Strength or Weakness? It’s All About Context

In my years of executive coaching and consulting in Performance Management, we always consider which behaviors contribute to success and which derail. The behaviors that don’t lead to success are often called “weaknesses” or the more palatable phrase, “development areas.”

I have learned that there are rarely absolutes when it comes to human behavior, and specific behaviors may not always be strengths or weaknesses. It’s all depends on the context in which they are used. 

For example, a leader checking in and following up on an employee’s tasks may be considered micro-managing. That micro-managing behavior is seen as a weakness if the employee is a motivated, strong performer who operates better when given autonomy and authority. The context for this situation is that this is a high-performing employee.

However, if the context is different, and the leader has a poor performing employee who needs to be closely supervised and held accountable for their work, that same behavior of checking in and following up on an employee’s tasks could be a strength.

Blue-sky, strategic thinking is a strength for a leader called to establish a vision and provide direction for their organization. However, if the job calls for being tactical with a focus on executing a detailed process, offering up “what-if” strategic plans may not serve that leader well.

Rather than think of a specific behavior as either a strength or a weakness, consider asking these questions when it comes to making assessments about a person’s performance:

  1. In what circumstances does this behavior show up most?
  2. In what situations does this behavior have a negative effect on the work or others?
  3. In what situations does this behavior have a positive effect on the work or others?
  4. Did the use of this behavior bring about the desired outcome? If no, what behaviors could be used instead to achieve the desired outcome?

When giving feedback or coaching others, always consider the context of the situation where those behaviors were demonstrated. Make sure the employee understands WHEN those behaviors are appropriate and how they should flex their approach should the context be different.

Talking through various scenarios will help others gain situational awareness and help them recognize when to adjust and demonstrate the behaviors that will lead to the desired outcome for a particular situation.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at