employees the various strengths and weaknesses of the employee.  This often backfires, as the employee is appropriately suspicious of the manager’s intent when discussing “weaknesses”.   The reason:  This will appear on the employee’s annual performance review, and becomes part of the employee’s “brand” going forward – even if the weaknesses are irrelevant or nonsensical.  As a result, any discussion about an employee’s weaknesses should be for the purpose of identifying and planning strategic needs of the organization.  Instead what happens more often than not is that a discussion of an employee’s weaknesses is performed simply to document bad things about an employee.  But why would you want to do that?  You don’t.  And here’s why not:

1. If an employee has a weakness, then don’t put him or her in the position where that weakness is important or relevant.

A sports analogy is apt here.  Zinedine Zidane is one of the greatest footballers ever.  However, he probably is pretty bad at goaltending, at least at the top level.  His weakness in goaltending, however, doesn’t hurt the team, because when he plays midfield, the team wins championships.  The results are there, and there are others who can play goaltender.  Having a discussion with Monsieur Zidane about his weakness at tending goal is a silly conversation.  Don’t conduct analogous discussions with your employees, unless you want to get in an argument.  Should you do this, your employee will say, “My manager’s weakness is that he identifies weaknesses that are irrelevant to performance.”

2. If the employee’s “weakness” is a key component necessary to do the job tasks, provide performance feedback on doing the job tasks, rather than label it as a weakness.

Labeling an individual as “weak” in an area doesn’t actually move the employee to perform better in the area they are weak.  If the performance is sub-par, then you, the manager, need to take action to improve the employee.  Start with performance feedback, using behavior-based language and work on getting the employee to minimum acceptable performance in the area.   It’s not a “weakness” if the employee isn’t doing the job, it is below acceptable performance.  If anything was weak, it would be the hiring decision, the training, management’s expectations and feedback, and the job design. If the employee can’t do the job even with increased performance support, it’s time to performance manage the employee, rather than obsess about “weaknesses.”

3. Structural components of the job may be creating a weakness in your employee.

Let’s say that you hire a top salesperson, Jeanette.  That person has an amazing track record in selling well above the average.  In fact, you have people shadowing her to learn her techniques, so that they can be replicated across the organization.  That is how valuable this salesperson is.  A new administrative system is then implemented across the company.  Unfortunately, it takes, on average, twice as long to process a sale, and this top salesperson, Jeanette, you discover, takes three times as long to process a sale now.  You now have identifies a weakness. This top salesperson is “weak” at administrative tasks.  You put this down in the annual review:  “Jeanette is strong at closing sales, but is weak at processing the sale”.  Now Jeanette is no longer a strong salesperson, but a “weak” salesperson. But what has changed is the system and structure of processing sales that has created a “weakness”, not an actual weakness in the salesperson, yet the top salesperson now has been branded as “weak.”  When you ask someone their “weaknesses”, they will most often describe situations where the structural situation was a difficult one, and how it made it difficult, and how they handled it.

4. The weakness may, in fact, be a strength

To continue the example with Jeanette, our top salesperson dealing with the new sales processing system, Jeanette takes three times as long as before, and 50% longer than the other salespeople.  Clearly Jeanette is “weak” in administrative tasks.  Or is she?  You may, in fact, discover that Jeanette is the only sales person who is actually processing orders correctly, and the other sales staff are taking shortcuts, making errors, and creating re-work downstream. Yet, you look at this metric of Jeanette’s ‘weakness’ in processing sales and label it as a weakness.  What’s Jeanette supposed to do now?  Should she do the same shoddy work as the others?  Work longer hours?  Seeing that Jeanette’s skills are such that she has some serious strengths, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeanette leaves the company over something like this and starts selling the competitor’s product.

5. You often put the strongest performers in the toughest situations, creating weaknesses out thin air

Let’s say that you have a very difficult customer.  You put your strongest performers in front of the difficult customer.  That strong performer takes on the challenge, but the customer is slow at turning around, the customer satisfaction ratings from this customer stay low.  The strong performer now has lower metrics than before.  What changed?  Was it the strong performer, or the situation?  Is it fair to say, “You are strong in situations where you have an ‘easy’ customer, but weak when you have a difficult customer?”  The answer is no.  You have put this strong customer in a ‘clean up’ situation, and expecting them to achieve the same performance as before is naïve and a recipe for creating damage with a top performer who is cleaning up someone else’s mess.

In my next post, I’ll provide five more reasons discussing weakness is absurd and dangerous.

Have you ever been asked to discuss your or your employee’s weaknesses? Did it feel like you were getting anywhere?  Or did it feel confused and tense?

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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 “Five reasons why focusing on weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging”
  1. Barbara Bailey says:

    Did you get the message I sent? Am forwarding your website to a teacher friend. BB


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