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Home » Talent, Teams

Square pegs in round holes

Submitted by on Monday, 19 October 2009No Comment

Talent Technologies helps companies in Thailand and South-East Asia improve their organisational performance. In this article we look at a problem that is all-too-common in companies. When managers end up in roles that play to their weaknesses we call this the ‘square pegs in round holes’ syndrome.

As both Gallup and the Corporate Leadership Council have identified through their research of tens of thousands of workgroups, the opportunity to do what you do best is the #1 reason for employee engagement – yet it is surprising how often workgroups form where the team members invariably find themselves not playing to their strengths.

This is damaging not only to team performance, but also to the individuals themselves, as feelings of job dissatisfaction, stress and frustration set in, becoming increasingly serious over longer periods of time.

While many managers are aware of these ‘soft’ problems, they are perhaps not so aware of the available solutions and approaches they can take to overcome them. But first we must understand how they come about.

Beliefs – and habits – frame our world

‘Square pegs’ typically happen for a number of reasons:

1. School Daze

The first compelling reason is that our experience in school and, by extension, the education system so often teaches us not to play to our strengths but to pass exams. In some cases an emphasis on ‘passing exams’ might be unavoidable. But consider the subjects – or parts of subjects – that as a child you had absolutely no chance in excelling. Consider the subjects or parts of subjects that you hated!

The chances are, these subjects were those playing to your weaknesses.

When  asked whether they would spend more time talking with their child about the subject he or she excelled in, or the subject he or she was struggling with, over 70% of American parents replied with the latter.

This focus on ‘weaknesses’ is the origin of the problem of ‘square pegs in round holes’ because it seems to justify the idea that working in areas in which we are naturally unsuited is perfectly normal.

School curricula are not interested in seeing children play to their strengths. They are interested only in seeing them achieve qualifications in the narrow sphere of academia.


When these children grow up and start working in teams and organisations, it is little wonder that they do not know what role they may best be suited to, leading to potentially huge people and performance problems.

2. Because companies put What before Who

In his groundbreaking book Good to Great, Jim Collins discovered through all the data collected that top-performing companies placed Who before What. Mediocre companies, by contrast, placed the What first.

In teams, a focus on the What before the Who invariably leads to square pegs in round holes, as we forget to seek out Who may have the natural attributes most suited to the accomplishment of certain tasks.

3. Because ‘There’s no I in TEAM’

michael_jordan1242892345Interviewed some years back in the Harvard Business Review, the famous basketball player Michael Jordan was confronted with a question asking him about his concept of teamwork, specifically whether he though he was too selfish on the basketball court.

‘There’s no I in TEAM,’ the interviewer put to him.

Jordan’s reply? ‘But there is in WIN’.

This neatly summarises the differences between mediocre teams and high-performing teams. In mediocre teams, players worry too much about ‘sacrifice’. In high-performing teams, the players can afford to be selfish when they know they are playing to their strengths.

The concept or feeling of ‘sacrifice’ or ‘unselfishness’ is often a cause of square pegs in round holes, as team members seek out the ‘hard work’ that they are not naturally suited to performing. They see this as selflessly performing ‘team duty’. Little may the person know it, but there is often someone else in the team who would be far more suited to doing the task, who could do so quite naturally, and who would probably even enjoy the task! Yet time and again we see teams that seem to arrange themselves around their ‘weaknesses’ based on a mistaken concept of ‘duty’.

As Michael Jordan went on to say, top-performing teams have a certain amount of selfishness in them – a selfishness to be determined to play to their strengths!

How to avoid square pegs in round holes

Management training ThailandPlaying people to their strengths is a critical area which Talent Technologies helps companies with. This is the building block of a high-performing team.

We offer two programmes: Talent Factor and Working to your Strengths.

We also help companies overcome some of the ongoing challenges within teams with our High-Synergy! Teams one day training programme.

If you would like more information please contact our office on +662 6393550 or complete the form here!

Talent Technologies :: Taking your Talent to a Higher Level

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