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Square Peg, Round Hole – Can The Traditional Organization Afford to Focus on Strengths?

By October 2, 2009 No Comments

Is performance management upside down in Corporate America?  Here are a couple of quick observations:

1.  Jobs are structured for the company, not the employee.  I’m not saying that’s wrong, just outlining the facts.

2.  90% of the time we spend talking about performance is about how to manage negative variance.

3.  We don’t spend a lot of the time evaluating how we can continue to maximize a person’s strengths.  We’ll tell them they are doing great, give them an “exceeds”, then move on to how they can improve their “areas of opportunity”.

4.  The combination of those competencies, that create “jobs”, are pretty inflexible in corporate America.

With that in mind, it should come as no shock that while we love to read books like “Now Discover Your Strengths” and nod accordingly when discussing, we pretty much go back to the coal mine and expect people to fit in the traditional spaces we’ve defined.

Scott McArthur talked awhile back about the power of positive, strength-based psychology in the workplace.  From the sweet rundown at McArthur’s Rant:

“Positive psychology suggests that by focusing on people’s strengths rather than on their development needs we can transform wellness at work and as a consequence improve organizational performance.

The notion behind the work that is being done under the banner of Positive Psychology is to enhance our experiences of love, work and play and by doing so encourage wellbeing. This is in contrast to the traditional ways of thinking in both psychology and business where the focus is on finding what isn’t working and trying to fix it.

Techniques such as Appreciative Enquiry and Strength Finders as well as writers such as Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience have been extolling the value of adopting this approach for some time. In Gallup’s case they have produced some strong statistical evidence that it works..”

Scott acknowledges in his post that while focusing on employee strengths is a powerful tool, it’s problematic for the traditional organization to figure out how to do it.

Here’s my take.  The power of focusing on strengths in corporate America is probably best used in a combination of performance management and engagement.  The smart managers know that they can’t adjust a role to fit the employee’s strengths with a 100% match.  But with the right amount of praise, coaching and organizational flexibility, they can create an environment where the employee understands that the more efficient they are in their formal job, the more they can chase what they really love to do, and maybe even innovate and create stuff on the way.

And that would be a pretty cool thing…

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