Making a Good Match

It’s time to accent the positive. Some experts advise employers to match employee strengths to job requirements.


Between the extremes of employed and unemployed lies a large group of workers who are misemployed, says strategic business futurist Roger Herman, CEO of the Herman Group, a Greensboro, N.C., consulting firm that concentrates on workplace issues and trends. Misemployed workers, explains Herman, are employees who are not well matched by personality or interest to their current jobs.

A growing number of experts believe that companies should make a real U-turn in the way they traditionally use and develop employees. Rather than attempting to “fix” areas of employee weakness, managers should concentrate on identifying their workers’ strengths and then putting them in positions that take advantage of those strengths.

“Unfortunately,” says Brad Morrice, vice chairman, president and CEO of New Century Mortgage in Irvine, Calif., “we’ve trained ourselves as a society to think that ‘fixing weaknesses’ is what oversight and management are all about.” When he was exposed to a strengths-based approach to management, says Morrice, “I liked the positive nature of it. It not only fit in with our corporate culture, it made sense as a way to accomplish more.”

HR can make a strong case for change. The Washington, D.C.-based Gallup Organization’s workplace research shows that people who have the opportunity to do what they do best every day are 44 percent likelier to be successful in customer engagement and 38 percent more likely to succeed in productivity measures. This probability of success can translate into millions of dollars for a large organization.

“Though it has to be a management responsibility, HR needs to coach this idea of playing to strengths,” says Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., president of Kinsey Consulting Services and author of This Isn’t the Company I Joined: How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down (May 2004, KCS Publishing). “Your business case is not the ‘rightness’ of it, but the enormity of what you’re losing by not tapping into employees’ strengths and talents.”

 

More Bang for the Buck

The instinct to look for the positive is backed up by some intriguing research. As early as 1925, a controlled study by Elizabeth Hurlock reported in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that students who were praised for their good work in a math class improved their performance by 71 percent. In comparison, the group that was criticized improved only 19 percent.

Hurlock’s early study inspired the Gallup Organization’s own research, which in time led to the basic formation of its hypothesis: Both individuals and organizations have more potential for growth in areas of strength than in areas of weakness.

A 2002 study of more than 2,000 managers found that top-performing managers were more likely to spend time with high producers, match talent to the task and emphasize individual strengths versus seniority in making personnel decisions. The probability of success was 86 percent, or 1.9 times greater for managers with a “strengths vs. nonstrengths” approach, the study concluded.

“Eighty percent of self-development time should be spent on developing strong talents,” advises Tom Rath, global practice leader for strengths-based development at the Gallup Organization. “It’s easier to go from a two to a 20, than from a negative one to a two.”

 

Mix and Match

Tempting as it may be, companies cannot wipe the slate clean and start over with new employees whose strengths are matched exactly to their jobs. Employers can work with existing employees, however, to identify their strengths and better match them to needs within the company.

One reason some workers are mismatched, Herman says, is because each person involved in the hiring scenario failed to go far enough in ensuring a real match between the applicant and the job.

“The hiring manager says, ‘I need a person to fill this job.’ He doesn’t stop to think, ‘What is this job all about, what kind of person am I looking for and what is the best match for this job now and in the future,’ ” Herman explains.

“The recruiter brings in a warm body that seems to fit, both sides accept and the job begins,” Herman continues. “Except for a brief orientation, perhaps, nobody checks back with employees to see if they’re happy.”

Rachel Torchia, president and owner of Gateway Title Agency Inc. in Brecksville, Ohio, works hard to overcome this tendency to forget about employees once they’re working. “We meet every morning,” Torchia says. “We read from books a page at a time, hold discussions and listen to tapes. We’re going for personal growth as well as job knowledge.”

Her goal is to make employees aware that they are responsible for themselves and for the choices they make. “I’m a partner builder,” says Torchia. “It’s not about operations; it’s about people.”

Torchia is “hands-on” and available most of the time. “I believe in management by movement—I watch and notice employees,” she says. “When I see an employee with a particular strength or talent, I watch for a way to use it.”

Continual interaction with employees is always important, says Herman. If you want to discover the strengths of your existing employees, he says, “Sit down with your people and interview them, just as you would with a new employee. Find out more about them, why they’re with you and what they’re looking for.”

Goman points out that employers can’t just assume that their workers know their own strengths. “They often need an outside person to show or tell them,” she says. “It starts with managers knowing the people who report to them. Otherwise, hidden talents are just that.”

Assessment tests can be helpful, if for no other reason than that they often get managers and employees talking, says Goman. “Much of management is dialogue, and you need a place to begin a conversation.”

Goman also suggests offering additional training in an employee’s identified talent area, or allowing the employee to train someone else in an area of strength. “Ultimately, you may have to move the employee to another part of the company,” Goman says. “But that’s what you do with assets—you use them to best advantage.”

New Century Mortgage conducts assessments of employee strengths throughout the organization, Morrice says, “We’ve had people change jobs and career paths because of results. In particular, we reorganized our sales effort somewhat, which saw important growth as a result.” The company measures the success of its strengths-based program through related criteria like engagement and productivity scores.

There’s little doubt that matching employees’ strengths to their jobs pays off for both employee and employer. However, experts stress that employers shouldn’t just assess talents and then hasten to create niches in which to use them. “The point isn’t to change everyone’s job,” says Morrice. “It’s more a way to organize effort. You can apply an employee’s strengths to almost any position—if you know what they are.”

