In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world managers face many challenges; from more decision-making under greater uncertainty, growing pressure and responsibilities, roles becoming more broad, information overload, complexity of cultural diversity, new technologies that disrupt old work practices to dealing with greater stress and worst still burnout.
No one has a crystal ball but there is a trajectory of continued disruption with a struggle to adapt. How can managers make the most of their resources and be better prepared to manage in VUCA and enable their teams to flourish?
The brain’s default setting
Many managers can spend a lot of their time and energy trying to shore up team weaknesses or correcting the deficit behaviour of a single “problem employee.”
There is an explanation for this focus on what’s wrong. Research in neuroscience suggests that there are five times more dedicated neurons for our threat response to one for our reward centre. That is, the brain’s threat detector the Amygdala is always on high alert in readiness for the next ‘threat’. Our negativity circuits get lots of practice from this and continuously activate the fight, flight, fright mode.
Psychologists call this a negativity bias, inbuilt from our evolutionary past when sabretooth tigers roamed and our survival depended on being alert to danger. The message of focusing on what’s wrong has stuck. This negativity bias has become our default setting and the brain is wired to focus on what’s wrong first.
That’s all well and good in a ‘steady as she goes’ world, but not in VUCA.
From what’s wrong to what’s strong
Meeting the fast changing challenges in VUCA requires a different approach and enhanced competencies in leaders. Harnessing our best qualities can produce better results than trying to shore up weaknesses.
There are many managers who swear by the approach that says they must carefully supervise their worst performing workers. Although this makes logical sense, in practical terms it frequently leads managers to using up the bulk of their time on a few poor producers while their real talent pool goes un-coached, un-directed, and un-managed.
The Gallup foundation has found that only about 20% of employees think their supervisors know their strengths and only about a third of employees say they have an opportunity to do what they do best every day.
They also found that when an organisation’s leadership does not focus on the individual’s strengths, the chances of an employee being engaged are 9%; however, when the leadership focuses on the employees’ strengths, the odds increase to 73%!
When you focus on the strengths of those in your team, you shift the focus from what’s wrong to what’s strong and create the conditions for a positive workplace culture.
Insight to Action
Workers who have the opportunity to use their strengths feel more engaged. They grow in the belief that what they are doing makes a difference, they feel respected and appreciated, and increase the likelihood to describe themselves as flourishing. How can managers start to deliberately focus on what’s strong in their people? Here is a quick guide:
-Do you know your strengths?
-Can you name the strengths of your co-workers?
-Do you have the opportunity to use your strengths and do what you do best at work?
-Can individuals in your team name their strengths?
-Have you had a meaningful discussion about your subordinates’ strengths in the last three months?
-During feedback sessions, do you highlight people’s strengths use?
What about weaknesses then?
It can feel uncomfortable with the idea that a person would focus wholly on strengths and ignore their weaknesses. This is not about advocating an approach that encourages ignoring deficits and failings. There are times when it can be important to be familiar with your weakest traits, and sometimes (even critical) to try to overcome or compensate for them.
That said, positive psychology research suggests there is greater payoff to be gained from attending to, developing, and employing strengths in yourself and those you manage.
The late Don Clifton, for many, the father of Strengths Psychology echoed this sentiment and counselled people that it is prudent to manage weaknesses so that they do not interfere with achievement, but grow strengths for the best shot at success.
Managers can easily fall into the trap of devoting enormous resources to overcoming natural weaknesses, despite the fact that these resources might be better suited to honing strengths.
Managers can adopt new approaches and evolve to suit the new conditions and be better prepared to meet VUCA challenges.
The brain can be trained to counterbalance the negativity bias and deliberately focus on the positive and find ways to cultivate them. Paying attention to personal strengths can give individuals, teams, and organisations a cutting edge.
The greatest gains are made from cultivating and using strengths while managing weaknesses. A strengths-focus does not mean that we should neglect our weaknesses entirely.
When you know and use your strengths you enjoy what you do and create the conditions for those you manage to do what they do best and feel at their best.
If you are curious as to how to use a strength based approach to develop a positive culture of excellence and enable people to be at their natural best so they flourish, contact firstname.lastname@example.org