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The Truth About Weakness

As I work with leadership coaching clients, one of the early steps in the process is evaluating the current effect of their influence on their stakeholders. One powerful way of doing this is through 360 surveys or collecting feedback from those who are impacted by the leader. While debriefing the survey report with the client, I’ve noticed an unintended problem caused by our current “gentle” language.

In our professional language, there has been a focus on eliminating the word “weakness” as we evaluate performance. We use words like “development opportunity” instead to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or causing defensiveness. Certainly, it is wise to be respectful of others. There is nothing amiss with showing respect and avoiding creating defensiveness. Respect contributes to strong working relationships. Additionally, people can’t address opportunities for improvement when they become blinded because of defensiveness.

Though the purpose is good, the strategy is seriously flawed. When we simply replace words that create sensitivity, the very emotions we are trying to avoid are simply transferred to the new word. In effect this will damage our credibility. If you want to destroy the meaning of the words “development opportunity,” use them every time you want to talk about someone’s weaknesses. The outcome of that practice is very predictable. My advice is to call a strength a strength and a weakness a weakness.

The preliminary problem with this practice comes by failing to focus on the most powerful opportunities you have to improve as a leader. In other words, your most important development opportunities are usually realized by building on your strengths. If all you do is focus on your weaknesses, the best you’ll ever be is average. There is no shortage of evidence indicating the importance of building on strengths. It’s always a shame to see people deny themselves impactful personal growth because they don’t have a constructive way to deal with weaknesses and fail to build on their strengths.

In pointing out the importance of building on strengths, I’m not saying anything new. The point I am making is to not focus exclusively on strengths and ignore weaknesses. Weaknesses should be recognized and addressed effectively. After acknowledging you have weaknesses, it is useful to identify what type of weakness it is and what effect it has on your outcomes.

For the purpose of improving leadership influence, I have identified four types of weaknesses:

The first type I mention is a weakness that has no effect on your desired outcomes. An example (in my case), is my complete lack of competence as a neurosurgeon. Under no circumstance should I ever operate on someone’s brain. I’m okay with that. Brain surgery has nothing to do with the essential functions of any of my roles in life.

Though the example above is extreme, it illustrates the point. You may have many weaknesses that have no effect on the expectations your stakeholders have of you or your personal goals. When you become aware of a weakness, evaluate the effect this has on your desired outcomes. You may find this weakness is not worth your attention.

The next type of weakness is as much the organization’s opportunity as the individual’s. It requires understanding your strengths and weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of those around you. Simply put, you’re just not good at everything. You may be strong in operations and rely on others to make the sale… or visa-versa.

Awareness of this weakness may identify opportunities for collaboration. Awareness of your strengths and weaknesses as well as your colleagues' can help you see how you can use complementary strengths to accomplish shared goals. This is the essence of team work.

The third type of weakness is directly related to your ability to do what is expected of you. These are weaknesses in the classic sense which affect current performance or keep you from progressing as you would like. This type of weakness can be addressed by receiving training to overcome a gap in skill or coaching to develop more effective influence strategies. Unfortunately, this is the area we most often address with euphemisms such as “it’s not a weakness, it’s a development opportunity.” This can cause a lack of urgency in making needed improvements. When this becomes a pattern, you will have a culture of failure rather than a culture of accountability.

The fourth type may not be seen as frequently but it is critical to address. These are the weaknesses we call fatal flaws or derailers. They are caused by behaviors that affect people’s ability to trust you. These include perceptions of honesty, capability or reliability. This happens when people feel someone is deliberately misleading, does not keep commitments or is incapable of performing the essential functions of their work. Of all the weaknesses to address, this area is the most likely to cause defensiveness. This area is also most likely to cause others to deal with the person who has the fatal flaw with extreme measures ranging from total avoidance to verbal attacks. Certainly, finding a way to talk about this openly and deal with it is critical to any success.

With any weakness, being able to acknowledge they exist and identifying what type they are can lead to effective strategies for improvement. Both weaknesses and strengths are development opportunities if they are addressed with the respect required to avoid defensiveness and the honesty required to impact needed change.

The principle behind all of this is: growth or progress can only come after you see the gap between what you need to succeed and what you are doing now. Defensiveness comes from a lack of humility. Any lack of humility will blind you to the truth. The truth really can set you free.

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