Why working on your weaknesses as an accountant is not the answer

By Joanna Rawbone, founder of Flourishing Introverts

If you’re anything like some of my accountancy clients, you’ll have done a double take at this title.  I accept that my proposition flies in the face of common practice but if you read on, you’ll understand how it makes sense. 

I’ve noticed an ongoing preoccupation with the leaders and managers I work with to focus in on an individual’s weaknesses. They often then go on to create a personal development plan for the individual so they can eliminate their problems.  

Now, there are a few things wrong with this arguably outdated approach, so I’ll unpack them for you here.

Now, let’s look at your weaknesses shall we?

Unsurprisingly, this is known as a weakness focus where we’re more interested in what is wrong with someone’s performance and behaviour rather than what is good. I have a particular interest here because as an advocate of introverts, I see the quieter ones being given feedback that they need to speak up, join in with the banter and push themselves forward more.  Only those who don’t understand the true nature of introversion treat it as a weakness. Focus on the strengths the introverts bring to the workplace so they are enabled to flourish authentically using their natural skills and talents. 

The weakness focus is somewhat inevitable as it stems from the fact we are hardwired with a negativity bias; our tendency to notice negative events.  This has served us well in our evolutionary history which is why we still respond to negative stimuli. But, it can also lead us to dwell on the negative rather that learn from it and move on. As the old saying goes, we find what we look for. The anxious may then catastrophise about future events, and therefore get in their own way. 

The review point

I too experienced this through much of my 19 years at BT. Whether in engineering, programme management or training roles, strengths were something the boss identified for me, only to be unceremoniously swept aside so we could spend time looking at how to improve my weaknesses.  

Within the accountancy sector, the ‘review point’ system steers people towards a weakness focus, so it takes someone with a growth mindset to introduce balance.  

Fortunately, management practice has moved on and we have developed a much more sophisticated understanding since then. Gallup identified that strengths develop infinitely. I’ll say that again, strengths develop infinitely, but weaknesses rarely if ever become a true strength. Ironically, the way to minimise a weakness is by using your strengths.  

In part this is because a true strength is a combination of what someone is good at and what gives them a real sense of fulfilment.  When someone else tells me my strengths, they’re just commenting on my performance of the things I’m good at.  It entirely misses the other aspect. 

Not all weaknesses are equal

Allowable weaknesses are those that don’t hold someone back in an essential area of their work.  If someone has an entirely back-office role, not being a confident networker is a perfectly allowable weakness.  If, however, they are moving from a compliance to advisory role, this weakness needs addressing.  So, a better approach is what strengths does the individual have that they can leverage to manage their unallowable weakness. 

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we ignore weaknesses in essential technical areas but remember that allowable weaknesses are role and career specific. The drive to create the cookie-cutter model accountant who is good at all things is really outdated. And the benefits of enabling people to really play to their strengths? Better morale, improved productivity, mastery and higher retention rates to name but a few.  

Development plans

The only way forward here is co-creating. How much commitment have you ever felt on being told what you need to do to improve?  If you’re lucky enough to have an inspirational manager, your chances are greatly increased, but the best outcomes, as all good coaches know, stem from co-creation. 

Byline by Joanna Rawbone, founder of Flourishing Introverts

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