Could Focusing On Strengths Ruin Your Career?

It’s time for the conversations around the development of strengths to grow up.

Posted Jan 14, 2016

Encouraging people to focus on their strengths—those things they’re good at and actually enjoy doing—at work has become a multi-million dollar industry, but could this approach be ruining people’s careers?  Perhaps.

As someone who researches and teaches strengths-based approaches, I’ve become increasingly concerned that sometimes we risk doing more harm than good.  And it seems others concur with a recent Harvard Business Review article stating that strengths-coaching may weaken us because it gives us a false sense of competence, can result in over-used strengths becoming toxic and ignores our weaknesses at our own risk.

Interestingly it has been almost five years since leading strengths researchers raised the same concerns. And yet during this time, while the body of research on the benefits of strengths continues to grow, these very real risks remain largely untested.

But the organizational hunger for simple solutions and people’s lack of confidence to constructively challenge “proven” approaches, means that in some workplaces a strengths approach is being applied like a blunt instrument. Too often I find the recommendation is: discover your strengths and use them more.  

What could go wrong?

Alliance Images/Canva
Source: Alliance Images/Canva

While I have little peer-reviewed evidence (which let’s be clear only tells us what works for some of the people, some of the time) on which to base my observations, here’s what I’ve seen in some workplaces:

  • Strengths Blindness – When I ask people if their strengths have ever gotten them into trouble at work, most people confidently shake their heads.  Then when they start scratching the surface of most of the “weakness” feedback they’ve ever been given, they quickly find these are strengths they’ve been overplaying.

For example during my corporate career I had three difference bosses give me the same improvement feedback: “You’re doing a great job, but could you just slow down a little bit.”  Slow down?  Surely everyone else should speed up!  Having no idea or inclination to address this feedback, I did what most employees do and put it in the “too hard” basket. 

Until the first time I took the VIA Survey and discovered my number one strength was “zest”.  You see when I overplayed my zest, I’d get so enthusiastic about an idea I’d charge off at a hundred miles an hour, only to later realize I’d left most of my team back at the starting line.  Then I’d spend the next few weeks rebuilding trust and getting everyone on board with the idea.  But because I value my strengths and don’t want them to put people off, the idea of dialing it down in some situations was an easy change I was willing to implement and as a result my performance skyrocketed.

It’s not enough to just “use” our strengths more.  Instead I whole-heartedly concur with strengths researchers who urge us to “develop” our strengths by not just exploring when we’re doing things well, but when we might be overplaying or underplaying our strengths and how they might be impacting others.

  • Strengths Distress – Unfortunately strengths identification surveys generally rely on self-report and give us little context on how our strengths compare to others.  Just because “relator” is one of my strengths, doesn’t mean I’ve assessed myself accurately or that I’ll be as competent as the person sitting next to me who shares the same talent.

So if I use my relator strength to tackle my job requirements and I fail miserably to get the expected outcome, what does this say about me?  Depending on my beliefs about failure as a reflection of my identity (“I’m not good enough”) or as a learning opportunity (“with more practice I’ll get better”), this experience risks undermining my performance, resilience and wellbeing.

Using our strengths is not a silver bullet that guarantees success. Instead, studies suggest they’re an opportunity for us to feel more confident, engaged and energized about our work, but they don’t guarantee the quality of the results.  All strengths conversations should come with this health warning and people should be encouraged to frame the development of their strengths as a journey of growth.

For example, in a recent study people were asked to write about their early childhood experiences for one week and were randomly assigned to use their top five strengths or their bottom five strengths (or “weaknesses”), with no idea which they’d been given. The researchers found that while both improved happiness for up to three months, generally people who had higher scores overall for their strengths benefited more from developing their lesser strengths, and those with lower scores overall benefitted more from developing their top strengths. 

Developing our strengths shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring our weaknesses or being discouraged from tackling them head on if desired.  Instead we need to understand that strengths reflect the way our brains are currently wired to perform at their best, but that with enough practice (and let’s be clear some popular studies suggest this could require a lot of hours) neural pathways are capable of changing. Surely we should be helping people make informed choices, so in different situations for different outcomes, they can choose which approach—building on a strength or fixing a weakness—will serve them best.

Given these dangers I believe it’s time for the research, practices and conversations around the development of strengths and weaknesses in our workplaces to grow up.  Taking an either/or approach may be good for headlines, but ultimately fails to provide the kind of intelligent, nuanced insights organizations and employees need and deserve.

So when it comes to developing your strengths—or those of your people—at work how are you ensuring a “do no harm” approach?