If you have people who perform below their capabilities – and face it, what manager doesn’t? – you might think the way to approach the problem is to identify each person’s skill or motivational gap, and work on a plan to address it.

That sounds like common sense. But like a lot of what we consider common sense, it’s wrong. People’s minds don’t respond well to attempts to “fix” them.

Research shows that you’ll get better performance results if you seek to build on people’s strengths rather than correct their flaws.

Enhancing strengths

One study looked at more than 2,000 managers and found that 86% of managers who focused on enhancing strengths led above-average teams – against 45% for those who focused on improving weaknesses.

But did this training strategy create the successful teams, or were they simply a consequence? In other words, were the managers able to focus on strengths because their people were already high performers? Or was the training responsible for the high performance?

To answer that question, another study looked at what would happen if a strength-based training strategy were applied to low-performing teams. It looked at a large, underperforming hospital with low morale, high staff turnover and poor patient-satisfaction ratings.

Instead of identifying areas where hospital employees were deficient and trying to plug those holes, the researchers administered a “strengths finder” assessment to each of the 700 employees. Then they gave the employees feedback on their strengths and offered talent-development opportunities to build on them.

Over the next two years, employee engagement more than doubled, turnover decreased by 50% and customer satisfaction ratings went up 160%.

It’s all about commitment

Why is focusing on strengths so effective? Because you can’t improve performance without first getting commitment. And research shows that employees are more likely to buy in when their managers develop their strengths, rather than trying to fix their weaknesses.

Employees don’t think of themselves as “problems” and don’t want to be “fixed.” So when managers rush in to fix deficits – even with good intentions – employees often don’t respond well. They disengage and grow resentful. They’re less likely to take ownership over results. Their productivity declines. And some will simply head for the door.

But when you help employees develop the talents and skills they already possess, they become more confident, more motivated to improve and more willing to stick around.

Those positives can have a big effect on an organization’s bottom line.

Doing what they do best

A study of 300,000 employees found that when an employee believes they have “the opportunity to do what I do best every day,” they are 1.4 times more productive and 1.4 times more likely to stay with their employer. And a follow-up study found that these employees are six times more engaged, which makes them eager to go above and beyond for their organization.

Of course, you can’t ignore serious deficits. People need to be at least minimally proficient and engaged. If a specific skill or motivational deficit is holding back an employee, by all means help them work on it.

But if employees are “just okay” in certain areas while great in others, the research suggests you’d get a better return by focusing most of your coaching and talent development efforts on building up those strengths.

About the author

Senior Editor, Dave Clemens has worked for newspapers, news services, magazines and specialized business publications – in print and online – on four continents during his 40 years as a reporter and editor. His work has appeared in the magazine World Press Review, over the news and broadcast services of The Associated Press, and in several nationally recognized human resources, employment law and business newsletters.

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