What Really Helps Employees to Improve (It’s not Criticism)

“Some employees have more potential than others.”

“The best employees are well-rounded individuals.”

“People can reliably rate others’ performance.”

It’s safe to say most HR professionals wouldn’t take issue with these basic tenets. But Marcus Buckingham flat-out calls them “lies.”

In fact, Buckingham defied much of HR’s accepted wisdom in his keynote at the recent Wharton People Analytics Conference. The head of people and performance research at ADP Research Institute and a bestselling author, he drew in part from his new book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, co-authored with Ashley Goodall, a senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco.

Buckingham is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the strengths-based movement in HR, which holds that leaders should help people recognize and exploit their existing strengths rather than focus on remediating weaknesses. He authored the 2001 book Now, Discover Your Strengths (republished as StrengthsFinder) with the late Donald O. Clifton, a psychologist and former chair of Gallup. The book contains the Clifton Strengths Finder, a personal assessment test featuring over 30 “talent themes” to help people identify their strong points. The themes range from “Achiever” (having a constant drive for accomplishing things) to “Ideation” (being able to unite disparate ideas) to “Woo” (good at Winning Others Over).

“The best managers individualize,” Buckingham explained about his research. “What they’re really doing is looking for every person’s source of strength and then leveraging that intelligently. They don’t fight against who you are.” He views the strengths-based movement as a critical change of direction from the (however well-intentioned) “remedial deficit thinking” that he says has traditionally characterized HR.

In Buckingham’s view, the very definitions of “strengths” and “weaknesses” need to change. We shouldn’t be thinking of the concept as “this is what you’re good at and this is what you’re bad at” because we could easily have a knack for a type of task we despise. Strength should be defined as an activity that energizes and engages you, he said, and weakness as an activity that drains you or drags you down even if you do it well.

“The best managers individualize…. They don’t fight against who you are.”

Once these definitions are altered, he said, individuals become the best source of truth about their own strengths. For example, you may feel strengthened by the activity of finding patterns in data. A boss or teammate’s role, then, is to help you put that activity to its best use, perhaps suggesting you find a better way of demonstrating patterns, or explaining them to people, or finding patterns that are actionable. Buckingham summed up, “I’m the truth-teller about what strengthens me. You [the supervisor or peer] can be the truth-teller about how to navigate it so it’s useful.”

In Nine Lies About Work, Buckingham and his co-author write about some of the larger issues behind what they see as necessary shifts in HR thinking. “The world of work today is overflowing with systems, processes, tools and assumptions that are deeply flawed and that push directly against our ability to express what is unique about each of us in the work we do every day.” They state that in studies of global worker engagement, less than 20% of workers report being fully engaged at work. Moreover, they write, we have been experiencing a global decline in productivity since the mid-1970s.

Interviewing Buckingham was Wharton management professor and bestselling author Adam Grant, who mentioned that the strengths-based movement has been adopted by major organizations such as McKinsey and Facebook. He asked if there was a danger, though, to having people focus mainly on their existing strengths: namely that they will overuse them. He cited studies demonstrating that relying too much on one strength can itself become a weakness.

As an example, he described an extremely charismatic colleague who never prepares before he gives a talk. “The talks are really rambling and they go way over time…. He feels strengthened by relying on that charisma, but it hurts his performance.”

Buckingham disagreed with Grant’s point. If you think you can ever have too much of a strength, he said, then your managerial coaching will sound like this, he said, turning to Grant: “‘Be less of yourself, Adam.’” The recipient of that advice will inevitably feel, “Well, how do I metabolize that?” Buckingham said.

He supplied an alternative scenario, of coaching a hypothetical employee who is “super-assertive”: “Listen, you’ve got a great strength…. Stop pissing people off and start using that to persuade them to do something that they didn’t intend to do.” This tactic opens a conversation about ways that might be accomplished, Buckingham said. “Now all of a sudden you’re leaning into yourself.” In another scenario, an employee might have the strength of being very empathetic, but “you can’t be crying all over people all the time … [so] we’re going to help you channel that productively.”

Remember, he said, a strength is just an activity that empowers you. It’s morally neutral, and you can use it for ill or for good. “What we’re talking about here is how to use your strength intelligently.” (For more on this theme — and to hear the debate between Buckingham and Grant — listen to “When Strength Becomes Weakness” on the TED podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant.)

