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Old, familiar ways of working have been turned on their head. Now that the giddiness we all felt earlier in the year has started to settle, the months ahead can be seen more clearly. At Working Voices, we regard the mid-term future as a prime opportunity to examine and bravely alter the way resources can be invested in learning and development activities. In particular, identifying problems as either weak-link or strong-link issues has fascinating implications for businesses thinking about the best way to develop their workforce.   

Here is Malcolm Gladwell talking about the weak-link / strong-link phenomenon and its application in the treatment of Covid-19 outbreaks.

In the clinical response to this pandemic, it has become clear that the tragic loss of life and deep effects of Covid-19 have not occurred for want of scientific sophistication, medical theories or models of viral behaviour.  We have developed an advanced level of knowledge pretty quickly.  In modern and developed economies – China, Italy, Spain, UK, New York state –   the worst effects of the virus were exacerbated by the lack of basic or rudimentary resources – PPE, masks, simple testing for example, not to mention sufficient nurses and doctors to look after patients.  This is known as a weak-link problem, as explained by Gladwell.

Our suggestion is that a company’s resiliency is often based on the weak-links within the team, not the height of their strengths.  Here are four common examples that demonstrate the point:

  1. Think of a project that involves people at different levels in the organisation, with unique skillsets, expertise and separate agendas and motivation levels, as is often the case in matrixed organisations. No matter how motivated and effective the best 10% of those people are, their progress can be thwarted by the least effective 10%. Often, the whole project can only move as fast as the pace of the slowest people involved.
  2. One irritating, meddlesome, micromanaging or stress-inducing manager in a business unit can have a deleterious effect on lots of different people. Even if everyone around this person is extremely effective, the negative influence – on well-being, productivity, motivation, or engagement etc would outweigh a great deal of the headway made. Tackling this individual is surely the priority rather than improving those people who are already performing well around them.
  3. A single meeting can be well-planned, clearly organised and managed brilliantly. Yet it still can be derailed by a single individual or group of individuals who are negative, complaining, cynical or not committed to the outcome.
  4. Imagine a manager who is mostly successful at good team management. But they have a particular weakness, maybe they are disorganised, or they struggle with boundaries, or they find delegating effectively a real barrier. The weak-link problem can still apply even within an individual. The strength of their overall success is undermined by their weakest areas. The tendency may be for this manager to engage in learning skills that maximise their strengths, because it makes them feel good and doesn’t expose their weaknesses too much.  Yet the really effective learning is not going to focus on what they are already doing well, but on improving the bottom range of their capability.   This could make a big impact on their overall performance and effectiveness.

Strong link

To explain further – the theory of strong and weak links in sports came to light recently in analysing a strong-link sport like basketball. Given the number of players on the court, the opportunities to score and the variation during the game, a single superstar on a team can make the difference between winning and losing.  If mistakes are made and the opposing team score a few baskets, a superstar can recover the losses by dominating the rest of the game.  This is still a team sport, but the nature of team interaction in basketball is such that strong performers can outweigh underperformers.


On the other hand, soccer is a weak-link sport. A few superstars will not make as big an impact on winning or losing the game as the weakest link in the team.  If there is significant weakness in the defence or midfield, this can lead to mistakes that turn games significantly.  Most games in the European leagues are decided within 3 goals over a 90-minute time span. Having a few weak players will lead to the team being chronically unsuccessful.  The principle suggests that you must improve the weakest group of players to make the whole team better. Or, another way of thinking about it, club owners could save the outrageous amount of money they might spend on one talented striker by improving the back four signings, at less cost, therefore, increasing the overall chances of winning.

Application to business teams and management

Tracing problems back to a weak-link or a strong-link is a theory that applies very well to the way that organisations invest in their employees.  For all of the money invested in efficiency, outsourcing, autonomising and recruiting star leaders (strong-link solutions), some companies would be better advised to focus on improving the capability of all line managers across the whole organisation by, say, 15% – improving communication, motivation, commitment and productivity overall (weak-link solutions). Great leadership and good management practices have become the exception rather than the rule, in favour of hollowing-out the business to remain lean, competitive and profit-focused.

We predict that companies of all sizes are going to face people-centric problems in the coming months. We believe many of these may represent weak-link problems such as developing cultures of trust, maintaining the productivity and well-being of individuals, integrating a team scattered far and wide, and reimagining ways of operating outside of office environments. As Gladwell says – “our vulnerabilities are numerous, scattered and hidden, and they have the potential to bring down the rest of society”.  We think this is true of organisations too.

The participants in a lot of our training sessions are already interested in the topic at hand.  They understand that they have something to learn and they generally come with an open mind.  They are in the session to learn about something they are possibly already pretty competent at.  Improving people who, by their own self-selection are probably already good at the topic, is a strong-link solution.

The people who really need to be in the training session are those who are weak in the topic.  This is a challenge because it takes courage to admit that there is something to improve, weakness is seen as something to avoid and hide, rather than tackle and confront.  Weak people-managers often have no idea of the negative effect they are having.  These are the people to get into training sessions. These are the people to focus learning and development budgets on, particularly as companies adjust to new ways of working in the coming months.

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