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It’s a simple truth: no employee excels at every aspect of their job, no matter what their level of experience or effort. Naturally, then, the bulk of employee training programs and initiatives tend to stay focused on improving areas where employees may underperform.

Recent research, however, argues that focusing training efforts around employees’ most formidable strengths -- might ultimately yield better results, not just for the company but the employees themselves.

Indeed, a recent workplace survey from Gallup suggests that employee training can best focus on deepening the talents someone already has, and stay away from the goal of trying to turn every employee into an ideally-rounded performer. In a study of 65,672 employees, Gallup found that workers who received “strengths feedback” produced turnover rates about 15 percent lower than that of other workers who received no feedback. Similarly, in a study of over 500 organizational teams, managers who received the same type of feedback were 12.5 percent more productive than those who didn’t.

The big takeaway here for managers: As Gallup senior consultants Aniruddh Haralalka and Leong Chee Tung explain: “People who know and use their strengths -- and the companies they work for -- tend to be better performers.”

Of course, identifying employees’ strengths isn’t necessarily the same as training, so do the research results also suggest specific approaches that might benefit training professionals? Yes, Haralalka and Tung say. “Leaders have an opportunity to transform an organization’s culture by implementing a strengths-based approach to employee development” -- suggesting that trainers identify team members with existing talents and develop those, rather than trying to bring the abilities of your worst performers up to a mediocre level. “In the long run,” Haralalka and Tung say, “selecting and training the right employees will be much more productive than training the wrong ones.”

4 Questions to Assess Training Needs

How can you get started with basic “strength training” in your team and organization? Gallup researchers developed a basic checklist that managers and employees can use to assess how much strength “intervention” might be needed to help boost productivity and performance, employee happiness, retention and other factors:

  1. Every week, I set goals and expectations based on my strengths.
  2. I can name the strengths of five people I work with.
  3. In the last three months, my supervisor and I have had a meaningful discussion of my strengths.
  4. My organization is committed to building the strengths of each associate.

Not surprisingly, the organizations Gallup studied that tallied higher mean scores on these questions (where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree) were the ones who outperformed those who tallied lower scores. The lesson here? “An employee who feels that someone at work cares about him, who feels a sense of progress, and who is encouraged to make the most of his unique personality for the benefit of the company usually pays back that attention many times over.” 

Watch this blog for follow-up pieces on using competency models to assess and train to strengths.

To gain more insight on what motivates talent and tips for developing your employees, check out the Cornerstone OnDemand 2013 U.S. Employee Report