5 Ways to Effectively Determine Employee Strengths and Weaknesses

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Strengths and weaknesses play a major part in determining who we are as employees and as leaders. They inform how we decide what career paths to follow, what roles we should play, and the ways we perform in those roles.

From a manager's perspective, identifying strengths and weaknesses is the secret to unlocking the potential of every employee and every team. This information enables leaders to make smarter decisions about assignments, deliver more effective performance reviews, and ensure that every employee can grow and succeed.

However, strengths and weaknesses often are relative, and employees often don't know where they lie. As a leader, one of your most important jobs is to uncover these strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to drive productivity and engagement. Consider five ways to do so.

1. Being Direct and Real

Employees often are asked about their strengths and weaknesses during performance reviews, but these answers are rarely reliable. Attributes like "results-oriented self-starter" are vague and cliche, and employees may boast about strengths they do not have to boost their chances for a raise. Once you show your human side with employees and get them to overcome this hurdle, they are more likely to be honest about where they excel and where they struggle. Remember, you have to give the honesty to get it back.

An open, low-pressure conversation about strengths and weaknesses during a trip to the water cooler or while you're out at lunch with them is a great way to start. Why wait for the performance review to start the dialog? Managers can cultivate a supportive environment by expressing their strengths and weaknesses first, and then invite employees to do so. 

The goal is to develop self-aware employees who know what they are good at and what they need to work on. Managers should not shy away from or avoid these conversations and should recognize employees for being honest even when they make mistakes. Thank employees for taking a risk, even if they fail, and you may create a fearless office culture where people are free to think big and challenge one another. When you express gratitude for bold, courageous action, you also encourage people to own and share their mistakes so that everyone can learn from them.

2. User Profiles

One of the great things about the era of social media is that just about every one of your employees has accessible personal and professional profiles out there. A majority of enterprise organizations have social networks or social intranets that they use to communicate, collaborate, and connect distributed/large teams. Employees build profiles within these systems, as well as through sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. These profiles provide a goldmine of information about employee's interests, likes and dislikes, skills, experiences, and expertise.

Managers can learn about their employees based on the information they share in their profiles, and make decisions accordingly. For example, if a rep on your sales team expresses a strong interest in fashion on Facebook, then he might be a good person to assign to a prospective client in the fashion industry.

3. Listening, Observing

When you work daily with the same people, it can be difficult to see them clearly. Rather than a strength or a weakness, you just see that person acting normally. This can be a missed opportunity. If someone on your team is known for always being in a good mood and friendly, they also may be a natural diplomat. This is a strong asset for managers when trying to diffuse team tension, find a partner for a difficult employee to work with, or rally excitement for a new initiative.

Also, weaknesses may not be blatantly obvious. An employee who seems quiet may be apathetic, disengaged, and unassertive. As a manager, you may realize the distinction only if you see them acting differently in a different environment. Managers should make an extra effort to consider each employee as objectively as possible and within a wider context. Jotting down quick notes to describe how your employees are acting every day can be a good way to look for patterns.

4. Competition

Competition is a powerful way to bring out the best (or worst) in employees. It is a powerful motivator and can qualitatively and quantitatively throw strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. Holding contests within teams and across organizations can be a fun and effective way to see who is a natural leader and who excels in certain areas. This can be useful generally and specifically.

If you are trying to figure out the best person to spearhead a new project, why not throw a contest to see who has the sharpest skills? On the weakness side, a contest is a quick way to see who lags behind. Moreover, friendly competition encourages teamwork, which will help boost team productivity over the longer term.

If it sounds like a trick, that's because it is. It won't solve major workplace problems, like the lack of intrinsic motivation, employees poorly matched to jobs or confusion about the larger business context. However, with bigger concerns out of the way, go ahead and use competition to get people to focus on the task at hand.

5. Intranet Activity

Enterprise social intranets hold a tremendous amount of valuable information about employee strengths and weaknesses if you know how to look for it. Managers can look at users' activity to learn more about them.

What types of content do they post, and what does that reveal about their interests? Do they frequently ask for help or seem confused about something? That could be a sign that they need additional training or personal attention. Are they more vocal on the social intranet than in real life or vice versa? What does that say about their personality and how they work best? Maybe they are better at writing, rather than verbal communication, or perhaps they are shy in large groups. Social intranets also can yield insights about employees' networks and relationships, as well as their attitudes towards work.

Gathering these insights is only half the battle. Once you are tuned into the strengths and weaknesses of your employees and your team, the task becomes leveraging those impacts to keep everyone productive, engaged, and working cohesively as a whole.