The Importance of Finding (And Facing) Your Weaknesses

No one is perfect. Understanding exactly where you need more work can help you get ahead. Here's how to get a greater measure of self-awareness when it comes to weaknesses.

In Steve Martin’s hilarious 1990 mob spoof, My Blue Heaven, his character laments, "Everyone thinks they have a sense of humor, but then they don’t." In the same way, many of us think we know our strengths and, more important, our weaknesses.

However, the level of self-awareness it takes to truly evaluate the areas where we need improvement isn’t very common—and it’s tough to develop, says Denver-based leadership consultant David M. Dye, founder of Trailblaze, Inc. and author of the self-published The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say.

"Peter Drucker said to build on strengths, not weaknesses," Dye says. But how does an individual get a glimpse into the areas that need shoring up in order to develop maximum leadership potential? If you don’t have access to sophisticated feedback and mentoring programs at your company, you can do some sleuthing and data-mining on your own to get more insight.

1. Notice what you’re avoiding.

"You can tell what’s important to people by looking in two places: Their calendars and their checkbooks," Dye says. What are the things on which you’re spending your time? And what are the things you’re avoiding? If you’re actively putting off the same important tasks on a regular basis and there’s no compelling reason why, it could be a good indication that you have not mastered those activities, Dye says.

2. Look for patterns in feedback.

Think back on your performance review history and other feedback from managers and colleagues. Does that information reveal patterns? If you have a history of different people telling you the same thing, it’s worth investigating whether you need work in that area, says Jim Haudan, CEO and chairman of Sylvania, Ohio-based human resources development firm Root, Inc.

3. Find someone who doesn't hold back.

It’s critical to find people in your professional and personal lives who will tell you the truth, even when it’s difficult, Dye says. They don’t necessarily have to be your best friends—but they do need to be honest, trustworthy, and unafraid to tell you when your efforts just aren’t cutting it.

4. Get to the punch-line.

If you’re often the butt of jokes about your disorganized approach or inability to be on time, it could be a clue that these are issues the people around you are trying to correct through humor. Haudan recommends listening to the people around you for clues about the things that really bug them, then analyze whether they’re areas that could potentially hold you back.

5. Find past failures.

No path to success "is all just wonderful steps forward in the sunshine. The best performers found a way to stand on a pile of small failures to get to the next level," Haudan says. You can’t get better until you look honestly at your past failures and figure out why they happened. It’s not pleasant. It’s not fun. But if you can look at the situation, warts and all, you can figure out the role you played. That gives important insight into areas that might need work. Then, you can reframe them from "weaknesses" or "shortcomings" to the next areas you want to build in your skill set.

"No one is superman or superwoman. We’re not perfect. But you can look at certain areas as something you want to improve and bring to the next level. Then, it’s a gift instead of an indictment that zaps your confidence and you can embrace it," Haudan says.

[Image: Flickr user Brad Hammonds]

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  • Purpose, joy and success can be achieved through the deliberate improvement of areas that aren't in our current arsenal of strengths (the "mastery" incentive); however, we must be mindful of the costs of that improvement. When the costs (in confidence, time, energy, money, satisfaction) exceed the benefits, it is likely time to redefine success in terms of building on our strengths rather than shoring up weaknesses.

    This is rarely easy. A steady paycheque in a role where our weaknesses cannot be made irrelevant by our strengths (or those of our team) is sometimes a necessary evil. Making possible a strength-based alignment of our role and responsibilities, however, is often a better use of resources than trying to get better at something that just doesn't feed our spirit.

    Brigitte C. Lewis, Founder and President Spirit Bridge Consulting (

  • Mat Waltrip

    In my humble opinion, we should double-down bet on our strengths and use them to the maximum extent possible. This approach is most likely to lead to success in whatever goals you've set. Having said that, everyone needs to know themselves well enough to identify their weakest area. For example, if your strength is creativity, your weakness may be that performing detailed, repetitive tasks on time and with accuracy is not your cup of tea.

    If one weak area is holding you back, you will need to improve upon it and get some help as the author suggests. Try to improve upon it enough so that's it no longer cancels out or diminishes your strongest area. You're not likely to turn a weakness into a strength without lots of effort, but maybe a small improvement is just enough. As an alternative, if you are on a team, find someone else or hire someone who is strongest in your weak area. They can help compensate and make everybody more successful in their role.

  • Great points. I think Drucker is right, that we should focus on leaning in to strengths where possible (Gallup has endorsed this too), but we need to make sure that our weaknesses don't derail us. We may not need to be experts at these things, but we have to not be train-wrecks. Having good friends and trusted advisors who can tell us the unvarnished truth about our rough edges, from a place of love and support as opposed to just criticizing, is a blessing. These people should be welcomed in to our lives.

    Dave Kaiser Business Coach