As a manager, should you focus on your employees’ strengths or push them out of their comfort zone? They were hired based on their skills, talent, and strengths, but should you further develop their strengths or encourage them learn new skills? It’s a balancing act, with both approaches having their advantages.
Keep learning by getting out of comfort zone
“Get out of your comfort zone, that’s where the magic happens!” That’s what we all are being constantly told in order to improve our skills and achieve personal success. However, figuring out the most meaningful way to do that can be a difficult challenge. Luckily, for example this Lifehacker article breaks it down very well. Have a look at it if you want advice on how to get you closer to the magic zone, but in short:
- Do it in small steps. Don’t push yourself too far too fast, that’ll just make you feel unnecessarily uncomfortable.
- Do things differently every day. Try a new restaurant, take a different route to work. Observe how you feel about those changes.
- Break your decision making routines. Sometimes snap decisions will give your project a good start. Sometimes you should take time observing the situation to understand how to make a difference when things aren’t working.
- Come back to your comfort zone after the experiments. Take time to reflect and apply the changes that got you closer to your goals.
Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone increases your creativity, enhances productivity and makes you more adaptable. Thus, pushing one's limits sounds like the perfect advice for every individual as reaching out to new situations keeps us learning and expanding our skills. Yet, research conducted by Gallup shows some impressive figures (just to mention few) for companies focusing on their employees’ areas of strength:
- 10-19% sales increase
- 14-29% profit increase
- 9-15% employee engagement increase
Excel by focusing on areas of strength
Focusing on people’s strengths can have an amazing impact on the team’s performance. A while ago, a junior sports team I coached improved their rank from regional top 10 to regional #2 and to national #9 in just one year, when I started leading the team based on the players’ individual strengths. The team was in a challenging position as most of the clubs had a formed representative team in the age group whereas our team was formed based on the time they started playing, thus having a wider range of skills.
Our success originated in that all players had the chance to feel they were able to contribute towards the team’s performance. While the first two lines had capability in scoring and thus the largest impact in the team’s results, the third line was very skilled in defense, giving valuable recovery time for the first two lines. Focusing on defense and achieving excellent results in it gave a remarkable boost to those players’ self-confidence. They weren’t able to score, but they were an important part of the team, received continuous positive feedback on their efforts and were able to develop as players. Targets worth pursuing at every workplace. Harnessing employee strengths will increase employee engagement and create a solid foundation for team success.
In the workplace creating a culture boosting employee strengths surely is not quite as straightforward as in sports. A way to get started is to:
- Make managers focus on strengths in employee reviews and feedback they give. They have the power and responsibility to develop individual experts within the organization.
- Generate company-wide enthusiasm and awareness by giving praise to teams and individuals who have excelled by using their strengths, focus on the company’s strengths in pursuing strategy and openly communicate individual strengths of employees.
- Create a network of strength advocates who can help finding out individual strengths and using them effectively. Business landscapes change fast, sometimes one needs help in understanding, how to use strengths to the company’s advantage as well as possible.
- Create project teams based on strengths. When everyone feels their strengths make significant contribution to the team’s performance, they work harder towards the shared goal.
Balancing between using areas of strength and pushing employees out of comfort zone
The difficulty is balancing between utilizing areas of strength and pushing people's limits. A good rule of thumb is to share the responsibilitis between individuals and managers. A manager’s job is to ensure the team’s success, so naturally they should cultivate their employees’ strengths. Getting out of comfort zone should be mainly everyone’s own responsibility. After all, the limits how far one can push out of comfort zone is personal and varies over time. During stressful times, it’s better to take small steps and have confidence boost by operating in areas of strength.
If you are able to promote a culture where people’s strengths are identified, it’s far easier to use self-organized teams. As our earlier post explains, it’s the highest-performing team mode. When people understand their co-workers’ strengths better, it will be easier to appreciate each other’s differences and expertise. Creating a workplace where unique strengths flourish is certainly a leader’s job.
Even though getting out of comfort zone is everyone’s own responsibility, we all sometimes need a nudge to start pushing our limits. A stretch assignment every now and then is just what we need. If you forget to develop new strengths to people, they will find a place where they can grow their expertise. A friend of mine, talented professional, was hired to a position where he was able to use his strengths in a new context. His employer, focusing too much on using his strengths forced him eventually to find a new employer as he had too little room to develop new strengths in that position.
Outperforming your competitors requires individuals and teams who excel in their work, so you’ll go far by cultivating the strengths of your employees. Relentlessly developing people will give you competitive advantage and adaptability, and you’ll gain the most of it by nudging your people out of their comfort zone every now and then. Just remember to focus on the lessons learned, when people fail in their experiments while they are out of their comfort zone. How to do it is worth a post of its own, so luckily we have Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes who shared his experiences in this great article.
And what happened to our team? In the end, our team’s advancement was cut out against a team with excellent counterattack tactics. We still tried to play with our strengths even when they weren’t working. We had lost our adaptability.