Focus on Strengths and Watch Performance Skyrocket

I want to share with you one of the greatest “Aha moments” I’ve had in my life – something I read and internalized that has dramatically improved my leadership style, and elevated virtually every relationship in my life.

A Groundbreaking Study

In the 1950’s the State of Nebraska sponsored a study to determine the best method to teach speedreading. The methodology was simple: take a group of 10th grade students, conduct a baseline test of their reading ability, provide them with speed reading training, and then retest to see if it worked.

When they did the baseline test the researchers discovered that students fell in to one of two categories: naturally talented readers, and not naturally talented readers. The not talented readers read at an average rate of 90 words per minute. The talented readers read at an average rate of 150 words per minute.

The students were then trained in speedreading techniques, and then retested. The not naturally talented readers improved from an average of 90 words per minute, to an average rate of 300 words per minute. The training worked! But what came next blew the researchers away. The naturally talented readers improved from an average rate of 150 words per minute to an average of 2,900 words per minute! This test has been replicated in various ways with the same results and conclusion: people are exponentially more productive, happy and motivated when their work aligns with their natural talents and strengths.

1950s Speed Reading Study


A Personal Example

I have three young daughters ages 9, 7, and 4. My oldest daughter, Elizabeth, is highly social, light-hearted, and has extremely high emotional intelligence. She is always very empathetic and sensitive to others’ feelings and is easy to get along with. But being volubly social is a busy occupation, which means she has a very difficult time focusing on what she should be doing.

As Elizabeth’s inability to focus on a task at home became more apparent, my wife and I became more and more annoyed with her. Her grades began to suffer as well. So we did what most parents would do: we focused on her weaknesses. “Focus Elizabeth!” could often be heard echoing throughout our house. But it didn’t take long for us to notice that constantly harping on Elizabeth to focus was not improving her performance. It was, however, turning her into a self-deprecating, melancholy shell of her normal sunshiny self. So we decided to change tactics.

Improve Weaknesses Only to the Point of Irrelevance

The first thing my wife and I needed to do was come to grips with the fact that Elizabeth was probably not going to become a task-oriented achiever anytime soon, and that was okay. She is extremely creative and clever, and we are confident that she will achieve great things that align with her strengths and interests. Our goal changed from transforming Elizabeth into something she is not, to simply improving her weakness to the point that it doesn’t inhibit her. Her grades just need to be good enough that they keep her options open and give her an academic foundation that enables her to discover areas where she can apply her creativity.

As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman wrote in First, Break All The Rules,

Fixing weakness prevents failure. Building strengths leads to excellence.

This mindset shift has allowed us to find alternatives to the thoughtless parenting practice of continually harping on her weaknesses. When we need to remind Elizabeth (or either of our other daughters) to focus on the task at hand, our new mantra is “Work first, play later,” a less weakness-focused but equally effective reminder. Over the last year, Elizabeth’s grades have improved in lockstep with her confidence.

Applying Strengths at Work

When an employee has no natural talent or ability in a certain area, asking them to “work on it” is like asking them to get a personality transplant. It’s humiliating and counterproductive. Instead, take the time to discover their strengths and then align their work to their strengths. You’ll begin to notice not only an uptick in their confidence and performance, but not surprisingly, an upgraded attitude and motivation to work.

Being given a project or assignment that calls upon our natural strengths gives us the opportunity to be creative, find joy in our work, and build our self-confidence. Few, if any, job perks or benefits can give people a comparable feeling of satisfaction to that which we obtain from being given the opportunity of magnifying our natural talents.

Now, take a look at the work tasks you do every day and ask yourself if they align with your strengths. If a lot of them don’t, odds are you’re in the wrong job. If most of them do, then see if you can find workarounds (technology, complimentary partner, etc.) to the ones that don’t align with your strengths instead of wasting energy trying to be something you are not.



  1. John on July 9, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    Great example.

    • Michael on August 25, 2016 at 9:48 am

      Thanks John for your comment! Glad you enjoyed it.

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