How to Play to Your Strengths (rather than focussing on your weaknesses)

What’s so hard about strengths?

Most of us know that the path to excellence is through our strengths, not our weaknesses. Our strengths distinguish us and exemplify our potential for greatness. Developing our weaknesses alone can only lead to balanced mediocrity. So why do we persist in focusing on our weaknesses as soon as we try to develop ourselves?

The drive to correct our weaknesses is deeply engrained in most of us through our life experiences –all those red-marked homework assignments from our school days, and also from our neurological make-up which favours noticing and reacting to threats. Our weaknesses stand out because they jolt us into attention when we make mistakes or receive negative feedback. It’s easy enough to prepare a plan of action that will correct those weaknesses, but of course actually changing our weaknesses takes real focus and commitment.

The broad successes of our lives are driven by our strengths. What we enjoy most, we work on every chance we get, developing our skills as a side-product of our enthusiasm. The leaders in any field are building on natural strengths. Life is easier when you build on your strengths!

But developing strengths is a much more complex activity than working on weaknesses. It’s easier to identify our weakest traits, re-label them ‘areas for improvement’ and then take a linear approach to change. While simple, this method is rarely effective in creating greatness. The following is a process I recommend for developing yourself, starting with your strengths and considering your most relevant weaknesses.

Know your strengths precisely and in context

It’s not that easy to recognize our own strengths.  They are so innate to us that we easily take them for granted. They take so little effort and are so automatic that we don’t notice them. And yet, they are the keys to our easiest path to fulfilment and success.

When you know your own strengths precisely, you can consciously align your actions to take greatest advantage of them. By knowing how your strengths actually operate in various contexts, you can adjust your ways of doing things so that you get more reward from less effort.

Here’s a simple example: by writing articles to promote myself rather than sharing videos, I get to leverage my strengths in writing and avoid my weaknesses as an introvert who prefers not to play to a camera.

So how can you know your own strengths better?

It’s a very valuable exercise to ask your friends, family and colleagues to name your top 2 strengths and to describe how they add value in their view. They may see different strengths depending on the context of your relationship. When they explain the strengths they see, make sure you keep an open mind to their perspective and give yourself credit for the strengths they see.

There are hundreds of different assessment tools that provide different views of ourselves, including our strengths. Personally, I use Harrison Assessments with most of my clients because it gives a very detailed, comprehensive and neutral view. Assessments are short cuts to understanding yourself.

The more specific you can be about what your strengths are, the more flexibility you will have in how you use them. After identifying your top 5 strengths, ask yourself how they help you at work. Then watch for your top strengths in action so you can be even more aware of their value.

Imagine your ideal role

When career conversations are seen as an add-on to performance development conversations, as they often are in a corporate context, it is natural to look at the existing role, or the next highest role in the hierarchy, and see what the employee can develop for that role. A strengths-based approach to career development is the opposite.

We start our conversation with the most important coaching question (some say it is the only coaching question) ‘what do you want?’. Stepping outside the current situation for a few minutes, what would be ideal? Where would you most like to see yourself in 5 years, or 10 years? What lights you up? What aspect of work is most fulfilling to you?

Starting with the person’s vision of the ideal future, their strengths come to the foreground and their weaknesses are merely areas for development to be handled along the way.

These kinds of conversations are much more challenging in an organizational environment since few managers and employees have the courage to open so many possibilities. Managers may fear setting up unrealistic expectations. Employees may fear judgment for the gap between their current role and their ideals. In most cases, the coach must have established true neutrality to enable a strengths-based career coaching conversation.

Your ideal role may never actually happen, but it is an important guide post to highlight your strengths and point you in the best direction in alignment with the person you are. Immerse yourself in developing for that role: whether it is adding expertise, learning and practicing skills or strengthening connections. This type of development is more likely to be personally exciting and it leads to better challenges and more development.

Know how your strengths are balanced

Our strengths can sometimes also be our weaknesses! That happens when our strengths are not balanced by complementary strengths that integrate the potential downsides.

For example, if your strength is being organized, are you also flexible, or are you overly rigid? If your strength is in trying new things and experimenting, are you also able to persist? If you are a naturally positive person, do you also pay attention to potential risks or are you blind to the downside? Conversely are you good at analysing risks but overly cautious because you lack optimism. Harrison Assessments is particularly useful as a tool for raising awareness about which strengths balance each other and the consequences of imbalance.

The importance of imbalanced strengths depends on your role, as well as the specific nature of the imbalance. Here are some strategies for managing unbalanced strengths.

  • Adjust your working role so that the imbalance in not a limiting factor.

For example, if you’re someone who is very analytical, logical and introverted, you could avoid roles that require a lot of interpersonal interaction and play to your highly valuable analytical strengths.

  • Learn to appreciate and support the balancing strengths in others and collaborate with them.

For example, if you’re highly optimistic and open-minded, even blindly so, make friends with someone who is sceptical, listen to them and learn from their viewpoint (without needing to become like them.)

  • Develop the weakness just enough so that it is not a derailer.

If you’re a very direct communicator (a strength) and you realize that your bluntness may sometimes be a weakness, learn some specific communications skills to reduce the negative impacts of your unbalanced strength.

  • Develop a paradoxical weakness to strengthen your strength.

Many of my clients are highly self-motivated people. And often they have not developed their capacity for stress management enough to balance their ambitious drive. They are liable to burn-out and they tend to work under stress, which reduces their ability to do more complex creative or interpersonal work. By developing themselves to handle stress more effectively, they can raise their capacity for achievement even higher than they would simply by working harder. Many imbalanced strengths can be developed through the paradoxically opposite strength in this way.

When you focus your developmental energy on the weaknesses that are most relevant to your strengths, you are leveraging your energy efficiently (we can’t develop everything) and increasing the possibility that your strength will be noticed in the most positive light. In addition, you are working on aspects that don’t just expand your capacity, but also mature you to be able to use your strengths at a higher level of complexity –what our complex world demands.

In summary, play to your strengths and improve your most relevant weaknesses.


Angela Spaxman
Angela Spaxman
Career and Leadership Coach , Loving Your Work
Angela Spaxman is one of Hong Kong’s leading experts in professional coaching. She is a highly effective and experienced executive coach, career coach, corporate facilitator and trainer. Angela’s leadership experiences, her decades of personal development, her well-grounded confidence and her natural curiosity give her great insight into how to manage, motivate and lead people to be at their best.