In our quest to become more well-rounded, we're all missing an important skill that translates to better success, experts agree

  • Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall are the authors of “Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World.”
  • They write that one of the biggest myths at work is that people should strive to be well-rounded. In reality, every one of us thinks differently, is motivated by different things, responds to relationship cues differently, and gets a kick out of different sorts of praise.
  • Instead, the authors argue, we should all focus first on our strengths and our successes and on what makes us unique, because that’s where the greatest advantage lies.
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In the world that exists inside most of our large organizations — a world understandably preoccupied with the need for order and tidiness — the perfect incumbent of every role possesses all the skills and competencies that can be dreamed up and defined. And although it’s rare to hear anyone say it out loud, the implication of this normative approach to work is clear: The best people are well-rounded,and to have more best people, we need to hold everyone up to the model and tell you where you fall short, and then work to close your gaps, to round you out. In this, the theoretical world of work is diametrically at odds with what we see in the real world.

In the real world, these long lists of intricately defined competencies don’t exist — and if they did, they wouldn’t matter. In the real world, each of us, imperfect as we are, strives to make the most of the unique mix of traits and skills with which we’ve been blessed. Those of us who do this best — who find what we love about what we do, and cultivate this love with intelligence and discipline — are the ones who contribute most. The best people are not well-rounded, finding fulfillment in their uniform ability. Quite the opposite, in fact — the best people are spiky, and in their lovingly honed spikiness they find their biggest contribution, their fastest growth, and, ultimately, their greatest joy.


The best people are spiky

On some level, we have all long known this. From our earliest memories of school to our most recent experiences of work, the thought that if only I could set this annoying thing aside and focus on what I really want to, then I could make a much bigger difference is all too familiar. But then why do these competency models and their associated 360-degree assessments, feedback tools, and development plans exist? What could have prompted otherwise sensible people to have spent so much time and energy and money building models whose efficacy is intrinsically unprovable, that require enormous amounts of time and energy to create, and that fly in the face of our own experiences in the world?

The simplest answer is that, though we are deeply aware that each of us is unique, and that no amount of training or badgering will remove that uniqueness, it is still quite overwhelming for a busy team leader to allow himself to come face-to-face with the fact that each of his team members thinks differently, is motivated by different things, responds to relationship cues differently, and gets a kick out of different sorts of praise. Who has the time for all these subtle shadings of diversity? Better to just define a model, and then manage to the model.

Nine Lies About Work

For a company, it’s all about control. The strong instinct of most corporate leaders, faced with the teeming diversity not just of gender, race, and age but of thought, drive, and relationship inside their organizations, is to look for some way to exert control — to rein it all in, to impose conformity on the chaos, and thence to be able to understand what’s going on, and to shape what will happen next. And so companies have spent, and continue to spend, large quantities of time and money trying to work around each person’s uniqueness — and this is where these models bubble up from. The models promise rigor — a clear set of characteristics against which everyone can be measured, a sort of “apples-to-apples” comparison (even though in the real world it is always “apples-to-oranges”). The models promise analytical insights — a way to understand the entire workforce. (It’s no accident the systems are known as performance-management systems, as oxymoronic as that sounds.) The models promise fact, evidence, truth. What is the job of an executive if not to know what’s going on, in great specificity, and to be able to tweak the dials of the vast enterprise before him so that progress may be made? The creeping suspicion, on the part of more and more leaders, that the models offer none of the things they promise, is an inconvenience to be minimized.

And to be clear, it isn’t just the competency models that are dubious but the ideas behind them. There is the idea that improvement comes from repairing our deficits. There is the idea that failure is essential to growth. And there is the idea that our strengths are something to be afraid of.

The presence of strength

What’s most striking when we look at excellent performance is not the absence of deficit but, rather, the presence of a few signature strengths, honed over time and put to ever greater use. But still the idea of fixing deficits appeals to us — it gives us the hope that we might corral, and thus tame, our imperfections, and it allows us to make amends for our shortcomings by toiling to fix them. And the fact that this toil is usually far from joyful is part of the allure. “Pain + Reflection = Progress” is the mantra at Bridgewater, the hedge fund run by Ray Dalio, and in some way we thrill to the hard clarity of this prescription. The pain of working on our deficits seems like a worthy pain, a way to pay our penance and make our restitution with the world, and we are drawn to its salutary austerity.

And the idea that failure is important is attractive, in turn, because failure helps us understand our deficits — it helps us find more of them. If a technology company today is not talking about failing fast, there is presumed to be something wrong with it. “There is no way to ‘get better’ other than to first do it, however poorly you do,” says Charlie Kim, CEO of Next Jump, and this makes perfect sense. But then the false syllogism: “So get started; go out and fail! We have become good at getting better because we are so good at failing.” Beyond the obvious point — that if all a company did was to become brilliant at failing in more and more ways, faster and faster, it would be, well, a failure — the truth is that large success is the aggregation of small successes, and that therefore improvement consists of finding out, in each trial, what works, seizing hold of it, and figuring out how to make more of it. Failure by itself doesn’t teach us anything about success, just as our deficits by themselves don’t teach us anything about our strengths. And the moment we begin to get better is the moment when something actually works, not when it doesn’t.

And then there is the idea that our strengths are to be feared — that we should avoid overusing them because that will somehow pull us away from our proper focus on failure and shortcomings, and instead pull us toward laziness and complacency. Of course, if we were able to watch a great athlete training, or a great writer writing, or a great coder coding, we would see that honing a strength is hard work — it is by no means easy to find that incremental margin of performance when you are already operating at a high level — and that a strength is not where we are most “finished” but in fact where we are most productively challenged. Yet we are told to resist the temptation to “just” play to our strengths, and instead to work constantly on our weaknesses. In common parlance, we are told to avoid “running around our backhand.” This betrays, perhaps, a misunderstanding of what a strength actually is. It is not, for each of us, where performance is easiest— it is where performance is most impactful and increasing. We would never tell Lionel Messi to try to play with his right foot. We would instead watch as he works, tirelessly, to make his left ever more powerful. And the only reason that “running around your backhand” has become an idiom for avoiding a weakness is that this is exactly what we see great tennis players do, time and time again, whether it’s Juan Martín del Potro, Rafael Nadal, or countless others. The phrase describes the act of avoiding a weakness in order to play to a strength, and the lesson from the best is that this leads toward high performance, not away from it.

Read more: My life and career began flourishing once I stopped stressing over these 4 silly hang-ups we all have at work

Yet these are the ideas that competency models, 360-degree assessments, talent reviews, feedback tools, and much more are built on — that what is most important for us is to understand our deficits, embrace failure, and be wary of our strengths. To be clear, we are not, here, making an absolutist argument: we are not saying that there is nothing to be gained from trying to improve our shortcomings, or that we shouldn’t try new things for fear of failure. We are, however, arguing for priority, for focusing first, and predominantly, on our strengths and our successes, because that is where the greatest advantage is to be had. And the great shame in all of this is that the very systems that we might hope would be aimed at discovering and unleashing each person’s unique talents have, in fact, the effect of inhibiting those talents, and denying what makes each one of us unique. They don’t, in the end, help performance. They hinder it.

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press fromNINE LIES ABOUT WORK: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Copyright 2019 One Thing Productions Inc. and Ashley Goodall. All rights reserved.

Marcus Buckingham is a NYT bestselling author and head of People and Performance research at the ADP Research Institute. Ashley Goodall is SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco.




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