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When it comes to learning, shift the focus from weaknesses to strengths

Posted by on in Strategy & Leadership
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By Ryan Rose, head of customer experience & product design, Cisco Collaborative Knowledge, Cisco

We live in a world that seems almost predisposed to tell us where we are weak. When you ask most people to point out their weaknesses, the answer comes rather easily. Ask them about their strengths, and that question tends to be harder for them. Most individuals, in fact, aren't likely to recognize their own strengths unless someone else points them out.

This sort of “evolve or die” mentality is pervasive, and it can often inhibit learning, especially at the organizational level.

What if we changed our approach to view our talents as our greatest opportunities for success? That’s the idea put forth in the 2003 research paper“Investing in Strengths,” written by Donald O. Clifton and James K. Harder of the Gallup Foundation. It wasn’t a new idea at the time, and it certainly isn’t radical now. However, when you really look at the structure of most learning programs and organizations, it becomes pretty obvious that time and investment are addressing weaknesses rather than strengths.

During our formative years, we focus on development and overcoming weaknesses. It’s important for students who struggle with math or reading, for example, to have extra assistance and encouragement in these areas. Unfortunately, this mentality seems to continue in most corporate learning environments, where the focus could – and should – be on investing in developing employees’ strengths.

A few years ago, Pew Research conducted a study examining this situation. Researchers decided to look at two groups of people: 100 slow-to-medium readers and 100 high-performance readers. Both groups were sent to a speed reading course.

Not surprisingly, the lower group saw an average of 150 percent improvement. Less expected was that the high performers saw an average of 700 percent improvement. In other words, their strengths were multiplied by seven!

According to Cliftonand Harder, “When people become aware of their talents, through measurement and feedback, they have a strong position from which to view their potential. They can then begin to integrate their awareness of their talents with knowledge and skills to develop strengths.”

This finding provides organizations and individuals with huge opportunity. People who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job, according to Gallup’s "State of the American Workplace"report.

Effective managers will ensure that teams have a mix of strengths and weaknesses. In a collaborative environment, everyone is able to build together and ultimately achieve more. A team with a mix of talents harnesses the power of collaboration to learn to build on strengths, not just shore up resources. The Gallup report found that when managers focused on their employees’ strengths, active disengagement – when employees are not only unhappy but might be undermining the organization as well – fell dramatically, to about 1 percent. Imagine if this shift happened in all workplaces – productivity would soar.

Organizations must work to help individuals identify their strengths and provide access to the people, communities, courses, and other tools neededto build on these strengths. Rather than looking at the situation as “evolve or die,” the rallying cry should be “collaborate and live.”



About Ryan Rose

Ryan Rose is Head of Customer Experience & Product Design for the new Cisco Collaborative Knowledge social learning platform developed by Cisco.

Rose leads the Digital Strategy Team within Learning@Cisco that supports the development, build-out, and delivery of Cisco Collaborative Knowledge. Rose is responsible for the overall User Experience design, Customer Experience and Engagement for Cisco Collaborative Knowledge, and supports the development of the solution’s asynchronous collaboration tools.

In addition to his role developing Cisco Collaborative Knowledge, Rose co-manages the Cisco.com Web Team that updates and maintains the web properties that make up the widely-acclaimed Training and Events section; supported the Learning@Cisco Content Development Team in the Quality Assurance Services group; and acts as a user experience, documentation, and best practices consultant across Cisco supporting a number of software development initiatives.

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