Why we need to take another look at weaknesses

At the 2013 national conference of the Career Development Association of Australia I attended a workshop by Canadian Gray Poehnell titled The Unsung Potential of Weakness.

I was interested to hear this session for two reasons: Firstly, I have taken an active interest in the Positive Psychology movement which focuses on strengths. Job applicants are often at a loss as to how to speak comfortably about their strengths. Secondly, people often ask how they will respond to interview questions about their weaknesses. Equally, but for different reasons, they are at a loss as to how to respond.

Usually weaknesses are not thought of as worth much attention. Much of the strengths-based literature presents the subject as either/or – either you focus on deficits or you focus on strengths, and it’s much better to focus on strengths. Where the subject of weaknesses is explored, it is primarily in terms of how you manage around them rather than on exploring them as a worthy subject in its own right.

Gray Poehnell raises some useful points in exploring the potential of weaknesses, particularly when working with people who have experienced some of life’s disadvantages. One question he raises is: Can you think of a strength that has become a weakness and a weakness that has become a strength? Many of us can think of a skill area that was at some stage a weakness but later became a strength. I was very shy as a child, yet overcame this to build careers in education, management and professional speaking.

The overall challenge he raises is that we just don’t know how far a person will go, what they are capable of if given the right opportunity. If we allow a weakness to equal failure, to mean that a person will not succeed in life, we may well be doing them a gross disservice. Just because someone is not particularly good at something now, especially as defined by the education system, doesn’t mean the person is failure in, or for, life. All you have to do is find a role or job that needs that particular level of skill and you can make a fine contribution. For example, some people don’t do well with arithmetic and maths. They may never become good with figures. Yet there are plenty of jobs that don’t require high distinctions in maths.

This point is also backed by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica, in their book Finding Your Element, How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life  (Allen Lane, London, 2013). Robinson discusses the important role opportunity plays in life.  ‘You may have all kinds of latent talents that lie undiscovered beneath the surface. Like minerals in the ground. Part of finding your Element is being open to the possibility that it might lie in field you’ve never explored. If you’re casting about for what you should do with your life, limiting your horizons [to what you have experienced] can have dramatic consequences. [p.58] In other words, if we haven’t had the opportunity to experience something and build the skill, or were badly taught in the first place, eliminating these as possibilities is placing serious limitations on our lives.

Poehnell also discusses how messy the word ‘weakness’ is. It is highly ambiguous and carries much emotional baggage. Weakness is equated with failure, is often linked to notions of good and bad, and generally equates with being a looser. He makes a case for seeing skills as relative, falling along a continuum from strength to weakness, rather than being black and white, skilled or unskilled, pass or fail.

He recommends that we see the whole person and help them to accept themselves as made up of both strengths and weaknesses. He also suggests that we balance realism with hope. Realistically I may not be so good with numbers, and I accept that. And I know I’m good with people. There are plenty of jobs that require that skill.

Taking another look at weaknesses has value for career practitioners who might have adopted a strengths-based approach, managers who are giving feedback, and people seeking to accept who they are, ‘warts and all’. Rather than either putting them aside with little scrutiny, or focusing so much on them that we fail to appreciate our strengths, a balanced approach that recognises that we are all frail, flawed, fragile as well as strong, powerful, and vibrant, gives us the opportunity to explore a wider range of options while being realistically hopeful about our potential.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.