The strengths-based approach to people management has been around for around 25 years, although many of the central principles and ideas were first introduced by management gurus like Peter Drucker and Dr Bernard Haldane decades before this. The central premise is that focusing on strengths is a more powerful way of accelerating performance, learning and engagement in organizations because it unlocks people’s intrinsic motivation, helping them achieve excellence in areas more aligned with their natural strengths and personality.

Today, strengths-based approaches are one of the fastest-growing trends in people management and for good reason as research shows they can yield significant improvements in sales, profitability, retention and engagement. A strengths-based approach to performance and feedback conversations is also more likely to generate more positive behaviours and results compared to a traditional weakness-based approach.

Yet, one of the biggest mistakes companies make when bringing in this approach is to overlook or downplay people’s weaker areas. This is likely to significantly undermine the value of the approach and result in scepticism among senior leaders and decision-makers, especially given the negativity bias that has dominated much of our approach to people management in the past.   

Problems that arise when organizations focus only on people’s strengths

Various problems can arise for both the individual and company when there is a myopic focus on strengths without any consideration of weaknesses. Some of these include:

  • A work culture where people neglect their weaker areas, even when these are limiting their own and others’ performance.
  • A lack of openness about weaker areas and vulnerabilities
  • Lopsided development where people start using their strengths too much or in the wrong way, leading to detrimental behaviours, poor performance and damaged relationships (this is discussed in more detail below).

Reducing weaknesses and performance limiters

Effective development is very much about balancing two interdependent dualities – optimising strengths and reducing the effect of performance limiters, including weaknesses and overused talents and strengths.

Performance limiters are things that can get in the way of people achieving their goals. There are four main types: In Excess or overused talents and strengths; limiting weaknesses, self-limiting beliefs and fears and external blockers.

  • Overused talents and strengths occur when talents and strengths (or a combination of these) are overused or used in excess, resulting in negative outcomes.
  • Limiting weaknesses are weaknesses that limit a person’s performance. It is important to distinguish these from “insignificant weaknesses”, which are weaknesses that have no or very little negative impact on performance.
  • Self-limiting beliefs and fears (e.g., low self-confidence or fear of being criticized) can hold a person back from achieving peak performance. These limiting beliefs and fears stir up negative self-talk and self-doubt, holding us back from optimizing our talents and performance.
  • External blockers are work environment factors such as ineffective leadership, poor person-culture fit or lack of adequate resources that can impact a person’s performance and development.

Because we all have limited time to invest in our personal development, we typically recommend an 80-20 rule of thumb with 80% of this time focused on optimizing strengths and 20% on tackling performance limiters. However, this may vary from person to person depending on their experience, competence, and the extent to which their limiters are undermining their results and/or relationships.

The strengths approach offers tremendous potential and it appears that we have now reached a ‘tipping point’ where the majority of leading organizations are using this approach to people and talent management. However, a sole focus on discovering and optimizing people’s strengths will not yield sustainable improvements in engagement and performance. To be effective, a strengths-based people strategy needs to also help people find innovative and powerful ways to reduce their weaker areas and performance limiters, especially when these are undermining the performance and growth of the person, team and/or company.

For more details on how to design and implement an effective strengths-based people strategy that delivers exceptional results, contact us at

About the Author

James is a leadership and talent consultant, business psychologist, and executive coach. He has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders, teams, and organizations to optimize their talent, performance, and future success.

Before moving into consulting, James held corporate leadership roles in People and Talent Management in the UK and abroad with companies such as Yahoo! and Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. Since moving into talent consulting and assessment design, he has supported leaders and teams globally across many sectors and geographies. Clients he has worked with include Allen & Overy, Commvault, Equinor, Graze, LVMH, Facebook, GSK, Hilton, John Lewis, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, NHS, Oracle, Sainsbury's, Swiss Re, Tesco, WSP and Yahoo! James has founded and run several ventures, including Strengthscope®, an international strengths assessment and development business, that he sold in 2018.

James has a Master’s in Organizational Psychology, an MBA, and an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching. He is a regular writer and speaker on talent assessment and development, leadership, and the future of work.