Don't go against the grain; stretch in the direction of your strengths.
Engineering teaches us about tensile forces and shear forces.
Tensile forces are forces that stretch things. For example, if we hold two ends of a rope in our hands and pull the rope then the rope is under tension...and it stretches. The more force we apply the more the rope stretches.
Shear forces are forces that cut. For example, if we take a pair of shears we can cut through the cross-section of the rope.
It takes much less force to shear the rope than it takes to pull both ends of the rope and break it into two pieces. Engineers would say it takes less shear force than tensile force to cause the rope to fail.
In layman's terms: the rope likes to stretch in the direction of its strength and the rope is less tolerant when the force is applied against its grain.
People have strengths and weaknesses. With respect to strengths and weaknesses, each person is unique.
People can stretch and grow in the directions of their personal strengths...and people do not do well when we apply force against their weaknesses.
In business, we need to make sure we know people's strengths and weaknesses...this, of course, is better than assuming people's strengths and weaknesses or not bothering to understand people's strengths and weaknesses. This applies in the broadest of terms: it applies to industry-technical strengths and weaknesses; it applies to interpersonal/communication strengths and weaknesses; it applies to situation-strengths and situation-weaknesses; it applies to individuals and it applies to work-teams.
We should help people stretch in the direction of their strengths...this inspires people and provides them the opportunity to be self-motivated and to excel.
We should work to use one person's strengths to cover another person's weakness...this is better than cutting against the grain.
We should anticipate situations that resonate with strengths and situations that resonate with weaknesses.
These are important leader and manager responsibilities.
PS: instead of saying tensile stress, some engineers would call it normal stress. That makes for an even more compelling argument. When we stretch in the direction of our strengths...that's normal. When we cut across our weaknesses...it hurts.
PPS: this overlaps the fact that constructive criticism is an oxymoron. Most of the time, criticism hits people right on their weak spots.
revisited - originally posted October 2, 2012