By James Brook, Managing Director at Strengths Partnership

Many employees can reel off a list of areas of improvement and have a good understanding of their weaknesses within the workplace, but how many fully understand what their employers regard as their greatest strengths?

Traditionally employers tend to focus on the weaknesses of their employees during appraisals, but HR professionals and psychologists are beginning to question whether this is the most effective approach, with recent research suggesting that it is not. Negative feedback and a focus on weakness have been blamed for employee deterioration and disengagement, rather than resulting in the intended improvement. So how can managers provide effective feedback that focuses on strengths, while driving performance in areas of weakness?

A frequent question asked by HR professionals is ‘why do appraisals - arguably the most powerful tool available in the HR arsenal- yield such poor results?’

The reality is that most appraisal systems are highly bureaucratic in nature and involve a lot of tedious form filling, which ironically takes more time than the conversation itself. As pointed out by the late management guru and author, Peter Drucker, both managers and employees dislike the process. Managers dislike appraisals because of the paperwork, and the fact that they are structured to spend a lot of time focusing on employees’ weaknesses, even when they are performing well. The underlying assumption is that employees should be all-round performers - typically a defined list of up to 20 competencies or behaviours. The focus is on finding the inevitable gaps in an employee’s capabilities and providing critical feedback to improve these areas. Employees, on the other hand, dislike the process because they know their manager is encouraged to find weaknesses in their performance and to fit them into the so-called “bell curve” for the purposes of allocating pay increases. Because most managers are ill-equipped for this deficit-based, inherently confrontational discussion, the employee is left feeling demotivated and unappreciated.

So how can we ensure appraisals are more positive and motivating?

1. Ditch the ‘sandwich approach’
For many decades, HR professionals have advocated a sandwich approach as the recommended formula for appraisals. The intention of this approach, which involves sandwiching negative feedback between a positive opening and closing statement, was to cushion the blow of critical feedback. However, the sandwich approach is typically counterproductive when used with both poor and excellent performers. Poor performers pay selective attention to the positive messages and leave feeling that they have done better than they actually have. While excellent performers focus on the negatives and leave the meeting demotivated.

2. Focus on strengths and the future
The vast majority of appraisals are largely weakness-focused and retrospective, however decades of research shows that this is likely to undermine motivation, self-confidence and performance. In our experience, the best strategy is to focus primarily on the person’s successes and strengths - underlying characteristics that energise the person - assuming they are already contributing at a reasonable level. Of course, if people are falling below requirements, then the conversation should focus on their shortfalls.

Rather than spending the majority of the time looking back, we also advocate that managers should focus 80% of their time coaching the person on future achievements and opportunities to deploy their strengths and stretch their comfort zone.

3. Don’t ignore weaknesses
Focusing on employees’ strengths doesn’t mean weaknesses should be ignored. They need to be surfaced, discussed and addressed. However, the discussion should accept that everyone has vulnerabilities and some of these are deeply ingrained and unlikely to change. It is often easier to find someone else with the right natural strengths than to try to turn somebody into something they are not. There are other ways to reduce the negative impact of weaker areas, which are rarely explored in appraisal discussions, such as; partnering up employees with complementary strengths, mentoring and coaching, outsourcing work, or finding technology-based solutions.

4. Keep it simple and coaching-oriented
The above principles should be incorporated into a straightforward series of questions to plan and guide the performance dialogue:
1. What have they achieved during the last period?
2. What went well, and what strengths underpinned these successes?
3. What new projects will enable them to optimise and stretch his/her strengths?
4. What weaknesses/blockers (internal and external) need to be removed to ensure they are able to perform at his/her best?
5. How can the person use their strengths, those of others, and other creative ways to remove weaknesses/blockers?
6. What support is needed to ensure effective follow-through and motivation?

Organisations wanting to achieve excellence and competitive advantage by creating a highly engaged workforce need to challenge the effectiveness of their existing performance appraisal system, replacing outdated practices with innovative, strengths-based approaches that deliver higher levels of performance, motivation and confidence. This requires radical and systemic reinvention - from weakness-central appraisals to strength focussed discussions - rather than incremental evolution.