If we’re looking to improve, should we focus on our strengths, or tackle our weaknesses? Or should we frame the debate in a completely different way?
When psychologist Don Clifton asked the question “What would happen if we studied what was right with people versus what's wrong with people?”, he could not have predicted how his words would echo down the decades, sparking debate and controversy about the pros and cons of what’s become known as strengths-based coaching and leadership.
The idea that improving ourselves and our performance at work is a matter of identifying and playing to our strengths – rather than tackling our weaknesses – has a long pedigree. In his 1966 book, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker devoted a chapter to how effective leaders build on strengths – their own, and those of others around them, a theme to which he returned in a Harvard Business Review article in 2005: “A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”
In contrast, he has no truck at all with the idea that we might spend time and effort improving in areas where we have less ability: “It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”
Appreciative inquiry and positive psychology
More was yet to come. In the 1980s, David Cooperrider developed his philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry (Ai), based on a 4-D cycle designed to encourage groups to identify and make the most of their “positive core” strengths. For example, when it comes to developing strategy:
In the Discovery phase, participants explore “the best of what is”, identifying strengths, best practices and sources of excellence, energy and peak performance.
Group members then go through the Dream phase, in which they imagine a future they really want and where an organisation is engaged and successful around its core purpose and strategic objectives.
Using this knowledge, the Design stage focuses on developing “ideal” strategies that help the organisation to progress.
These strategies are then put into action in the Destiny or Deploy phase.
In its focus on self-determining groups, based on Cooperrider’s “three-legged approach” of appreciation (recognising the best in people), inquiry (asking questions) and wholeness (seeking out a range of perspective), it’s an approach that mirrors the idea of action learning. In both, peers come together to discuss ideas and then test them for real. It’s a way of finding solutions based on our own, and others’, strengths and positive experiences, empowering people across organisations rather than having those solutions imposed top-down.
This focus on positivity found its ultimate champion in the positive psychology high priest Martin Seligman. Then, in 1999, Clifton, by that time chair of Gallup, created an online strengths assessment tool called Clifton StrengthsFinder (now CliftonStrengths).
CliftonStrengths focuses on 34 themes in four domains to provide “a common language to discover your natural talents and understand and work better with others”. In 2019, almost 2.5 million people completed a CliftonStrengths assessment and the diagnostic has been used by more than 90% of the US’s Fortune 500 companies. It’s perhaps not surprising that Gallup no longer describes CliftonStrengths as a product, but a movement. In 2002, Clifton was recognised with a presidential commendation from the American Psychological Association as “the father of strengths-based psychology and the grandfather of positive psychology”.
It's easy to see the positive effects of a focus on strengths, rather than weaknesses. It’s aligned with our own approach to individual and peer coaching at Future Talent Learning. We do that because starting with strengths is more empowering and motivating, while there’s a real danger that focusing on weaknesses can be demotivating and act to shut us down. Focussing on strengths also makes it easier to identify and act on the steps we need to take to improve, starting with what we are already doing well.
But not everyone is convinced.
The case against personal strengths
According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, writing in 2016 for Harvard Business Review, strengths-based leadership development is not all it’s cracked up to be. Devoid of any scientific evidence that it works, it can, in fact, be positively detrimental, leading to a false sense of confidence about our own abilities, especially given our own biases and blind spots when it comes to self-awareness or self-assessment. There’s also a danger that individual strengths are measured and lauded in isolation, with little or no attention paid to the context in which they need to be deployed, or to the likely return on investment on helping people to develop strengths that may be marginal at best when it comes to organisational goals.
Then there’s the potential for overused strengths to become toxic. It seems that we can have “too much of a good thing”: attention to detail becoming obsessiveness; confidence tipping over into arrogance; imagination into eccentricity. We don’t have to look too far for leaders with clear strengths “who derail because of their inability to mitigate their toxic tendencies”. Ironically, overused strengths can become leaders’ greatest weaknesses, a point reinforced by the research and writing of Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan, who similarly warn against the dangers of “strengths overdone”.
The final nail in the coffin for Chamorro-Premuzic is that the strengths movement has not really addressed the problems we face at work today. It might make individuals feel better about themselves but, collectively, it has not made us happier or more engaged at work, nor improved the performance of leaders.
Reframing personal strengths: energy not ability
But maybe the problem is not one of strengths vs weaknesses, or a focus on strengths on their own, but in how we define and identify strengths in the first place. According to Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of Nine Lies About Work, our obsession with assessments and competency models leads us not only to an unhelpful focus on our “development areas”, but to misidentify what strengths actually are, and how we – and the organisations we work for – can most benefit from them.
