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Matt Somers

Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training

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Is it weak to focus on strengths? Is it strong to examine weakness?

While coaching practices vary, there is a trend towards developing strengths. But it’s important to balance strengths and weaknesses. Here are some practical considerations to empower individuals to reach their full potential.
mountain climber, sky, landscape, Strengths

In the ever-evolving field of leadership coaching, the debate on whether to focus on developing strengths or addressing weaknesses is a significant one. 

Recent research has highlighted some intriguing patterns in how coaching practices differ regionally, often influenced by cultural contexts. Interestingly, the general trend, especially at the executive level, leans towards developing strengths. 

In this article, I’ll delve into the reasons behind this trend, explore the implications of focusing on strengths versus weaknesses and offer insights into how leaders can effectively balance both approaches.

The predominance of strength-based coaching

Coaches, particularly those working with executives, often emphasise leveraging strengths and there are several reasons for this preference. 

Firstly, coaches tend to be optimistic individuals, and working within the context of strengths aligns well with their positive outlook. This positivity can be contagious, fostering a more engaging and motivational coaching environment.

Also, external coaches, who are frequently hired for their expertise, are under commercial pressure to deliver tangible results. Focusing on strengths can lead to quicker, more noticeable improvements, which satisfies clients and justifies the investment in coaching. 

Strengths-based coaching also builds on the established competencies of leaders, allowing them to solidify their performance and achieve their results.

Coaches ... often emphasise leveraging strengths

The case for addressing weaknesses

However, there's another compelling perspective. Marshall Goldsmith aptly states in his book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’: “The strengths that have propelled individuals to their current positions may not suffice for future success. In fact, these strengths might even contribute to stagnation if overplayed or if they mask critical weaknesses”.

In the corporate world, there's often a reluctance to label areas needing improvement as ‘weaknesses.’ Phrases like ‘development areas’ and ‘learning needs’, are commonly used instead. 

Despite the euphemisms, the reality remains that individuals have areas where they need significant improvement, and often they know it. Ignoring these or diluting them with flowery language can be detrimental to both personal growth and organisational effectiveness.

Balancing strengths and weaknesses in coaching

From my experience, I’d suggest coaching should not be an either-or proposition. 

The individuals I coach are best placed to determine what they need to solve their problems or move toward their goals. This might mean addressing a glaring weakness or further honing a particular strength. A balanced approach is crucial.

Strengths-based coaching can boost confidence and morale, helping leaders to excel and innovate within their comfort zones. However, addressing weaknesses is equally important, especially when those weaknesses hinder overall performance or team dynamics. Effective coaching should involve a thorough assessment of both strengths and weaknesses, followed by a tailored plan that addresses both.

Coaching should not be an either-or proposition

Regional and cultural influences

The regional and cultural differences in coaching practices cannot be overlooked. In some cultures, focusing on strengths aligns with societal norms that prioritise positivity and encouragement.

On the other hand, some cultures emphasise improvement and overcoming challenges, making a focus on weaknesses more prevalent.

For instance, in the US, the coaching culture often emphasises strengths, reflecting the broader societal value of individualism and personal achievement. In contrast, in some Asian cultures, there might be a stronger emphasis on collective improvement and addressing weaknesses, reflecting values of harmony and continuous improvement.

Internal vs external coaches

The approach to strengths and weaknesses might also differ between internal and external coaches. Internal coaches, who have a deeper understanding of the organisational culture and long-term goals, might focus more on addressing weaknesses that could impact team performance and cohesion. They are in a better position to observe and address these issues over time.

External coaches, on the other hand, often have a fresh perspective and may focus on leveraging strengths to bring about quick wins and immediate improvements. They might also be more adept at identifying blind spots and weaknesses that internal coaches – due to their familiarity with the coachee – might overlook.

The goal of coaching is to empower individuals to reach their full potential

Practical considerations for coaches

When coaching, it's essential to maintain a balance. Here are some practical tips for coaches:

  • Comprehensive assessment: Start with a thorough assessment of both strengths and weaknesses. Tools like 360-degree feedback can provide valuable insights
  • Goal setting: Set clear, achievable goals that incorporate both leveraging strengths and addressing weaknesses
  • Customised approach: Tailor your coaching strategy to the individual's needs, organisational context, and cultural background
  • Continuous feedback: Provide regular, constructive feedback that highlights progress in both areas
  • Encourage self-reflection: Help coachees to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses and understand how these impact their performance and career growth

While developing strengths is a crucial aspect of leadership coaching, addressing weaknesses is equally important. A balanced approach that considers both can lead to more holistic development and sustained success. 

As coaches, we need to be adaptable, culturally aware, and sensitive to the unique needs of each individual we work with.

Ultimately, the goal of coaching is to empower individuals to reach their full potential, which involves both capitalising on their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses. 

The most interesting answer I ever heard to the old cliché interview question of: "What do you consider your weaknesses?" was: "My strengths, if I overplay them!"

How would you respond to that?

Did you enjoy this article? Read: Had enough of managers who are too busy to care? It’s time to build a coaching culture

Author Profile Picture
Matt Somers

Founder & Managing Partner

Read more from Matt Somers

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