Goman believes that the real question for managers is, “How can we use this [talent] in service of the company’s goals? This is not just an effort to be nice to employees,” she stresses.

Redesigning a job entirely can be an answer, says Goman, but that step will probably have to be done at a fairly high level. However, even lower-level managers can reshape jobs in subtle ways to play to strengths. “You can start by giving employees more responsibility in an area of talent,” Goman says. “Perhaps if an employee is good at organizing, she can begin organizing meetings.”

How To Implement Changes

HR will face challenges in trying to move companies away from “fixing weaknesses” to nurturing strengths. Even with top management buy in, old practices can remain entrenched without extensive coaching. Here are some practical ways HR can encourage even front-line managers to move toward a strengths-based approach:

 

  • Spend less time focusing on employee weaknesses.
  • Don’t let employee talent atrophy—support and strengthen areas of high skill.
  • Stop criticizing so frequently; instead, praise what employees are doing well.
  • Encourage and assist all employees to identify their strengths.
  • Set small, achievable goals in areas of weakness.
  • Look for employees’ off-hours passions and ways to use them in business.
  • Ask employees what they need to do a better job.
  • Train managers how to leverage employee strengths.
  • Focus appraisals and development plans on what employees do well.
  • Don’t keep your employees’ strengths a secret.
  • Train employees in their areas of strength.

 

Torchia remembers an employee in her company’s escrow department who loved talking to the loan people. “It was part of her job to service them, but this employee wanted to make more of a marketing call. I gave the go-ahead, and she started making the calls she wanted and really cemented relationships.” Torchia says these kinds of opportunities help the employee first, by giving him or her confidence, and then help the company through the employee’s stronger performance.

Goman believes that increased confidence is actually the major payoff for focusing on employee strengths. “I’m usually called in to help companies manage change, and to help employees become change adept. Well, to become change adept, you have to have confidence. And to gain confidence, you have to be aware of your strengths.”

Managers and employees alike understand how frustrating it is to work in areas where they have little or no natural ability, or to try and acquire an attribute that is foreign to their personalities. Though playing to strengths may make sense, what do managers do about weaknesses?

“Obviously, if a weakness is disabling for an employee, it will need to be corrected,” says Morrice. But, he adds, managers have to recognize the limitations of training.

“If you have someone with horrible people skills, you may be able to structure the job so that he doesn’t have to interact with people,” Morrice continues. “If you can’t tweak the job, you can’t ignore the problem. But you do have to accept that, even with training, this person probably won’t be the world’s greatest diplomat.”

“You don’t ignore weaknesses,” agrees Tom Rath, global practice leader for strengths-based development at the Gallup Organization. “Instead, you manage them. For instance, if you’ve got an employee with no empathy, you may want to partner that person with someone who does. Sending the employee to an empathy training course tends to be a huge waste of time.”

Morrice says he has been able to manage weaknesses with good results. “I was a little disappointed with one of my financial reporting people, because I never heard anything about what he was doing. When I saw that ‘communication’ was on the bottom of the list for him, that opened the door to talk about it.

“We restructured our communication so that it became a formal time for us. This person will never be the type to just drop in” and talk about his work, says Morrice. “But with this new approach, I’m finally hearing about all the fantastic things he’s doing.”

An Ongoing Process

“Rather than continually trying to ‘fix’ employees, the better approach may be to simply hire for the particular talents you need,” says Rath. “It’s fairly easy to quantify for talent in some areas, and companies can develop an instrument designed to hire for a specific trait.”

Though his company is only assessing current employees at the moment, Morrice says he will be looking at hiring for particular strengths in the future. “However, positions change,” he says. “So dialogue has to be ongoing—you can’t hire for a particular strength and that’s the end of it.”

Implementing a strengths-based philosophy may also require some tweaking in the way you evaluate employees, say experts. “If someone takes me in for an evaluation, it’s not me wanting the goals and expectations I’m given; it’s the evaluator,” explains Torchia. “I’ll say whatever they want, just to shut them up. So who gets fooled?”

Torchia has tried to modify her own appraisal process to play to employee strengths and self-development. “I ask employees what they’re doing now, and how they’re going to make it better by 1 percent,” says Torchia. “I ask them what they want to accomplish in the next X months. Then I’ll say, ‘Ok, if you do, you’ll get a raise. If not, you won’t.’ ”

An Eye Toward Retention

In several controlled studies, Gallup found that “a strengths-based intervention increases employee engagement and productivity.” This is an especially important finding, since engagement drives commitment, and a number of recent polls have shown that many employees may be marking time until the economy improves and they can begin looking for new jobs.

The 2003 Towers Perrin Talent Report: Understanding What Drives Employee Engagement describes the current attitude of employees as “rational endurance.” The global consulting firm interviewed more than 35,000 employees in U.S. companies and found that workers’ work ethic and desire to help their company succeed have remained surprisingly intact. However, the report concludes that this is due more to “enlightened self-interest” than to true employee commitment.

Though creating a better fit between employee strengths and jobs will not solve every problem, research shows that this is a promising approach.

“Some managers think, ‘If my employees know how good they are, they’ll leave,’ ” says Goman. “That’s a risk, but usually if you find out how good employees are and use their strengths, you can’t shake them off.”

 

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