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Management Application of a Strength Identification Process

The important thing is that we bring into play the full potential of all men. – Crawford H. Greenewalt, The Uncommon Man

Traditional attitudes toward the role and capabilities of the manager must be modified if the manager is to survive successfully the changes now under way in our society.

Most people believe that supervisors know all that is going on. If this were true, supervisors rarely would have problems. This unfounded belief only serves to multiply the problems.

Most employees also mistakenly believe that supervisors are aware of the best skills of those who work under them. If that assumption were true, there would be few problems of manpower utilization and development. But again, the persistent but erroneous attribution of this talent to managers only compounds the problem.

The latter belief is changing rapidly, mainly because of the increasing number of younger people in the working world. They are more actively concerned with job satisfaction and self-actualization through work than are men and women over 40.

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Younger employees complain more about being underemployed, that their best skills are not being used on the job. Too often they express their resentment against management by absenteeism, by stress-created illness, by carelessness, and sometimes by destructiveness. All these elements contribute to higher costs and lowered productivity.

A modified approach by managers can ease these problems and even turn them into assets for the organization by making better use of the energies involved. The attitudes of managers will be changed anyway – in 10 to 15 years - because the “now young” employees will become a major part of management by that time. However, waiting for progress to “ripen” in an organization is not one of the purposes of management.

Every good manager knows employees are more responsive, more cooperative, and more productive when their strengths are challenged in their jobs and when they get quick recognition for jobs well done. Behavioral scientists call this “reinforcement.” Good managers have been doing it for a long time. Now, however, it is easier for managers to improve their effectiveness by using recognition and reinforcement procedures in an organized way.

Paying attention to what employees are doing is not difficult, but it takes time. There is no way that a manager, relying only on observation, can know which part of a job a man feels he does best, or which part he enjoys doing, or whether he does a good job without enjoying any part of it. Finding out this information takes time and requires open, two-way communication with employees. Unfortunately, time usually is in short supply for the manager.

Wouldn't it be helpful and timesaving if employees could provide managers with reliable data on which parts of their jobs they do best and enjoy most - if they could reveal which are their most dependable skills (strengths); which, in their opinion, are their job achievements; which are their career goals, and why; and what training they feel would be most helpful to them and to their organization?

If they could provide this data, and managers could hear it and be free to correct or confirm it, performance recognition and reinforcement would be taken off the backs of the managers and would become a cooperative effort.

A practical approach is for a person to develop an annual report as well as interim reports showing - from his viewpoint - how and when he is contributing to departmental goals, as well as how his work relates to his own growth, or lack of it. The annual report is part of his own self-actualizing analysis. It also is an aid to the manager in planning the employee’s career progress within the goals of the department.

The employee's first annual report along these lines probably will give data on his outside activities, as well as on those related to his job. He doesn't expect his manager's blind acceptance of all the details that are new to him. The employee is prepared for disagreement, somewhat prepared to attempt to prove his point, and even open to accept whatever the facts show.

Beneficial Side-effects

Just for a few moments, review, as a manager, some of the major side effects of such a conference. Both of you will get to know each other better. The employee will know that you are aware of and appreciate his motivated skills. You will be more alert to the kinds of work he does best and enjoys most, and you will know that assigning him such tasks will be an approach to achieving efficient performance. You will have two sets of information available, yours and his. This can help you decide more wisely on where and what kinds of training money to spend, how to modify procedures so that department goals are achieved sooner and better, and what kinds of goals to set and what their intermediate objectives should be.

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An additional side effect will be a better relationship, trust, and easier communication between you and the employee. You will be more likely to work together smoothly in problem solving. When disagreements occur, they probably will be impersonal, without “blaming” one or the other. This leads to greater individual understanding between the worker and the supervisor, and could be helpful to the development of each of them.

As the manager at this conference, you will need to develop some “putting off” statements, phrases that will give you time to think about and examine the facts put forth by the employee. Such phrases might include: “I'd like to think about that” or, “That's a situation I'm going to look into; I didn't know about it.”

These are not brush-off statements, they are not put-downs. They should be made with the intent of conveying the idea that you need to think about what has been presented in the light of what is best for all concerned - the employee, the department, and the organization. You can make that intent clear by setting a time for another conference, a short one, in the relatively near future. Usually, a two-week delay is very acceptable. Sometimes a much longer delay is justified.

