The power of reframing what we mean by 'personal strengths' at work

By Clare Grist Taylor

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.”

Positive psychology

More was yet to come. In the 1980s, David Cooperrider developed his philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry, based on a 4-D cycle designed to make the most of “positive core” strengths. Positive psychology found its high priest in 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 4 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".

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. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all to ignore our limitations and shortcomings. 

Reframing personal strengths: energy not ability

But maybe the problem is not one of strengths vs weaknesses, or a focus of 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. It’s 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 far more appetite than ability; that appetite 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: 

  1. Focus on outcomes: define the outcomes you want from your team and make the most of individual strengths to achieve them. 
  2. Flex for individual strengths: accept that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to great performance. 
  3. Embrace diversity: the more “weird, spiky and idiosyncratic” team members are, the more well-rounded the team. 

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