The Strengths Debate

Does Focusing on Strengths Enhance Performance or Produce Lopsided Leaders?

When someone is so detail focused that they are unable to see the big picture, we say they ‘Couldn’t see the forest through the trees.’ This tendency can come from what scholars call strengths overuse, and in its extreme, can lead to lopsided and ineffective leadership (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011). For example, an employee with a strength in detail-orientation may overuse this strength with the result of getting bogged down in the details and forgetting to keep an eye on the overall project they were assigned. This can result in missing deadlines or overlooking important aspects of the project.

            Individual strengths have been defined in many ways, but the most common definitions all include the idea that using strengths leads to optimal functioning and makes the individual feel good. When considering strengths and strengths-based talent management, many writers and practitioners have similar assumptions:

  • All individuals have strengths and weaknesses
  • Individuals should focus on using their strengths, rather than improving their weaknesses
  • The more a person uses their strengths, the better their performance will be
  • Strengths are inherent personality traits that cannot be developed further

While everyone seems to agree that all individuals have strengths and weaknesses, each of the other assumptions has been the target of recent criticism. In fact, blindly following these assumptions can lead to the incongruous finding that strengths use can decrease performance

Schwartz and Sharpe (2006), talking about strengths in general, likened focusing only on strengths and ignoring weaknesses to a bodybuilder that only focuses on one part of the body – leading to an unbalanced, or even deformed, body. In addition, this analogy brings into question the idea that the more you use your strengths, the better the end outcome will be. As the examples thus far have shown, there can be ‘too much of a good thing’ when it comes to strengths use.

Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, and Minhas (2011) contested the idea that strengths cannot be developed, as using strengths effectively can be difficult and must be learned. If you have a natural strength in integrity, it does not mean that you know when and how to use the strength in an effective way. This may lead to problems with a classic moral dilemma: Is it better to always be honest with the people around you even if it may hurt their feelings, or is it sometimes better to be kind and be less truthful? Unless you develop the ability to tell when to use which strengths and how much of a strength to use, it can be difficult for strengths use to lead to good performance.

Fortunately, the arguments laid out above lend themselves to several good solutions:

  • In addition to identifying your strengths through self-reflection or by taking one of the strengths surveys (for example, Gallup’s Strengthsfinder 2.0 or the Values in Action survey), make sure to think about these strengths in interaction with your environment. Putting effort into figuring out what strengths will work best in what situation and with whom can lead to better outcomes for you and for the people around you. Using the previous example of the strength of integrity: If you know that your boss appreciates honesty most of all, but your coworker is sensitive to criticism, you will have a better idea of when to use the strength and when to put it aside.
  • Knowing your strengths is important, but being aware of your weaknesses is also important. Even if you are not able to improve upon your weaknesses, being aware of them means that you can compensate for them by using the strengths you do have. Using the previous example of strength in attention to detail: If you have problems with paying attention to the big picture, try to incorporate periodic progress checks into the detailed plans that you make.

While most of the literature based on strengths at work seems to incorporate the simple mandate of ‘identify and use,’ meaning that you should work to identify your strengths and then use them as much as possible, it is clear that this may be overly simplistic. The potential consequences of strengths overuse or lopsided use means that there should be care taken in how you approach strengths use and balancing strengths and weaknesses. Taking a more balanced view of the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of your own strengths can help achieve better outcomes for you, your coworkers, and your organization.

References

Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 106-118.

Kaiser, R. B., & Overfield, D. V. (2011). Strengths, strengths overused, and lopsided leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63, 89-109.

Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. E. (2006). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 377-395.