At the first conference you will need to take notes. You should ask for some time to go over the report, which the employee should be willing to leave with you. You also should take notes at other formal conferences with him because you need to refer to what he wants and what you have said to him about his expressed wishes. You should make no commitments at a first conference. Listen carefully, show interest, and suggest the second conference.

A well-prepared employee who has used a strength identification process along the lines suggested will be more alert to his self-interests. The way he speaks could imply pressure. But, as the manager, you have to protect both your own self-interests and those of the organization. There is no need to yield to what might sound like pressure for quick action.

He will be talking about his strengths, his self-motivated skills, and, sometimes, about how they could be used more effectively. The use of these strengths on the job should be encouraged or reinforced because they bring about desired accomplishments. When they are used carelessly, or when non-strengths must frequently be used on the job, mistakes and problems multiply.

Sometimes people do things well by using unmotivated skills. This is especially true of men and women with higher intelligence who want to please their bosses, or want to test their versatility. But activities that mainly use unmotivated skills tend to turn off employees after a short period. For instance, a supervisor might be skilled at occasionally helping employees solve their personal problems. But if he had to do it all the time, as social workers must, it could drive him up the wall.

When a manager thinks about improving the usefulness of an employee, he ordinarily should not consider the employee's weaknesses. When you put the spotlight on the weaknesses of a subordinate, you encourage him to think about yours. Even more important is the probability that he will be resentful, turn off his “hearing aid,” and become psychologically unable to hear some of the good things you are saying. It is, of course, not possible or practical to ignore weaknesses that cause real trouble.

Managers will have to face a demand for upgrading employees and their skills. They also will have to produce employment systems that provide opportunities for full or partial self-support to persons who can work but are dependent on public welfare, including those who have served prison sentences.

A strength identification process can help translate the experiences of deprived and underemployed persons so they reveal contributive motivated skills. This helps change the self-images of such persons so they can see them elves as achievers rather than as losers. Here are extreme examples.

A young man, now 18, who hasn't completed high school, is released from prison. He was put away because he was caught taking engines out of parked cars. He goes to a personnel department and applies for a job. The application asks if he ever was convicted. He checks the proper box and seals his fate. The employment interviewer catches that, gives him five minutes, says there is nothing available, but that he will be called when something opens up. The ex-convict knows he has wasted his time-again – in filling out the form.

He is enterprising, he really wants the job, and he will not accept the put-down. He calls the company and gets the name of a production manager. He then visits gas stations near the plant asking what car the manager drives. He eventually gets the information.

One day, near closing time, he gets to the car, lets the air out of a tire, and happens to be around when the manager wants to start home. He offers to change the tire. The offer is accepted.

He works slowly, all the time telling the manager he is a capable mechanic who is very quick and can get an engine out of a car in less than seven minutes. He talks about fixing mechanical things and putting together the kinds of things the company makes. He asks the manager for the name of a foreman who might be willing to give him a test.

The next day he goes to see the foreman, saying the big boss said there might be a chance for him to demonstrate his skills. He makes it clear he would like to do a couple of jobs as a test to show he could do a good job, then he would go to personnel as the foreman suggested.

After passing the test, he tells the foreman what he believes to be his problem with personnel - being an ex-convict and maybe not fitting into the social scheme of the company. The foreman needs and wants good employees. He has to make a hard choice between desired productivity and the social structure.

Ex-convicts will be trained through a strength identification process to present their skills in this way, and they generally deserve a chance to renew their lives. Of course, the tire-deflating gambit will not be part of their training.

Another example concerns a low-ranking employee with a speech defect. She keeps to herself for fear of being ridiculed. She is a packer doing unskilled work. She enters a strength identification process and her small group discovers she is a talented but untrained artist. She has evidence of her skills in the form of painted greeting cards and ceramics.

She almost suddenly becomes aware that co-workers appreciate her skills. She begins to communicate with more of them. Since she continues to be withdrawn, some of her co-workers take her products to the supervisor and suggest that she be considered for a different job. The information is passed on to personnel.

Her new friends in the packing department pressed inquiries on personnel until she was transferred to the advertising department, where she was immediately useful. After attending evening classes, she polished her skills in commercial art. She gained, the company gained, and her co-workers developed a more positive attitude toward the company.

The basic strength identification process concept is that each person has some excellence, which can be both identified and developed. Because the assumption is that skills exist, when even the person may not believe they do, the process often points the way to upgrading with little or even no need for training.

