In my book First, Break All the Rules, I wrote about how the world’s great managers focus on the strengths of their employees and manage around their weaknesses in order to get the best performance out of each individual. In the years since then, I’ve dedicated myself to helping people recognize what their own specific strengths are so that they can be more productive and more fulfilled in their work. Yet, the most recent surveys indicate that only 45 percent of Americans believe that they will be most successful by focusing on their strengths.
Recent years have added a new twist to this challenge: America’s main economic competitor, China, has turned around dramatically on the issue of strengths focus. As recently as 2000, 76 percent of workers surveyed in China preferred to focus on their weaknesses, but now the latest data show that 70 percent of Chinese workers focus on their strengths.
In America, the numbers are moving the opposite way. While 45 percent on the whole focus on strengths, 69 percent of Generation Y believes that the best way to make the most of oneself is to focus on weaknesses.
In short, the vast majority of the next generation of America’s workforce, 71 million strong, has not gotten the message that the most successful managers and our economic competitors already know.
We need to address this deficiency to save everyone a lot of time and trouble by reaching young workers before they’ve gone too far down the wrong path. Employees need to know their managers are willing to make the most of what they have to offer, not spend all of their time “fixing” their perceived weaknesses. On the other hand, employees need to bring a specific and focused understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.
The members of Generation Y — through no fault of their own, but let’s be frank — are the most coddled and affirmed cohort in living memory. They haven’t had to go through the refining, pragmatic process of finding the best way to win because they have been rewarded simply for participation. What that means is that we have a generation entering the workforce whose members simply don’t know how to make the best of themselves.
The good news is that the best way to get these young professionals headed in the right direction is to ask them to do something they already excel at — pay attention to themselves.
Others can notice where an individual excels, but the problem is this: What a person is good at may not be what she loves to do, and if it’s not what she loves to do, then sooner or later, that lack of passion is going to catch up to her and affect her performance. Only by paying attention to how she feels before, while and after performing specific activities can she learn about her strengths.
Decades of empirical data show that the highest-performing teams, diverse as they are, share one key trait: Their members have the chance every day to focus on doing what they do best. It’s clear that the most direct route to achieving high performance is to treat team members as individuals and clear the way for them to play to their particular strengths.
The first step is to empower people to know what their strengths are. My hope is that managers will be able to use this approach to reach the newest members of America’s workforce early and get them on the right path as soon as possible.