Taking strength from weakness

Career development / Learning and development
Phil Purver
By Phil Purver | 27th August 2020

Chief Executive of The Working Manager, Managing Director of iRIS Health Solutions Ltd.

If you've sat through a performance review or appraisal recently, it's likely there was some discussion around 'development areas' or 'areas for improvement' — yours or your employees. But why all the euphemisms?

It seems that calling out flaws has become so taboo that we dare not speak their name. Whether this is due to polarised thinking around weaknesses — strengths are good, weaknesses are bad — or our love of the comfort zone, there seems to be a culture of denial and fear around pointing out other people's shortcomings and owning our own. Instead, we skirt around issues for the sake of pride and to take the sting out of difficult conversations.

Talking in riddles may feel easier at the time, but the opportunity cost is high. In a recent CareerBurst webinar, Sarah Hobbs challenged us to think differently about weaknesses. She believes that rather than burying shortcomings, we should accept them, be open about them and maybe even embrace them.

I tend to agree. Hearing Sarah talk bravely about her weaknesses in the webinar reminded me of times during my first Managing Director roles when I felt compelled to pretend I had all the answers. I soon became exposed. Learning to be frank and admit to weaknesses was a steep learning curve, but the pay-offs were worth it.

Lowering our defences and owning our weaknesses may take some getting used to, but it's the first step towards building more authentic relationships. It can feel vulnerable at first but hold your nerve, and you'll more than likely find that it encourages others to connect with you on a deeper, more genuine basis. Without honesty, our business relationships can feel competitive, brittle and one-dimensional. They lack trust. On the contrary, being 'real' is refreshing. It speaks of inner confidence and suggests you're comfortable in your skin.

After all, with whom would you prefer to spend time? A paragon of perfection or a self-aware, rounded individual, who's at ease with all facets of their character? Imperfection is interesting; it brings our relationships to life, by injecting personality, light and shade.

Imperfection also builds trust and permits other people to be more honest about their failings. It encourages a culture of honesty, where it's ok to ask for help, admit mistakes and lean on each other.

Such openness fosters teamwork. By being honest about your struggles with a particular function or aspect of your job, you allow other people to step up, contribute and feel needed.

Recognising weakness is also a powerful way to shine a light on strengths. I loved Sarah's point in the webinar that strengths and weaknesses are often different sides of the same coin: finding it difficult to focus on one thing for a long time, for example, can hone juggling skills. Fear of failure can drive organisational skills.

Allowing for weaknesses also encourages creativity and growth. Innovation only happens when people aren't afraid to make mistakes. Take Apple, for example; they don't wait until everything is perfect before launching a new phone. They push forward with innovative technologies, accepting there will be glitches along the way — and are celebrated for being one step ahead of their competitors.

Such ideas are all very well in theory, you may be thinking, but what happens next time you're in a review? External expectations from organisations and colleagues can often mean we feel pressure to focus on weaknesses, rectify them and strive for perfection.

I'm all for a growth mindset. In my experience, good intentions, gadgets, self-help books and training can improve matters, but it's essential not to drain too much energy on areas that don't light you up. Assuming your weaknesses aren't unduly burdening or frustrating colleagues, better to admit them, pivot and focus on qualities that enable you to excel and add a unique contribution. It's here where true fulfilment and success lies.

After all, as research professor, author and host of one of the most viewed TED talks in the world, Dr Brené Brown says "When we spend our lives waiting until we're perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make... perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don't exist in the human experience... Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability."

The recording of the CareerBurst webinar ‘Loving Your Weaknesses’ is available here.

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