The Weakness of Strengths

What if strength based development was a weakness?  Relax, take a deep breath, and hear me out.  I, for one, am a fan of leveraging your strengths.  I also believe that you can gain more traction taking something you are good at and building on it rather than working on something that does not come naturally to you.  Having said that, consider this…

Emotions are stronger and travel faster than logical thought.  Before we develop a plan, create a coherent argument we respond with instinct and emotion.  We may not even be aware of it, but those reactions help us form our approach.  It is part of our physical nature.  There was a recent study that demonstrated that warmth makes us treat people differently.  People holding a hot cup of coffee or tea were friendlier than those holding something cold.  What is more amazing is that the individuals themselves were unaware of their own behaviors.

Human beings are built to protect.  I was at a wedding and my father in law had a heart attack.  A couple of people jumped in and began to take action…having someone call 911 for an ambulance, getting his medication, checking to see if he was breathing, and so on.  However, when we talked about what happened afterwards most people did not remember much.  It was fuzzy.  People used statements like “I just reacted.”  Not only did emotions cause people to act out of instinct, but they did so out of a protection mode.  That protection mode comes out when we need to protect others and ourselves.

Change is something at which we must work.  How many of us have decided to get into shape, joined a gym and stop going within 3 months of our new effort?  How about quitting smoking or chocolate, but we pick up a cigarette or had the late night chocoholic snack (attack).  Come on, we should all be raising our hands.  Change is difficult because it is uncomfortable.   Therefore, many of us fail at it or avoid it all together.

We love to rationalize.  A group of newly graduated high school students that were in their first year of college were asked to remember their grades from the courses they took in their senior year.  They were to write the grades down.  When compared to their transcripts, the grades were inflated.  Were they lying?  No.  It turned out that they remembered their accomplishments better than they really were.  That is the beauty of hindsight.  It looks better from our point of view.  The lesson is that we are all revisionists. 

We are always looking for the silver bullet.  What is the ultimate sales question?  What is the script for firing someone?  Tell me what to say to my boss to convince them?  Everyone wants the answer.  And there is no one right answer.  The world is a bit grayer than that.  Dealing with people is both an art and a science.  It takes skill and intuition. 

Language is a symbol. Our language will demonstrate our tendencies as human beings.  Consider how it has evolved over the years…

1.        Strengths and Weaknesses

2.       Strengths and Challenges

3.       Strengths and Development Areas

4.       Strengths and Development Opportunities

5.       Strengths and Opportunities

Our language has over just a short period of history eliminated the idea of looking at our shortcomings.  We now go to the extreme of referring to them as opportunities when we refer to them at all.  I can just see it now; someone’s boss is asking them to work on an opportunity.  What the boss is really saying is you have the opportunity to not get fired if you fix this.  But it is much more politically correct.  I wonder though if the employee recognizes the real issues when everything is so sugar coated.

Seriously, we put strengths on our cubicles and they are now becoming labels.  I know people in organizations that define each other by five strengths as if that can be a robust enough definition of a person.  I know managers that give people assignments based on the strengths and not based on developmental needs.  I know employees that have legitimized not doing certain assignments because it was not one of their five strengths.  I know people that are no longer relevant in the workplace because they did not focus on change.  And I know organizations that have fallen apart because they were so focused on what they were good at they were not critical enough in their thinking to recognize that the world had changed and they had not. 

Why does this happen?  Maybe because we want a silver bullet that can protect us, make us emotionally feel good, avoid discomfort, and rationalize our actions.  Maybe that is why we take a good theoretical concept, based on good research, and bastardize its implementation.  Think about it.  Just for a minute.


3 thoughts on “The Weakness of Strengths

  1. Pingback: The Weakness of Strengths The Engagement Factor Blog | No more Cigarettes!

  2. Brad

    There is an old saying that “too much of anything…”

    Our strengths are clearly a weakness when used in excess, used inappropriately or used ignorantly.

    You make some excellent points. Change certainly is hard and most of us do not do it well. I recall a story by Steven Covey that everyone should hear. He talks of a guy who could do nothing right. He would make commitments then fail to live up to them. He would resolve to correct his behavior then slide back into the same. In the end Covey taught him the principle of mind over mattress. He suimply asked the man to consistently get up 10 minutes earlier than normal for a week. After experiencing this small success he challenged the man to take on slightly larger challenges. He succeeded.

    My point change requires commitment but our ability to succeed often requires small incremental achievable goals. Acheiveing these creates a feedback mechanism that positively reinforces further achievement. As someone who recently “re”-joined a gym to lose 15 pounds I can say that this process works. I have set specific short term goals in each of the first 10 weeks. My motivation to continue is high mainly due to realized progress of past goals.

    All the best

    Ron @

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