HR Myths: “Leveraging Your Strengths” revamp_odeqd23 January 25, 2012

HR Myths: “Leveraging Your Strengths”

“They say ‘practice” makes perfect.’ Of course, it doesn’t. For the vast majority of golfers it merely consolidates imperfection.”
Henry Longhurst

The phrase, “leverage your strengths” has become commonplace in the language of talent development positive psychology. By now you pretty much want to believe that the secret of success is to become more of who you already are–even if you happen to be sociopathic.
Those who “push” this attractive philosophy simply are saying that the best way to do good work is to do what you are intrinsically good at–not necessarily what you are interested in doing.
We now have measures of your “signature strengths” (Seligman) and ways to “discover” your strengths (Buckingham & Clifton). It does seem to be true that deploying our “signature strengths”does seem to have a significant clinical impact on raising our psychological well-being ((Seligman, M, Steen, T., Park, N, & Petersen, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421)).
But, is also seems to be true that strengths overdone can become our weaknesses.
My friend and CEO of Personal Strengths publishing has made a career of selling a widely used and popular style tool called the Strength Deployment Inventory(SDI) that has conceptually is based on this premise. If you emphasize being too direct, then others might experience you as autocratic, inflexible and pushy. If you are emotionally controlled and calm in the face of stress others may see you as uncaring, non-responsive and possibly even fearful. If you practice being inclusive, participative and involving others in decision making you might find you don’t make independent decisions or take risks without input from others.
In a recent HBR article, Kaplan & Kaiser show that it is just as detrimental to overdo a strength as it is to under do it–those expressing the “right amount” of a strength showed an associated with a measure of leadership success ((Kaplan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2009).Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review. February 2009, 100-103)). As they point out, leveraging and emphasizing strength might lead to actually interfere with being flexible of adapting any behavior at the other end of the continuum. If you receive feedback that you are admired for your perseverance in the face of ambiguity and challenge you might find that “letting go” and backing off won’t come easy–even if it is clear that ” repeatedly banging your head against the wall” creates a dent in the wall and a possible concussion that further impairs your reasoning and thinking.
We have looked at this “leveraging strengths” concept from an interesting angle in the last few years. In our use of 360 feedback assessments we have an interpretation based on the Johari Window concept that shows self-ratings compared to others who provide feedback in a graphic manner.
We can classify individuals into four types based on the profile that emerges from their self-other ratings. We have polite labels for these quadrants that include:

  • Potential Strengths–Underestimation of self-ratings compared to others
  • Confirmed Development Areas–both self and other ratings are low
  • Confirmed Strengths–both self and other ratings are high
  • Potential Development Areas–Self ratings are inflated relative to others

When we find individuals who are the “Underestimators” and have a substantial number of competencies appearing in the “Potential Strenghts”quadrant as we show above, our feedback meetings are pretty predictable.
First, we find that almost all of the clients with this profile tend to display strong perfectionist tendencies, set high goals for themselves and others and are very self-critical.
Second, they tend to be “hyper-vigilant” to the negative things in their report as if they are trying to confirm they really aren’t as strong or solid as others experience them to be.
In short, they tend to blow off all the “strengths” as seen by others and dwell on anything that isn’t perfect in their report (or the one open ended comment that is neutral out of 25 that are overwhelmingly positive and ruminate on it for years).
No matter what we try to do, these clients won’t leverage their strengths as seen clearly by others. All they want to do if focus on what they see is their “developmental opportunities” or weaknesses. Yep, even when they “discover” their strengths they just tend to glance beyond it and move to “what they don’t do very often or very effectively.
I’m sure some of these clients had parents who focused on the one “B” they got on a report card when the rest were all and “A” or pointed out the “soccer goal they missed” even though they made the only other one in the game.
So, maybe we need to stop the love affair with this concept of “leveraging strengths” as appealing as it sounds.
Not everyone is a winner even if you have a 6th place ribbon to prove it….Be well….

Dr. Ken Nowack is a licensed psychologist and President & Chief Research Officer of Envisia Learning, a leading provider of results-oriented, 360-degree feedback tools. Ken blogs regularly at Results vs. Learning, a blog for results-oriented practitioners.