If there is one thing I have learnt in my local government career it is that we are collectively really poor at identifying personal weaknesses.
By this I don’t mean that we are bad at identifying mistakes or errors. On the contrary we are excellent at this and many authorities have cultures of hanging people out to dry without giving them support or identifying why the problem occurred.
Instead, what I am talking about is our individual inability to be self-reflective and recognise that we have some weaknesses. Equally, the managers in our workplaces seem to have difficulty identifying the weaknesses of those below them and focusing on them as areas of improvement.
I don’t think that weaknesses are a bad thing. Weaknesses imply other areas that are strengths and we should be proactive in accepting that people have a bit of both. If not then we are probably accepting mediocrity across the board or expecting universal brilliance or incompetence, both of which are equally unlikely.
This inability to identify weaknesses impacts the organisation in a number of ways.
- In the workplace we often set staff up to fail by asking them to do things which they are not comfortable doing. We then run the risk of assuming they are poor performing rather than just someone with strengths and weaknesses (like all of us).
- People become defensive when mistakes are made or performance is low instead of asking for help as soon as they realise things are going off track.
- We fail to improve our staff due to our focus on what they do well. Thus, a member of staff could be in an organisation for ten years and never take action on an area, or be told, that they really need to improve in certain areas.
- Teams are rarely ever planned with complementary skills. Indeed, as we fail to recognise weaknesses appropriately we end up with teams with shared weaknesses.
- On a slightly different but related note, projects are often reported as being green because people are reluctant to admit that there are weaknesses in their project and would rather pitch it as green than admit failings and ask for help.
The problem doesn’t just exist in individual staff members or an organisational culture that doesn’t encourage this sort of critical self-awareness; it also rests with managers.
I take weaknesses quite seriously, reflective perhaps of someone who has a lot of them, and make a point of asking (usually through gritted teeth right at the end of one to one meetings) what my biggest weaknesses are and what I need to do to improve. My better managers would usually come up with something but I was amazed at the amount who really struggled with this simple question.
Perhaps people don’t want to be mean and perhaps there is a wider issue about having the confidence to identify other people’s personal weaknesses. Managers seem able to identify when work is bad but having the confidence to assign personal weakness to that might be more difficult for people.
So what should we do about this seeming local government blind-spot? I have two recommendations:
- For individuals: Accept that you are not going to be good at everything and try very hard to identify what your weaknesses are (and I don’t mean in the job interview sense where everyone says a variant of ‘I care too much’ or ‘I’m a perfectionist’). Be honest with yourself, maybe even talk to your friends about it but most of all look to improve them
- For managers: Every year try and pick the five areas a member of your staff is weakest in and then agree to monitor them over the year. Test the person to leave their comfort zone but do so within an agreed structure that makes the conversations less awkward and/or confrontational.
We all have weaknesses; recognising them and adjusting accordingly is by far the best way to ensure that we don’t become an unwitting slave to them.
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