Time and again I have heard or read this advice: Focus on your strengths and develop your strengths, accept your weaknesses. I believed it for a very long time. This advice is enchanting. Everybody will agree that it is easier to improve in an area of personal strengths and hard or impossible to get rid of weaknesses. I do not believe it any more.
In fact, your weaknesses may be the root cause for a sustainable lack of personal growth. If you ignore them for too long, that ignorance can severely damage you.
Imagine a manufacturer. Let it be for cars or washing machines. They want to grow and need to increase their production speed and capacity. Should they first look into the fastest parts of their production lines (strength) for improvement potential? Or should they care for the slowest parts, which regularly even fall behind their quotas (weaknesses). In the business world, a whole field of research called theory of constraints focuses on identifying and removing those bottlenecks. In personal matters it is not much different.
You especially should not believe that the weak spots of your personality are fixed. Change is possible, and even psychological research showed that. Up to the 1970s it was widely accepted that a person’s character forms until he or she reaches the age of around thirty and remains stable after that. Research around the so-called “Big Five” character traits has shown that this assumption is wrong, which does not mean that such change is easy or easily controlled.
You could start with a list containing some answers to the following questions:
- Which habits do I have that reveal weak spots? That can be because they are bad habits or because I had to establish them to work around weak spots.
- Which wastes do I have? Do a waste check to identify them. Especially repeated or long-lasting waste is a good sign of a weakness.
- Which tasks on my to-do list or personal Kanban board are late? Is there a pattern of repeatedly delayed tasks? Look out for impediments or blockers, too.
- Which negative feedback do I get from people around me? That can be from family, friends, your boss or colleagues, or other people.
- Which negative feedback I give to others reflects on my own weaknesses? Try to rephrase your feedback so that it becomes a compliment. Then negate that compliment. Maybe this is a weakness of your own?
You could also do some kind of psychological test. The only one I would recommend is the “Big Five” test, because it has been scientifically developed, statistically checked, and is the most widely accepted test in the psychological sciences. (By the way: the Lean Self Maturity Test is not a psychological test. It gives just a rough assessment of process maturity.)
Have a close look at your list of weaknesses. Assign a priority to each of the weaknesses. I suggest the following priorities, in descending order of importance:
- Must change. These are weaknesses that have a regular or long-lasting negative impact on your life.
- Should change. Weaknesses that create trouble from time to time but have no long-term effect whenever they strike.
- Accept and observe. Minor flaws that usually do not lead to problems or even can be endearing because they round up your character.
- Ignore. Depending on the length of your list there may be items on it that have negligible effect on your life.
As a rough guideline, you should end up with at most three weaknesses of priority 1 and around 20% of your list should be 1 or 2. If more than 20% of your list are priority 4, you may have been a little too uncritical in your assessment.
The following approach works for all kinds of weaknesses, but – following the Pareto Principle – you should focus on the bottlenecks with the highest priority. There are two general strategies: turn your weakness into strengths or replace them by positive behavior. You can combine the two strategies. Both ways of change should end up with some concrete action or change of behavior.
Start with looking into the detail of your weakness. Make a short list (three to seven items) of features of your weakness. Describe them as negative as possible. For example, if you are far too outspoken for your own good, you might end up with:
- Always telling the whole truth, even if it is hurting people or damaging you.
- Trying to partake in any discussion or decision, even if it is not your turf.
- Interrupting people.
To turn a weakness into a strength, you should look at the positive aspects buried in the weakness. How can you even increase the positive effects, while minimizing the negative effects? If you want to replace a weakness by a strength, you should understand what the positive opposite may be. Let’s have a look at our example (you can also use a simple tool I describe in another post):
- Always telling the truth:
- Increasing positive effect: There is nothing inherently bad with telling the truth. But the line between opinion and truth is blurred. Stick to the facts, or at least clearly distinguish between fact and opinion. Also you should remember, that part of the whole truth is also the damage you inflict upon people when being to outspoken.
- Positive opposite: Be more diplomatic. Stick to the truth, but keep it to yourself if speaking about it does not add value.
- Trying to partake in any discussion:
- Increasing positive effects: Be part of the discussions as an active listener. Ask questions to understand the issues. Speak up if you really can add value (from the point of view of the other participants) with your insights.
- Positive opposite: Know your limits. When something is out of your reach, then refrain from joining the discussion. If you cannot add value by following up on your talk with own actions, be careful. Accept that some people are very aware of their own turf and may have a right to this.
- Interrupting people:
- Increasing positive effects: This is tricky. Usually interrupting is impolite or rude and does not shed a good light on you. On the other hand, sometimes interrupting is required to show leadership skills and initiative. What can you do? Interrupt people sparingly and only where you know it has maximum positive effect and is strategically important (for your own good and the people around you).
- Positive opposite: Become an active listener. Ask questions, but without interrupting. Instead of speaking up, take notes of your thoughts and go through them later. Then bring up your points when it is suitable.
It is difficult to make all these changes at once. Pick out the two or three most promising and change there. In terms of Pareto Stragies, you should go for 60/3. If you manage your continuous improvement with a Personal Kanban Board, put the other ideas on the backlog (“Waiting” column).
You may have noticed that this discussion is on the level of symptoms. This may be too superficial. If you want to do a really job about managing your weaknesses, I suggest to dig deeper for at least the weakness with the highest impact and priority. Make a root cause analysis and work with an A6 prepare a detailed improvement plan.
What do you think? Any New Year resolutions you would like to tackle with this approach? Just leave a comment.