A More Pragmatic Approach to Strengths-based Development

I have been a big fan of Tony Schwartz’ work which I have been following for the past decade or so; his work around energy management has inspired my own thinking around building peak performing workforces through releasing energy, strengths and engagement.

Although the title of his recent blog is, at first glance, dismissive of the strengths-based approach to talent management and leadership, we are in agreement with many of the points he makes in this contribution to the debate.

Unfortunately, Tony’s misleading title, Save Us From Our Strengths, appears dismissive of decades of compelling research into the power of the strengths based approach to turbo-boost performance, innovative, teamwork and discretionary effort. However, his main aim and message – that it is insufficient to focus purely on optimising strengths – is one we wholeheartedly subscribe to.

In any strengths-based activities with leaders designed to improve their performance and realise their full potential, we can’t ignore weaker areas and performance risks – which we define as strengths in overdrive, limiting weaknesses and other sources of interference (including self-limiting beliefs and assumptions).  We don’t subscribe to the overly simplistic 80-20 rule touted by several of the strengths consulting and training companies. Rather, we believe that it is important for individuals and teams to ensure they are investing their limited time and efforts in those areas which will provide the maximum return given their development and performance goals. So, if there is a particular strength that goes into overdrive on a regular basis and is causing significant adverse impact, then this should be the focus of development and improvement efforts.

However, Tony misses a fundamental point about the power of strengths in helping overcome strengths in overdrive or any other type of performance risk. Through around a decade of research and practice in this area, our  team have found that there are typically 3 strategies for reducing any risk area, two of which are clearly strengths-based – using one’s own strengths to compensate, using others’ strengths to compensate (i.e., complementary partnering) and arguably the most difficult, intentionally changing one’s habits to ensure risks are averted or reduced.

Similarly, he misses another vital point that it is not the underlying strength that becomes a weakness when it is in overdrive. Rather, despite positive intent on the part of the leader, it is their stakeholders’ perceptions of the behaviours associated with their overdone strength that result in problems for the individual. They are using the strength(s) in the wrong way, at the wrong time or in the wrong combination, without sufficient sensitivity towards their stakeholders and other contextual factors. Through dialing down their strength or bringing in other strengths to moderate the overdrive behaviours, leaders can typically change these perceptions relatively easy and in our experience, feel empowered and energised to do so, as they are motivated to hone and fine-tune areas that naturally energise them.

We would most certainly agree that the whole strengths approach has been tarnished for many by an overly myopic, utopian focus by some academic and consultants on strengths and happiness as opposed to taking a more balanced, pragmatic and whole-person view. The sooner we can bring more pragmatism and balance into the discussion, the sooner we will be able to bring in the skeptics and start replacing the overriding deficit-based paradigm with a powerful strengths-based one primed to unleash positive energy, new possibilities and high workforce engagement.

In our practice and work using the Strengthscope® assessment suite, we always ensure our coaching and development interventions help people both optimise and stretch their strengths in line with their performance goals, as well as reducing inevitable performance risks. Only through taking such a balanced and pragmatic approach can we ensure that the full energy and strengths of the workforce are fully optimised and translated into enduring success.

James Brook