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Can You Turn Your Weaknesses Into a Strength?

02/23/2015 12:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Let's be honest -- although we all have them no one really likes having these weaknesses pointed out. Especially when it comes to our work.

What will people think of you? What might it mean for your career? And is there really anything you can do to overcome them?

"Based on research with thousands of people it's unusual for a genuine weakness to become a genuine strength," explained Dr. Alex Linley, one of the world's leading experts on the development of strengths in workplaces, when I interviewed him recently.

"Just think back to things that trip you up now," he suggested. "Did they trip you up school? Chances are you're nodding your head because our genuine weaknesses don't tend to change much -- instead we find ways to avoid them or manage around them."

The good news, Alex reports, is that if your job really requires you to improve a weakness there are ways you can avoid letting them trip you up.

The first step is to understand what your weaknesses and strengths actually are. It sounds obvious but taking the time to understand what you're good at, how much energy you get from doing it and how often you get to do it, can be a powerful way to clarify your areas for opportunity and development. To help make this easier you can use the online assessment Alex and his colleagues have developed called Realise2.

The second step is to explore the most effective strategies for applying your strengths or dealing with your weaknesses in different situations. For example, Alex suggests:

  • Maximize unrealized strengths for growth and development: Your unrealized strengths are things you perform well and enjoy doing, but maybe don't use often enough. If you want to turbo-charge your growth and development, these are the strengths to focus on.
  • Look for opportunities to use these strengths more frequently, be sure to practice them, develop and hone your applications, gradually expand, and then evaluate how you're deploying these strengths and the results you're achieving. For example, when I tried to maximize my unrealized strength of humor, I tried to find one opportunity each day to share a story that made others laugh and lightened the mood at work.
  • Marshal realized strengths for optimal performance: Realized strengths are things you enjoy, you do well and you probably use quite often. You might be able to use it more but it's important to be sensitive to the context of situations and use it in the right amount, at the right time and in the right way.
  • You can make your strengths more productive by making sure you connect your strengths to the goals you want to achieve, combine multiple strengths together to amplify your effect, be mindful not to overplay your strengths, and monitor and refine your application of strengths in different situations. For example, when I tried to marshal my strength of improver, I tried to be mindful of where the improvements I could see at work would add real strategic value and not just more work for myself and others.
  • Moderate learned behaviors for sustainable performance: Learned behaviors are the things you can do well, but which you don't enjoy. This is often a light bulb moment for people when they recognize that a strength is not just something that you're good at, but also something that you enjoy doing.
  • Use learned behaviors as appropriate and as needed, while recognizing that they won't ever be the road to sustainable high performance. To moderate your learned behaviors, try to stop doing them, refocus your role, organize tasks and activities into a "strengths sandwich" to balance energizing and draining activities, look for complimentary partners, and adopt strength-based team working. For example, when I tried to moderate my strength of planful I started delegating the creation of project plans to other team members. I realized that just because I could, didn't mean I should.
  • Minimize weaknesses to make them irrelevant: Your weaknesses are the things you perform poorly and find de-energizing. They leave you feeling bad and lacking in motivation.
  • To minimize your weaknesses, try to reshape what you do, use your strengths to compensate, find a complementary partner, or adopt ways to work as a team so that each person can draw on their strengths. If none of these approaches are possible, it is recommended that you undertake training to gain a basic level of competence. For example, rather than trying to fix my report builder weakness head on, I tried to channel my realized strength of esteem builder to put others at ease in my company.

The third step Alex suggests is getting to know the strengths of other people around you. When people understand and appreciate the strengths of others it can transform their understanding of who that person is and what that person brings. It can change resentment and frustration about somebody's weaknesses, into an opportunity to value the diversity and differences that people offer and how to work together better as a team.

Given the benefits of higher levels of engagement, lower turnover and absenteeism and more satisfied customers that Alex and his team are finding in organizations that apply these steps, perhaps knowing what your weaknesses are isn't so painful when you know what to do with them.

If you'd like more tested, practical ways to put your strengths to work, then grab this free e-book from the latest science in positive psychology.

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