This can be quite a money saver for an organization concerned with meeting the upgrading problem at minimum cost - especially since this approach includes identification of self-actualizing, self-motivating skills that are always demanding opportunity for expression through good work. In management language that translates into high productivity.

A New Definition Of "Weakness"

The examples given add a different dimension to the meaning of weaknesses. Many weaknesses exist because people do not know or do not know how to communicate their strengths. People also demonstrate weaknesses because of an overconfidence in strength, which causes them to be careless. Witness the fable of the race between the tortoise and the hare. Weaknesses also appear to be an outcome of requiring a strength to be applied in an inhospitable climate. Consider the situation when an executive asks a pure researcher for a quick decision and the employee responds with a suggestion for a lengthy research process. This leads the executive to say the man is unable to make up his mind, thus attributing to him a weakness.

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Weaknesses have an infinite number of causes, not necessarily related to productivity, while strengths are directly associated with it and are therefore more deserving of attention and reinforcement.

When the manager knows more about the strengths of a person, he has information that enables him to make better use of manpower. But he must be patient in listening to what might at first seem irrelevant. It is easy and obvious enough when the experiences come through.

But suppose a mother, looking for her first job, gets to you and says one of her greatest achievements is driving one day a week in the car pool for kids. It takes an effort to ask, “What made that seem like an achievement to you?”

One woman said, “I got fed up with chauffering every day, so I developed a schedule for working with four families in two blocks, with each of us driving our cars and picking up the kids one day a week. I felt it was quite an achievement to work it all out and get the others to cooperate.”

Some of her other achievements were being in charge of several field trips for church teenagers. She got the parents and the youths together, helped them agree on a series of trips, worked out the scheduling, then assigned the jobs so that someone got the tickets, others took responsibility for food, transportation, and other details. She took charge in the field to make sure that things kept moving as planned. In high school she was in charge of the senior prom. In college she served, very successfully, as chair of the graduation dance.

Such a woman might be in a part-time typing job, having no responsibility for organization of anything. This data would reveal her talent for organizing, and a special task requiring that skill might be given to her. This certainly would be a way to make more effective use of available manpower.

In this instance, it also might be suggested that she take some courses in business or public administration so she could gain background and technology to support her organizing skills. Moves of this kind not only can be largely self-directed by the employee but also can offer elements of job enrichment that could not take place without the facts an employee alone can provide.

It is not possible or reasonable for the new facts to effect changes overnight. When people are involved, changes require care and time. Almost all people resist change because they cannot know for sure what will follow. It is safer to stand still, we all tend to think, even though we know that the rest of the world will continue to move ahead.

This contradiction in attitudes, and the related actions, worries managers. It is here that a strength identification process can help bridge the way to needed changes. It helps a person know that his motivated skills are always with him, no matter what his job title or assignment. This constancy, or stability, is a strong support to whatever career changes may be necessary. The person who knows his strengths also knows they have great adaptability.

In addition, knowledge of the person's strengths helps make clear the education or training essential or most helpful to a smooth transition.

There will be times when a person who has completed a strength identification process comes up with a personal need for change that cannot be satisfied soon enough. There also will be times when the data from a strength identification process will show that the person is unfit for his job and that termination is the reasonable way out. These infrequent happenings face managers with the toughest part of their jobs, doing something that is almost certain to appear to the other person as harmful. Firing someone is almost like labeling him “useless” and nobody likes to give or receive that label.

A strength identification process is a “guilt reducing” bridge here. It makes clear that the person has real strengths, that he does have usefulness, even though a particular spot is not where his strengths can be best used.

In such situations the organization should help the person obtain another position, thereby reaffirming him and also reinforcing the manager who must make the unpleasant decision. There are effective guides to job finding in the form of books, audio cassettes, and manuals.

One way of regularizing the use of a strength identification process is through the annual review. Nearly all major companies have arrangements for a formal review between supervisor and subordinate of the employee's career progress.

A variety of related contacts take place all through the year. But this is a time for pulling together the facts relating to progress or slowdown, and considering together what can be done to improve things or maintain progress in the following year. The purpose usually is along those lines, but most reviews are conducted in a very cursory manner, according to the literature coming out of numerous companies.

The traditional annual review has reduced the credibility of managers and personnel officers and has contributed to disregard of the performance requirements of the job.

