When most folks think of diversity and inclusion, they think race, age, ability and gender. They forget that these components make up only 10% of our total diversity. The remaining 90% is essentially everything else that makes us different.
Important pieces of that 90% are the unique skills, talents and strengths we bring to the workplace. These attributes contribute to diversity as well. Just like race, age, ability and gender, they need to be leveraged in ways that build inclusion.
How do we know if we are playing to our strengths in the workplace? Thought leaders Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton maintain if you can answer the following question affirmatively. “Do I have an opportunity to do what I do best every day?” They identified three other indicators of playing to your strengths. We are naturally drawn to them, we can do them at a high rate of speed and most importantly we feel great after we use them.
Lex Sisney has identified other traits of people who play to their strengths. According to Sisney, you are playing to your strengths if your talent separates you from other high achievers, your strengths give you purpose in your work and your strengths are recognized by those around you.
This notion of playing to our strengths run counter to the negativity bias we receive throughout our lives in the form of “you must get better messages.” If you are an athlete, your coach is saying get stronger while ignoring your other attribute of speed. If you are trying to lose weight, your personal trainer is telling you to work out harder while forgetting about your family history of weight gain. Your marriage partner is encouraging you to work on your relationship although he knew about your flaws before you were married. Your parents or guardians have probably complained about that one bad grade on your report card while neglecting to recognize your good grades. Finally, our supervisors remind us during appraisal time of areas where we need to improve while at the same time failing to acknowledge our strengths.
Mind you, Buckingham and Clifton do not mean to ignore your weaknesses. They just submit that obsessing on our weaknesses is the wrong approach. They recommend we work around our weaknesses by minimizing them. In the long run, they claim that we will learn the most, grow the most and develop the most in our areas of strengths.
Unfortunately as Buckingham and Clifton point out, our organizations serve as road blocks to employees who are trying to play to their strengths. They remind us that most organizations:
• Spend more money on training employees once they are on the job then selecting them for the job in the first place based on their strengths.
• Place more emphasis on behavioral competencies likes rules, policies and procedures rather than individuality and outcomes.
• Invest in training that focuses on areas of improvement and filling skill gaps rather than building on strengths.
As a trainer, I see this phenomenon playing out in my work. One of my major strengths is the development of training materials around diversity and inclusion. However, the delivery of these trainings is another matter. Public speaking is not one of my natural strengths as an introvert. Consequently, I have to practice relentlessly to minimize my weakness in verbal communication while at the same time playing to my strength of creating vibrant content. I have to ensure that my content is so strong that it speaks to trainees despite my weak delivery.
I realize this practice of playing to your strengths runs counter to everything we have been told about performance management. Once you look at it from a distance it makes sense. Fixing our weaknesses only prevents failure but playing to our strengths put us on the road to excellence.