5 Ways to Effectively Determine Employee Strengths and Weaknesses

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Our strengths and weaknesses play a major part in determining who we are—as people, as employees, and as leaders. They inform how we decide what career path to follow, what role we should play, and the way we perform in that role.

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 task assignments, deliver more effective performance and reviews, and ensure that every employee can grow and succeed.

However, identifying strengths and weaknesses is not as easy as it may seem. They are often relative, and employees, let alone ourselves, usually don't have any clue where our true strengths and weaknesses 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.

Here are five ways to effectively determine your employee strengths and weaknesses.

1. Be Direct, Be Real, and Show Your Human Side

Employees are often asked about their strengths and weaknesses during performance reviews, but these answers are rarely reliable. "I'm a results-oriented self-starter," is hardly a real strength, and they may boast about strengths that they do not have to boost their chances of getting a raise or some reward. Once you show your human side with your 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 the employee to do so. 

Ultimately, 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 also 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. Examine 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, experience, and expertise.

Managers can learn a huge amount 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 they might be a good person to assign to a prospective client in the fashion industry.

3. Shut Your Mouth, Listen, and Objectively Observe

Sometimes, the hardest things to see are right in front of our eyes. When you work day in and day out with people, it is often difficult to see them clearly. Rather than a "strength" or "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 may also 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 only realize the distinction if you see them acting differently in a different environment (i.e., at lunch). 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. Play Mind Games

These days companies are waking up to the necessity of bringing everyone, not just the top brass, into the game. Software companies are making big money outfitting sales and customer service teams with video game-like dashboards. They call it "gamification."

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 both 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 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 gamification 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 a mind trick to get people to focus on the task at hand. After all, our minds trick us all the time. Why not beat them at their own game?

5. Check Out Their Social 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. As mentioned above, you can mine employee profiles for insight, but the possibilities extend way beyond that. 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 can also yield insights about employees' network 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.