As an ex-colleague of Don Clifton, it’s unsurprising that Buckingham is firmly in the ‘playing to our strengths’ camp. Not for him the appeal of fixing deficits or imperfections, the cult of “fail early, fail often”, or the idea that playing to our strengths might be the easy, complacent option. For Buckingham, strength is not where performance is easiest, but where “it is most impactful and increasing”. It’s not about gaining ability where we lack it, but working out how to increase impact where we already have an ability.
Take, for example, the phrase “running around our backhand”, often used as an idiom for avoiding a weakness but, in fact, a tried-and-tested technique by tennis players to position themselves for a stronger shot, leading “towards high performance, not away from it”.
Buckingham has also challenged the received wisdom that a strength is something we’re good at; rather, for him, a strength is an activity that makes us feel strong, brings us joy. A better way to think of strengths and weaknesses is to figure out what energises us: strengths make us feel strong; weaknesses make us feel weak. So, one way to identify a strength is to consider whether:
- it makes us feel successful
- we actively look forward to it
- when we’re doing it, we’re in flow
- afterwards, we feel energised, fulfilled and powerful
An emphasis on ‘appetite’
Just as we can find joy in watching someone else’s talents – whether that’s the footballing prowess of Lionel Messi, or a colleague who has just nailed a sales pitch – we can feel the same joy when we know we are expressing our own strengths.
We can all think of tasks at work that we’re actually very good at, but which leave us feeling bored, frustrated or drained. That’s ability, not strength, bringing neither energy nor excitement. Rather, strength is the feeling of joy that makes us want to do that activity again and again, to practise it over and over, to jump at the chance to do it just one more time. For Buckingham and Goodall, a strength is more about appetite than ability; it’s that appetite that makes us determined to keep working at it and that, in the end, produces the skill improvement necessary for excellent performance.
Buckingham is not saying that there is nothing to be gained from looking to improve our shortcomings or that we shouldn’t try new things for fear of failing. But he does argue for focusing “first, and predominantly, on our strengths and our successes, because that is where the greatest advantage is to be had”.
And he also has three strength-boosting strategies for team leaders:
- Focus on outcomes: define the outcomes you want from your team and make the most of individual strengths to achieve them.
- Flex for individual strengths: accept that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to great performance.
- Embrace diversity: the more “weird, spiky and idiosyncratic” team members are, the more well-rounded the team.
Wherever we sit on the strengths vs weaknesses debate, one thing is clear: none of us will ever be perfect. We all have a mix of characteristics and abilities, positives and negatives, strengths and weaknesses, that make us the people we are. Indeed, strengths and weaknesses are inextricably intertwined. Vincent van Gogh’s insight and sensitivity for example allowed him to express himself wonderfully on the canvas – it also made him cripplingly shy in company. A weakness is almost always the shadow side of a strength. And a positive characteristic can easily become a ‘derailer’ when overused, especially when we’re tired or under stress. Those of us who are relaxed and easygoing at work for example, tend to be less good at keeping on top of the detail or giving direct feedback. While those of us who are excellent at focusing on the granular detail tend to be less open to creative flights of fancy. Sadly, it’s impossible to be strong in every aspect of leadership at the same time.
The key, of course, is to acknowledge this. Being ‘spiky’ in Buckingham and Goodall terms is not an invitation for a leader to tend towards Chamorro-Premuzic-style wishful thinking or Kaplan strengths overdone. It’s not about claiming strength where none exists, or ignoring any weaknesses we might have. Rather, it’s about having the self-awareness that weakness in some areas is compensated for by strength in others – and, with a nod to Drucker, making the most of that. Provided leaders recognise where they’re less strong and balance that by having other team members around them who can pick up the slack, that’s much more effective than the thankless task of a focus on weaknesses that is likely to yield only limited returns.
We might give the final word to 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot, who wrote: “To say that man is a compound of strength and weakness, light and darkness, smallness and greatness, is not to indict him, it is to define him”. As a leader, having an awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses should not just be a precursor to trying to dial down, or eliminate, any weakness we perceive. Instead, it’s about recognising where and how we have most to gain, and how we can derive the most energy from what we do. And, crucially, we can also use that awareness to understand perceived strengths and weakness in others, respecting and nurturing a diversity of strengths that can only improve individual and team performance.
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