Can you ignore your weaknesses?


It might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing to do about a weakness is simply to ignore it. And if we explore the notion of strengths-focused leadership, the reasons for this quickly become apparent.

To explain this, let’s start with a fundamental truth. No one is good at everything. However if you’ve been through a 360 degree feedback process based on a competency framework, you might have experienced the implied expectation that you should be. You should have excellent performance in all 16 (or however many) competencies the framework uses, shouldn’t you?

No you shouldn’t! No one has that.

So there will be some things that you are better at than others. Amongst the things that you are better at are the ones that energise you most. Those are your real strengths. Those are where your greatest contribution lies. And a huge amount of research over the last few years confirms it.

Not all weaknesses matter

And then there are the things that you are not so good at. We could call them non-strengths. Traditionally they are called your weaknesses.

And can you really ignore them? Yes you can if you can answer ‘No’ to one important question: is your performance (or that of others) being significantly affected by this weakness? Is this weakness a potential derailer for you?

So if your answer is ‘No’, then by all means ignore it. Don’t have it in your development plan. Recent research corroborates this idea. Development plans that focus on building strengths lead to greater performance and greater development than those that focus on fixing weaknesses.

We shouldn’t really be surprised at this should we? How much more motivating is it to develop an existing strength - something that you are good at that energizes you. Compare that to attempting to fix an aspect of your performance that you are not good at and that drains you. Which are you more likely to be motivated to put time and energy into?

Don’t sweat the small stuff

But what if your answer to the question was ‘Yes’? Then there definitely is a need to manage this weakness - it can’t be ignored. Not only can you not ignore it. It should be the top priority on your development plan. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you have a number of options to manage your weaknesses. Some that might even motivate you.

There are the obvious ones. Get ‘feedforward’ from those around you at work. There will usually be a few nuggets amongst the range of ideas you’ll hear from your colleagues. Or you could find someone who is really good at this activity and use them as a role model, or have them as a mentor. Talk to them to find out how they do it.

Another option is to make the weakness irrelevant by engaging in complementary role-sharing. Someone else takes on what you are weak at while you take on more of what you are strong at that others are weak at. That way everyone’s a winner.

Manage your weakness from your strengths

This is the less well known approach, the one that sounds counter intuitive. But it’s one that works. We know from research that people don’t fix weaknesses as well as they build on strengths. Part of the reason is that your strengths energize you. So how about using your strengths to manage your weaknesses?

Here’s how it works. Adam was in a senior leadership role. An assessment of his strengths had highlighted creativity, strategic thinking and analytical thinking as the top three. These were the activities he excelled in and that energized him to be involved in. In looking at his weaknesses he identified networking as a significant weakness. Yet his role required him to build relationships with a wide variety of stakeholders in different organizations.

I asked Adam “How could you use your strengths to help you manage this weakness?”

After some thought he answered “Well my strengths in strategic thinking could help me here. Instead of dreading the thought of going to these public events where I have to ‘schmooze’ with relative strangers, I could look at them as opportunities to go along and do some useful strategic thinking with people who will have valuable input to make. If I prepare myself by having a number of strategic questions to invite people to comment on, then I won’t feel at a loss for words.”

Adam’s shift in perspective on this gave these events a whole new energy for him. He was coming to the situation now from a starting point of strength, rather than weakness. This shift in his way of framing the event made all the difference. His behavior at the events changed as a result.

Try this with any weakness that you cannot ignore. Rather than thinking “Ugh…I’m not good at this, what can I do about it?” start instead with the question “what are my strengths?” Then look for the opportunities to apply these to your weakness.

As Dewitt Jones, the-awarding winning National Geographic photographer said “by celebrating what’s working, we find the energy to fix what is not working”.

About The Author

Mike Roarty
Mike Roarty

Mike Roarty is the author, with Kathy Toogood, of The Strengths-Focused Guide to Leadership: Identify Your Talents and Get the Most From Your People (Pearson). They are also co-directors of Strengths-Focused Leadership, a company specialising in bringing this style of leadership to large organisations.