Corporate Achilles heel: why strengths can be the problem with performance

by Isabel Wu

The longer the organisational practice of managing strengths and weaknesses as the basis of performance is allowed to go on, the more we will see what had appeared to be healthy, robust companies, being brought down.  Not unlike steroid use, there will be a point where trying to increase strength will have a detrimental effect on the person’s overall health.

When we refer to strengths we mean something desired.  Weaknesses are something to be humbly addressed; they are identified for the good reason that they can then be eradicated.  Put these together and it is clear that the path to corporate performance is through managing the dichotomy of strengths and weaknesses.

This being the purpose of an organisation is so soundly entrenched that it is never questioned.  Nothing in the system suggests that there is such thing as a limit or a point where there is ‘too much’.  New material continuously fills our inboxes, social media posts and anywhere else we accept teachings on how to manage these days, explaining how to accomplish more strength more quickly, more accurately and more decisively.  As organisations become more complex, harder to manage and competition increases, the more determinedly companies go about lauding strengths and correcting weaknesses, putting everyone on notice that there should be no doubt about what it is the company desires and will reward.

The ‘strengths’ equals ‘winner’, and ‘weaknesses’ equals ‘corrective action required’ mindset – regardless of how this is packaged – is far too simple.  Their contribution to success is only true to a certain point, and can never be seen as a complete solution.  What we fail to recognise is not just that there are limitations, but that unchecked, the practice becomes a hazard.

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The singularity of the strength/weakness mentality blinds us to the contexts in which we have decided which attributes are strengths and which are weaknesses.  When we are presented with a job application in which personal strengths are boldly declared, instead of alarm bells sounding we conclude that these are the key contributors to how well the candidate will ‘fit’ into the company and the position.

Typically, for example, we appreciate high levels of education, good social standing, the ability to inspire respect, specialised knowledge, and professional scepticism (a questioning, analytical approach) as positive attributes.  We keenly encourage the development of these strengths by including them as criteria for hiring, promotion and salary increases.  Yet these are the same attributes that are the common characteristics found in people guilty of white-collar crime.

When we condition people to think about performance in isolation from the environment, it creates a situation in which the individual’s orientation to the self takes precedence.  The culture and social norms become the servant to the individual’s perspective.  In cases of corporate fraud, for instance, it is not unusual for the perpetrators to see no conflict between their actions and their identity as a good person.  Seventeen people were charged and 16 convicted (the 17th, Kenneth Lay passed away) following the Enron scandal in 2001.  Each of them had difficulty accepting that they had acted wrongly.  In the microcosm of their roles in the company, they believed their actions were necessary for the organisation’s survival.

Far less dramatically, but no less damaging are those corporate leaders who slowly take their companies down the path to incompetence because their strengths lose their potency as the business environment changes.  Despite the company’s evolving needs, and even if they apply new tactics, they never question the validity of their ‘strengths’.  Perhaps if they had not so assiduously eliminated, hidden or overcome their ‘weaknesses’, they may find in these the right response for their present circumstances.  Perhaps yesterday’s sluggish response or old-school methods are today’s cautiousness or traditional approach and exactly what the company needs at this time.

Failed strategy can often be traced back to a faulty SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, and change programs often fail having fallen victim to leaders who undertake the change process in a way that suits their strengths.

The sociologist Robert K. Merton proposed that emphasising goal achievement of the individual, neutralises the effectiveness of the environment to inform behaviour.  In the case of fraud, the social structure and norms that should have operated to control the motivations towards misconduct, lose their power producing a state of ‘anomie’, meaning absence of moral guidelines.  In this state, rationalisation is deluded rather than deliberate.

The strengths/weaknesses focus builds a competitive mindset and one that intentionally exerts pressure on individuals to perform.  In this environment, some personalities will shift quickly from the satisfaction of achievement to the thrill of the win.  Others will not cope with the pressure of constantly living up to their strong self.  Yet others, particularly with overwork, will lack the mental clarity to see the totality of their behaviour – a little like, while watching your every step you do not notice you are heading in the wrong direction.

Instead of looking at attributes as strengths or weaknesses, we should pay more attention to the lens through which we view them.  If the organisational context plays a greater part in our evaluation of performance, we will be better at identifying, from the broadest possible perspective, the particular attributes that contributed to particular outcomes.  Strengths, we should be aware, are not an absolute and therefore cannot be managed as though they are a certain predictor of corporate success.