Encouraging people to focus on their strengths – those things they’re good at and actually enjoy doing – at work has become a multi-million dollar industry, but could this approach be ruining people’s careers? Perhaps.
As someone who researches and teaches strengths-based approaches, I’ve become increasingly concerned that we risk doing more harm than good. And it seems others concur with a recent Harvard Business Review article stating that strengths-coaching may weaken us because it gives us a false sense of competence, can result in over-used strengths becoming toxic and ignores our weaknesses at our own risk.
Interestingly it has been almost five years since leading strengths researchers raised the same concerns. Yet during this time, while the body of research on the benefits of strengths continues to grow, these very real risks remain untested.
But the organizational hunger for simple solutions and people’s lack of confidence to constructively challenge “proven” approaches, means that in some workplaces a strengths approach is being applied like a blunt instrument. Too often I find the approach leans towards: discover your strengths and use them more as you go about your job.
What could go wrong?
What are the dangers of using your strengths?
While I have no peer-reviewed evidence (which let’s be clear only tells us what works for some of the people, some of the time) on which to base my observations, here’s what I’ve seen in some workplaces:
1. Strengths Blindness – When I ask people if their strengths have ever gotten them into trouble at work, most people confidently shake their heads. Then when we start scratching the surface of most of the “weakness” feedback they’ve ever been given in their jobs, we find that these were strengths being overplayed.
You see it’s not enough to just “use” our strengths more. Instead I whole-heartedly concur with strengths researchers who urge us to “develop” our strengths by not just exploring when we’re doing things well, but when we might be overplaying or underplaying our strengths and how they might be impacting on others.
2. Strengths Distress – Unfortunately strengths identification surveys generally rely on self-report and give us little context on how our strengths compare to others. Just because “relator” is one of my top strengths, doesn’t mean I’ve assessed myself accurately or that I’ll be as competent as the person sitting next to me who shares the same talent.
So if I ‘use’ my relator strength to tackle my job requirements and I fail miserably to get the expected outcome, what does this say about me? Depending on my beliefs about failure as a reflection of my identity (“I’m not good enough”) or as a learning opportunity (“with more practice I’ll get better”), this experience risks undermining my performance, resilience and wellbeing.
Using our strengths is not a silver bullet that guarantees success. Instead, studies suggest they’re an opportunity for us to feel more confident, engaged and energized about our work, but they don’t guarantee the quality of the results. All strengths conversations should come with this health warning and people should be encouraged to frame the development of their strengths as a journey of growth.
3. Strengths Naivety – While the idea of ignoring our weaknesses may appeal to most of us, it’s hard to believe this can be a healthy approach to human development. After all to ensure our survival our brains are wired with a bias to spot what’s not working. Personally, I have never concurred with the idea that focusing more on our strengths, requires us to ignore our weaknesses.
For example, a recent study asked people to write about their early childhood experiences for one week and randomly assigned them to use their top five strengths or their bottom five strengths (or “weaknesses”) – with no idea which they’d been given. The researchers found that while both approaches improved happiness for up to three months, generally people who had higher scores overall for their strengths benefited more from developing their lesser strengths, and those with lower scores overall benefited more from developing their top strengths.
Developing our strengths shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring our weaknesses or being discouraged from tackling them head on if desired. Instead we need to understand that strengths reflect the way our brains are currently wired to perform at their best, but with enough practice (and let’s be clear some popular studies suggest this could be a LOT of hours) neural pathways are capable of changing.
So in this episode of Chelle McQuaid TV I’ll share how you can make informed choices so in different situations for different outcomes at work, you can choose which approach – building on a strength or fixing a weakness – will serve you best.
Can You Put Your Strengths To Work?
Here are the questions I encourage people to start asking when it comes to developing their strengths at work:
- In this situation, which strengths might serve you best? For example, when I’m trying to find new ways to solve a problem then drawing on my top strengths of curiosity and creativity is really helpful. But when I need to simply stick to the plan and deliver results then drawing on my lesser strength of perseverance is more helpful. So start by making a list of the strengths that might serve you best in this situation.
- For the outcomes you want, which strengths might help you most? When it comes to feeling more satisfied at work, studies suggest it’s worth cultivating your curiosity, zest, hope, gratitude and spirituality. But when it comes to enjoying better relationships at work, studies suggest it’s worth cultivating your strengths of teamwork, leadership, fairness and kindness. So highlight on your list any of the strengths you’ve already noted that might help you achieve the outcome you want.
- How much energy and commitment will you need to succeed at this task? Right now you have less capacity in your lower strengths, so when you try to sustain their use for longer periods of time it’s likely to be more exhausting. For example, one of my lesser strengths is social intelligence and while I can walk into a room full of strangers and harness this strength to connect with people in conversation, after a couple of hours I’m completely worn out and need a rest. My brain simply isn’t wired yet to use this strength for long periods. Fortunately, one of my top strengths is curiosity and I’ve found that I can use this strength to get interested in what motivates other people and talk with them for hours in a way that I find energizing rather than depleting.
I find things requiring shorter bursts of energy are great opportunities for developing lesser strengths that matter to me, but things requiring longer periods of energy are better suited to developing my top strengths. The only exception to this is how committed I might feel to developing a particular strength. So as you look at your list think about how long you’ll need to sustain your strengths for this task and how committed you are if you’re leaning towards a lesser strength.
In a nutshell it appears the secret to using our strengths well is understanding: “In this situation, for these desired outcomes, which of my strengths will serve me best based on what this task requires of me?”
And of course, if you look at your list at the end of this exercise and realize their might not be any strength that is going to really get you the outcome you need, then don’t be afraid to go at a weakness head on. Just be realistic about the time, effort, energy and commitment it will take to really rewire your brain for these behaviors.
So when it comes to putting your strengths – or those of your people – to work in you organization how are you ensuring a “no harm” approach?