Since the turn of the century, the fields of organisational psychology and management research have seen a significant popularisation surrounding the concept of positive leadership, and more generally of strengths-based development (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001).
As an indication of just how popular these concepts are, a current Google search for ‘strengths based practice’ returns 4,960,000 results, while ‘strengths based leadership’ returns over 1 million hits. Within the workplace, the application of this concept has seen managers and HR professionals alike exploring the benefits that may follow when one focuses more on leveraging their strengths, than in closing their gaps or addressing their weaknesses. The underlying principle guiding this philosophy is that individual employees, and leaders especially, are likely to be more productive, more engaged and more effective when they are building on and using their talents, than when they are trying to fix what is (believed to be) wrong with them. However, with increasing pressure on organisations to demonstrate the return for their development investment and yet failing to do so (Beer, Finnstrom & Schrader, 2016), more questions are being raised than ever before as to whether organisations and leaders themselves are better off investing in what makes them great, or in where they are going wrong (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011).
Can’t we just fix what’s wrong?
In its conception fifteen years ago, the field of positive psychology was in part borne out of a criticism that psychology has traditionally focused on the ‘dark side’ of human existence, including pathology, dysfunction and unhappiness (Seligman & Cziskzentmihalyi, 2000). Further, research has shown that evolutionary psychology concepts such as ‘negativity bias’ mean we instinctively show greater attention to those events or ideas that we view as threats, rather than as rewards (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer & Vohs, 2001). Anyone who has experienced a traditional performance review or ‘feedback conversation’ in the workplace (particularly those not well executed!) is likely to relate to hearing ten pieces of information about themselves, but only focusing in on the one or two ‘negative’ bits of feedback we received. Unfortunately, not only does this become our primary focus, but neuroscience shows that our cognitive patterns when faced with these events can lead us to experience feelings of being overwhelmed and resistant to change (Mulqueen & Wolfson, 2015).
Combined with the evolution of traditional HR practices, there is little wonder that development efforts have (and in a large part, continue to be) primarily focused on identifying gaps in individuals, and spending substantial time and money to address those gaps. The problem(s) that can arise with this approach include:
- Does the organisation have the capability to accurately assess what the gap actually is? And hence, does the individual know what their gap actually is?
- Is the individual ‘bought into’ the idea that this is a priority for them to work on? As the old joke goes: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One – but the lightbulb has to want to change!
- Behaviour change – and growth – is hard. Even when there is self awareness and motivation in play, often the organisational system is the biggest hurdle that prevents the individual from being held accountable for (and able to achieve) sustained growth and development (Beer, Finnstrom & Schrader, 2016).
Doing More Of What I’m Good At
Even when we change tack and focus on building our strengths in order to facilitate greater growth, there lies further challenges. Whilst focusing on the natural skills and talents we hold may offer us engagement, confidence and an opportunity to experience more productive work, there is the well documented trap of ‘overusing’ our strengths, such that they actually become a weakness (Kaplan & Kaiser, 2009). A classic example here is the optimistic leader who can help others see the bright side and work through obstacles, but when overused may cause themselves or their team to submit to unrealistic expectations. Further, and as raised before, organisations and leaders face the additional challenge of being able to accurately identify and measure an individual’s strengths. This may seem like an easier or more obvious task than assessing for gaps, but in practice most organisations have limited means of being able to accurately and objectively identify when a strength is being overused – think 360 degree ratings scales where a ‘5’ on a five point scale represents the best possible score. How do individuals begin to understand when they have gone ‘too far’ with their strengths, and have started to compromise on their effectiveness? (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011). So, more is not always better, and it’s hard to say when more is actually worse. Finally, there begs an obvious issue when focusing primarily on building strengths, which is that there may be a critical development need relating to a weakness or ‘capability gap’, which if not addressed may lead to substantial performance issues. Ultimately then, leadership development cannot be an ‘all or nothing’ approach towards either focusing on one’s strengths or weaknesses alone.
Insight first, then balance is key
There is little argument that stands to suggest that we do not gain by seeking to grow as people, as employees and as leaders. Even those who claim to be self-content would not deny themselves the opportunity to gain greater skills, improved effectiveness or experience the satisfaction that comes from attaining further achievements. The argument considered here and by others (Kaplan & Kaiser, 2009) is whether there is opportunity for greater return when we invest in growing our strengths, or in improving our weaknesses. Common sense may suggest that organisations simply ‘do both’ – however in practice this can be challenging for an individual to know how to best prioritise their efforts. So, what to do?
- Focus first on gaining awareness of ‘actual’ strengths and weaknesses as a leader (including as seen through the eyes of others via structured feedback, as well as through more objective methods such as psychometric tools);
- Seek guidance from others (such as a manager or coach) to help prioritise development, based on both individual and organisational goals; and
- Strive to have a balanced ‘development portfolio’, that is set out with awareness of both the light and dark side of one’s leadership style and skill set.
In doing so, both leaders and organisations alike stand in good stead for ensuring a positive return on their development investment.
Rearn Norman is a psychologist and independent consultant working with the Centre for Leadership Advantage, providing psychological products and services for leadership. CLA are fortunate to partner with a number of leading Australian and international organisations to deliver:
- Leadership Assessment & Insights
- Leadership Development, Learning & Skills
- Psychometric Assessment Services.
Beer, M., Finnstrom, M., & Schrader, D. (2016). Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review.
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, discover your strengths: How to develop your talents and those of the people you manage. London: Simon & Schuster.
Kaiser, R. & Overfield, D. (2011). Strengths, Strengths Overused and Lopsided Leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal. 63 (2): 89-109.
Kaplan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2009). Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review.
Mulqueen, C. & Wolfson, N. (2015). Bias in the Workplace: Using Neuroscience to Improve Training. www.trainingindustry.com. 24th October 2016.
Seligman, M. & Cziskzentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology. An Introduction. American Psychologist. 55(1):5-14.