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Business Journal
The Flip Side of Talent
Business Journal

The Flip Side of Talent

Focusing on weaknesses leads to boredom and frustration

by Kathie Sorensen and Steve Crabtree

Have you ever experienced mind-numbing boredom? Time seems to pass impossibly slowly; your attention wanders, your spirits sag, your energy is sapped. There may have been times at work when you have actually struggled to remain conscious. Think for a minute about the last time you were so bored you felt in danger of losing your eyes to the back of your head. What was happening at that moment? What was your task? Where were your talents?

Search through a list of tasks you avoid or find tedious, and often, you'll discover your non-talents lurking close by. For some, the source of monotony may be keeping track of details, while for others it may be listening to long-winded speakers or spending hours reading or working at a computer. If a task gives you no intrinsic satisfaction, it probably doesn't align with your talents. And what is the one sure consequence of this kind of task? Boredom!

Even individuals who are engaged in their work will admit to experiencing "non-engagement" first hand -- in another role, at another time, or with another company. Though we may not automatically relate our reaction with areas of non-talent, most of us have felt bored, depressed or apathetic at one point or another.

In this column, we take a closer look at the flip side of engagement: what it is, how poor management exacerbates it, and how it can be recognized and remedied. After all, working outside our areas of strength is an unpleasant proposition. Not only is it tedious, it leads to doubts, discouragement and reduced self-esteem. In the workplace, discouragement decreases our engagement with our work, and begins a cyclical process from which it is difficult to break free.

And that leads to decreased productivity. As part of Gallup's meta-analysis with 198,000 employees within 36 companies (on which the best-seller First, Break All the Rules is largely based) we asked the following question: At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day? Employees who answered "strongly agree" to this question were 50% more likely to work in business units with lower employee turnover, 38% more likely to work in more productive business units, and 44% more likely to work in business units with higher customer satisfaction scores. Obviously, companies have a stake in making sure employees get to do what they do best at work each day.

All that said, why is it so easy to become preoccupied with our non-talents? Why does it continue to be a huge stumbling block for companies striving to maximize their human resource potential?

Poor managers manage talent poorly

As with so many other workplace issues, the answer starts with the manager. Less intuitive or self-assured managers often focus primarily on problems. Their goal is to identify employees' weaknesses, and then ask them to "fix" them. Focusing on problems fosters some managers' illusion that they are making progress, one problem at a time. The problem-solving process is easy to map out: "Something is wrong, so let's identify and correct it." If there is nothing to fix, the manager lacks focus, and insecurity begins to creep in. Thus, less successful managers tend to invest most of their time with their weaker employees.

From the employee's standpoint, being poorly managed is a trap. He feels growing doubt and disappointment in his talents and is less confident in selecting a course of action. The feedback he receives tends to reinforce what isn't working rather than what is. Worst of all, he's often saddled with tasks and responsibilities that are ill fitted to his talents. The results are underwhelming: the longer this management strategy continues, the less engaged the employee becomes, and the harder the manager works to correct the employee's weaknesses, the less effective the process will be.

That tendency of managers to focus on weaknesses may reflect an overall cultural bias toward pathology. A number of noted psychologists and sociologists (among them Dr. Martin Seligman, best-selling author of Learned Optimism) have written about the late-20th century focus on weaknesses, whether they are societal or individual. Recent research by Dr. Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, for example, provides evidence that negative emotions and feedback have a heavier and longer lasting impact than positive ones. The message for managers is that they should be sparing and careful with criticism, because a little tends to go a long way.

What do we believe about people?

The assumption that we can fix our areas of non-strength makes its mark on our lives in many ways. Sometimes we act as if it is our responsibility to point out others' systematic mistakes, since we believe that once their errors are pointed out, people are capable of behaving differently. But given a choice, how many would have chosen to fail in the first place? To know is to correct, we seem to say with our behavior. If that were the case, the solutions to any number of social problems would be much clearer and less complex than they have actually proven to be.

Unfortunately, excellence is rarely achieved by minimizing error. It is more likely to be achieved by maximizing strengths. What happens when we succeed? When we win? When we are so accustomed to being successful that we don't stop to think or doubt before we act?

That's the good news: There's a corresponding positive cycle associated with our use of strengths -- our resulting success motivates and emboldens us, builds our confidence and provides a hedge against future disappointments. There is strong evidence that such confidence itself leads to improved problem solving and decision making.

Dr. Alice Isen of Cornell University, for example, has conducted extensive research on the benefits of positive emotions at work. Her research suggests that small positive interventions can produce big effects among workers, including increased altruism, improved coping strategies and cognitive flexibility. Not only is a worker most productive in her area of natural ability -- an employee working in her area of strength reaps benefits simply by maintaining a positive emotional state.

Some personal check points

Finally, here are a few thoughts on how to promote that positive cycle and to support the growth and development of others.

  • Success breeds success. There's no substitute for setting people up for success and pointing out individual successes. From the first moment of the day to the last, make a point to pass along confidence by noticing the contributions others make. Accentuate what works -- not just what doesn't.
  • Resist the temptation to offer criticism or negative feedback. More often than not, the comment will do little good. Ask yourself these questions before you act:
    • Does the person already know this? (Chances are they do.)
    • Does the expectation "fit" the person? In other words, can the person do better, or is he operating in an area of non-talent?
    • Does your feedback suggest a solution? If there's no solution in the message, it's not likely to help.
  • If critical feedback is essential -- that is, if the individual is unaware of the problem, and it's obvious she can do better and you can help her see how -- then have the conversation with her individually. Never offer negative feedback in front of an audience.
  • Remember the fundamental process that great managers engage in daily:
    1. Figure out what people can do extremely well.
    2. Recognize their successes individually, and tell others about them.
    3. Tell them why their strengths matter.
    4. Encourage them to use their strengths again!

Steve Crabtree is a Senior Editor and Research Analyst at Gallup. He is the lead editor of Gallup's State of the Global Workplace reports.
Kathie Sorenson is a former consultant with Gallup.

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