Strength identification process is used as a supplemental tool to get information not obtainable by other means. Other methods used are a wide range of other behavioral science systems, including job enrichment, organization development, T-labs, and management by objectives.

Credibility turnaround can be an important contribution to productivity and lower costs. It reduces absenteeism, raises job effectiveness, and cuts costly mistakes. Better morale and all-round cooperation for practical innovative progress are other benefits.

The process does have some built-in, problems for managers. Employees are accustomed to asking managers for all kinds of guidance and counsel, sometimes of a very personal nature. Managers frequently are helpful; this is part of their job. When a strength identification process makes strength data available, some employees are sure to ask the manager to do the interpreting. From deep and lengthy experience as a professional counselor, let me caution managers not to fall into that trap - because it is a trap, although not intentional.

Since each person sees facts in his own way, the manager is sure to view an employee's data in some ways with which the employee disagrees. For those situations, the manager will need a hedging statement. It could be something along these lines: “I'm not a professional counselor, so my opinion is sure to be at least a little different from yours, and it certainly might not be on the nose.” If something more must be said, phrases like this should be used: “It seems to me…” or, “I'm not sure, but…”

Resist efforts of a few employees to put the manager in the position of all-knowing father, while the employee plays the game of being child. Too often this is an unconscious effort to blame the manager when things don't go right. It is wise to resist the temptation - most of the time - to give depth counseling. Almost always that requires professional training in the use of a strength identification process and other behavioral and psychological systems.

Nevertheless, the manager will get considerable information from the strength identification process data. Some of it will be important enough to the individual and the organization to be made part of the employee's personnel file or his computerized personnel data.

This process brings out the best in each person and provides ways for employees in small groups to help one another identify their strengths. Thus, it has the side effect of causing more and more employees to seek and encourage the best in others. This is a climate managers often work hard to create. It's an environment that encourages participation and discourages absenteeism. It stimulates positive competition when each person tries to do his best. Managers believe most people operate below their optimum level of productivity.

Career and organizational job changes are happening faster all the time. Most people now entering the job market will change jobs and careers ten or more times. All managers and employees will need to face up to future shock, or career shock. The newer movements of managers include systems that require much greater participation in decision making by subordinates all the way down the line.

Many managers will feel deprived of responsibilities; others will welcome the additional time to do more important things. Problem solving will become less of a manager's responsibility; he will rely more on the opinions and data of the employees concerned - although the manager will keep informed and will be available to pitch in if asked. There probably will be more part-time workers according to the meaning of that term today.

The increased time for self-development and recreation will create new types of working conditions. So will concepts of work modules, with employees working in teams that permit members to shuffle around their hours on the job.

There also will be earlier retirements, perhaps as low as age 50. Some companies already permit retirement at 55, and a few encourage it at 50. With job content changes occurring every few years, sometimes radically, everyone in a division or organization may suddenly have to face the prospect of skills obsolescence. Some of these realities can already be seen.

It is because these realities are here or clearly on the horizon. Anyone following the procedures outlined will come to recognize that there is continuity for each person through all the changes. The continuity of strengths identification will be a security line that eases the stressful moves from one job or career to another.

There is good reason to fear the changes that are crowding in on us. But history provides substantial basis for hope and faith that they will be moving us toward the better things we want. The pessimistic predictions and turmoils of the industrial revolution slowly opened into twentieth-century growth and opportunity. The depression of the thirties moved more quickly, even though accelerated by World War II, into the Western world's era of full employment. The feared prospect of automated unemployment in the 1950s did not materialize, although it did bring tremendous career and employment changes. The recessions of 1974 and 1979 have been short-lived, even with inflation hammering at the growth curve.

Currently there exists, for the first time in a long time, a worldwide acceptance of relations among all nations, despite frictions, wars and threats of wars. In each country there is evidence that the principles of self-actualization and management by objectives are basic to individual growth of nations and persons, as well as to mutual understanding.

People have demonstrated very remarkable power to surmount obstacles as they learn to combine the uses of science with the powers of nature and with faith.

It is in this frame of reference that a strength identification process contributes a sliver of assurance for continuity, not ignoring the evils of which men are capable, but with faith that their interdependence and concern for one another as individuals - seeking the best for themselves - will become intelligent selfishness that provides a rainbow for progress.

Society | Self-Help | Work


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