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Positive Psychology

Is It a Good Idea To Build on Signature Strengths?

The status quo is wrong.

This is part of a series of blog posts from chapters of Designing Positive Psychology, a book edited by Dr. Ken Sheldon, Dr. Michael Steger, and myself.

Modern leaders have become enamored of the idea of using character strengths at work. Business consultants and coaches are making a living off of this enterprise. This workplace obsession received a kickstart from the recent taxonomy of strengths assembled in positive psychology.

Starting with research by Drs. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, the core idea in the practice of positive psychology is to use assessment instruments to identify a person's most highly endorsed strengths and to help them organize a life around them. Here is a quote from Seligman's 2002 bestselling book Authentic Happiness:

When you read about these strengths, you will also find some that are deeply characteristic of you, whereas others are not. I call the former your signature strengths, and one of my purposes is to distinguish these from strengths that are less a part of you. I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths. (p.13)

And further...I believe in building the good life around polishing and developing your strengths, and then using them to buffer against your weaknesses and the trials that weakness brings. (p. 160)

This is a reasonable life plan if you live in a Western culture (e.g., America, Canada, Western Europe), but this is unlikely to be an ideal plan, regardless of where you reside. The reason is that moral content is what supposedly separates character and virtue from other major personality domains (e.g., the Big Five: agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, emotional stability, and extraversion). Character strengths are supposed to morally uplift those who witness them in use. Character strengths are supposed to be culturally valued, irrespective of any benefits.

The advice to build on one's strengths is in direct opposition to the aphorism that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. What is lost by ignoring this aphorism? In the Western world, we are obsessed with superstars who master a single domain. There's Wilt Chamberlain, a dominant player in the history of sports. Perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time but far less skilled when it comes to being respectful to women, with his claim to having sex with over 20,000 of them, and probably not nearly as skilled at driving in snow, cooking a steak, caring for children, or writing a compelling letter. Same probably goes for Al Pacino when off stage, Frank Lloyd Wright away from his construction sites, and Barbara McClintock out of the laboratory.

In the Western World, there is no Hall of Fame for the jack of all trades, master of none. The question is whether the superstar ideal should be the cultural norm, especially when the focus is assessing and using strengths. Does an emphasis on equanimity and balance lead to more desirable psychological, social, and physical outcomes? A good case can be made that moral character is only as strong as its weakest link. Moral failings are potent. A violent altercation during adulthood, a few hits of crack behind the neighborhood dumpster, a few petty cash thefts at work are taken to be diagnostic of a strong tendency to commit other moral errors.

Should we be satisfied with a person who endorses bravery, social intelligence, curiosity, perseverance, and hope as their top 5 signature strengths? Should outstanding performances (at work) with these strengths offset a lack of kindness and wisdom? A person who exemplifies the strength of being highly capable of both loving and being loved but lacking in wisdom might be considered less worthy than someone with a modest level of both strengths. This empirical question has been ignored; assumed to be irrelevant and unimportant. A quick Google search offers insight into the endless journal articles, books, and workshops that deal almost exclusively with signature (or top five) strengths instead of a deep consideration of balance.

Balance in talents and abilities might be less important than possession and mastery in a singular domain - think of Nikola Tesla or Katharine Hepburn who were wise to specialize. In stark contrast, balance in character and virtue might be critically important. I am inclined to hire people who show a vested interest in becoming wiser, braver, curious, trustworthy, and self-regulated, regardless of where they stand on these dimensions. I suspect I am not alone.

There is much to celebrate with a strength-based approach to leadership. Now it is time to pay attention to the larger world, beyond Americans and Europeans, to embrace different perspectives on where self-improvement might occur, and how it might be achieved.

Much of this post is drawn from Chapter 29, that almost nobody read, authored by Gordon Bermant, Charu Talwar, and Paul Rozin, in Designing Positive Psychology.

For more on strengths, see prior posts on:

Psychological Strength Research That Everybody Needs to Know

10 Psychological Strengths, Including the Most Valuable 2

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to:

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