“We’ve made a god of the wrong thing. We need to make a god of individualized attention, not critical feedback.”

Does Feedback Work?

Grant asked Buckingham to address the claim in his book that people don’t need feedback. Grant strongly disagreed, saying, “It’s sort of blasphemy…. There are people who have lived their whole lives saying, ‘The only way I get better is to get feedback.’” They discussed the current trend of receiving increasingly frequent feedback from not only managers but colleagues, which at many firms is supplementing or even replacing the annual performance evaluation.

Buckingham said that while people definitely should be given feedback when they get facts wrong or miss procedural steps, true excellence in a job is “a whole bunch more [than that]…. You can get the facts or steps right and still be really, really, average.” How to excel can’t be imparted through feedback, because feedback is based on other people’s experiences, not ours.

“I can tell you a few of my reactions [to things], but me rating you, me giving you feedback on your executive presence or your business acumen [would be] absurdly arrogant on my part,” he said. And advice-giving he called “the oddest thing in the world,” saying that for you to succeed at anything is an emergent property of your own natural reactions, plus the way in which you channel those reactions productively.

He shared an anecdote of working with his co-author on their book. When it was time to record the audiobook, Buckingham, being seasoned at the task whereas Goodall had never done it, thought he would offer advice. “Imagine you’re just talking through the screen to [actual] people…. it’s a very intimate thing.” As it turned out, the technique wasn’t at all useful to Goodall, who found his own method. He compared it in his mind to sight-reading music at the piano; always staying slightly ahead of yourself, aware of what’s coming next.

“Of the thousand pieces of advice I was about to give him, that was the thousand and first,” Buckingham said. He noted that the way we learn is “we add more buds on existing neural branches; we don’t take our own branches and insert them into [someone else’s] brain.”

He added: “We’ve made a god of the wrong thing. We need to make a god of individualized attention, not critical feedback.”

Should High-potentials Get All the Goodies?

Traditional notions about high-potential employees did not escape Buckingham’s criticism. He takes issue with the common practice of identifying certain employees as “HiPo.” For one thing, he said, potential cannot be measured. “Show me the people analytics that has been taught anywhere, ever, that showed you could measure something in [an individual], independent of context or situational role, that’s called ‘potential.’” Nevertheless, he said, companies will claim that certain people “have a lot of it and you have none of it…. [This is] just made up,” said Buckingham.

“If we start measuring the traits of leaders, the first thing that strikes you is just how many leaders don’t have them.”

He noted that in any big company, individuals who have been labeled HiPo “get all the goodies and everybody else doesn’t…. It’s morally reprehensible.” He asserted that potential is something that everyone has. “Any sort of human can grow and learn and get better,” he said. “It’s not a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset…. All of us have a growth mindset. The question is, where do you learn and grow the most?”

In Buckingham’s view, another quality which cannot be defined is leadership. He agrees that “followership” can be measured — by the overall success of your team, or people’s willingness to give you their attention — but not leadership, despite what he termed a $50 billion industry built around describing it.

“If we start measuring the traits of leaders, the first thing that strikes you is just how many leaders don’t have them,” he said. According to his research, good leaders are idiosyncratic. When analytics professionals conduct pre-employment selection assessments, trying to identify how “all of these people have all of these [qualities]” it doesn’t pan out. The candidates may all have a high total score, but within that are peaks or spikes indicating substantial differences.

“You want Richard Branson to look and act exactly the same way as Warren Buffett, but he doesn’t,” said Buckingham. We’ve told ourselves that there’s a leadership “thing”: If you could just learn it and imbibe it, you become a leader, he noted. “There’s no data on that. In fact most of the data pushes exactly in the opposite direction.”

In Nine Lies About Work, Buckingham and Goodall argue that corporations’ increasing insistence that people be well-rounded and accept others’ feedback comes from the desire of top leaders to achieve simplicity and order. While this desire is understandable, they write, it “easily shades into a desire for conformity.” Before long, that conformity threatens to extinguish individuality.

Overall, Buckingham argues for a focus on the individual — and on people’s powerful and unique abilities as they themselves understand them — for their own benefit and that of their companies. “People are at their strongest when they’re standing in their strengths,” he said.

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