The other day I had lunch with my good friend and mentor Timmy, an executive at one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country. He runs a team that mentors thousands of teenagers every year. I’ve known Timmy for decades; he was my first boss out of college, and to this day he remains one of the best leaders I’ve ever known.
During lunch, Timmy seemed a little out of sorts. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He sighed and explained that his organization had just wrapped up its annual performance reviews. For years, Timmy relied on standardized forms that involve employees listing their strengths and weaknesses, and then comparing these answers with their managers’ assessment. I remember when Timmy gave me my first performance review thirty years ago, and I know how seriously he takes this important development tool. This year, however, Timmy decided to shake things up. Instead of the standardized forms, he sat down for one-on-one interviews with his leadership team and asked each manager, straight up, “Where do you think you can improve the most? What are some growth opportunities for you? What are your shortcomings?”
What happened next shocked Timmy. Not one manager could produce a single thing they needed to improve on. No new skills to learn. No bad habits to break. No growth opportunities. On the other hand, each knew exactly what they were great at. They could go on and on about what a fantastic job they were doing and how much of a raise they deserved. Timmy was deeply concerned: How could his organization meet its future goals if its leadership team believed there was no room for individual improvement?
Truth is, Timmy is not alone with his concerns. Even though some 90 percent of American organizations provide performance evaluations at an average cost of $3,000 per employee, we don’t see them as valuable. According to Harvard Business School, more than 70 percent of workers think their performance reviews are unfair and largely unnecessary. Simply put, we don’t like taking criticism. We don’t like thinking we can be better. It’s gotten so bad that companies use terms like “growth opportunities” instead of “weakness” to avoid hurt feelings. The closest we get to acknowledging our shortcomings is the “What’s your greatest weakness?” question during job interviews. And even then, people usually give a rehearsed answer that lo and behold reveals a strength. Something like, “I just work too hard” or “I’m just too much of a perfectionist.”
Here’s what I recommended to Timmy: “Fire every single one of those leaders. If you refuse to see yourself as flawed, if you refuse to accept any kind of criticism, you don’t deserve to work at an organization that mentors and teaches leadership to kids.” Instead, he should hire someone like my friend Cam Mochan, who runs a business that teaches leadership skills to entrepreneurs. No one works harder on their shortcomings than Cam. “It’s my full-time job,” he says, only half-jokingly. He reads a new nonfiction book each week. He’s in weekly therapy. He monitors his self-improvement like he monitors his cholesterol level. Each time I see him, he tells me exactly what his weaknesses are and how he’s working to improve them.
As for me, I used to be like Timmy’s team. I refused to acknowledge any of my flaws. I got defensive when anyone said I could improve. But then I met my wife, Jill, who didn’t just encourage me to be better—she demanded it. She taught me that the best people aren’t the best at what they do; the best people are the ones who are humble, self-aware, and try to be better every day. By listening to people like Jill and Cam, I’ve learned about the simple power in embracing my shortcomings. I’ve learned that you can’t be strong if you don’t come from a place of weakness. And the first step in that process is to acknowledge your shortcomings.
Here are just a few of my shortcomings:
- Losing weight. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to eat the right amount of food and get the right amount of exercise. I’ll balloon to 200 pounds, then starve myself and work out like a madman until I drop 30 pounds. Then I do it all over again. But I’ve recently hired a nutritionist and coach to help me, and I’m trying to get better.
- Having fun. That’s right, I’m not good at having fun. I’m too intense. Too driven. I don’t know how to relax. Too often I think that working hard means I can’t have fun, and it negatively affects the people around me. I’m in therapy and I’m trying to get better.
- Forgiveness. This is the biggest one. My expectations for others are impossibly high, and when they don’t meet them 100 percent of the time, I often get disappointed. I get resentful. And it takes me a long time to forgive. Ultimately, I’m even worse at forgiving myself. I know that forgiveness is the bedrock of my Catholic beliefs, and I can’t progress with my faith if I don’t get better at seeing the best in others—and myself.
These are just a few of my shortcomings. The full list is A LOT longer! And, like my friend Cam, it’s become my full-time job working on my weaknesses.
What are your shortcomings? Write them down. And then ask yourself if you have the courage to share your weaknesses with others, including your boss, peers, spouse, kids, and friends? And, most importantly, what are you doing to become a better version of yourself? Remember that you can’t be strong unless your embrace your weaknesses…even if your list is as long as mine!