Contrary to popular wisdom, playing to your strengths is not always a good idea. For example, managers who are good problem solvers could fail to engage employees in problem solving by playing to this strength.
Let's first examine some potential flaws in the strengths concept and then see what can be said in its defense.
Potential Weaknesses in the Strengths Model
Marshall Goldsmith's book What Got You Here Won't Get You There makes a strong case that the strengths needed for success at one level might not work at a higher level. If he is right, what are we to make of the virtually unquestioned orthodoxy that playing to your strengths is always a good thing?
Goldsmith tells us that the 20 most common bad habits he observes in executives all boil down to one theme: having too strong a need to be right. No doubt executives get ahead precisely because they are more often right than wrong, but this strength could become a weakness if it is overplayed or there is a need to foster joint ownership of decisions.
Everyone knows the classic cause of failure in sales managers. They want to keep playing to their strengths as sales people and can't make the transition to managing. But this transition can be a challenge for any individual contributor moving into management where success requires developing new strengths and shedding some weaknesses.
The Perils of Accentuating the Positive is a collection of articles edited by Robert B. Kaiser that is very critical of the strengths bandwagon. One of their criticisms is that focusing on an individual's strengths ignores the organization's needs.
If the organization puts you in a role that plays to only some of your strengths, can you afford to ignore your weaknesses if you want to succeed in that role?
In their best selling book Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton tell us that great managers spend most of their time with their best people, enhancing their strengths rather than fixing weaknesses of weaker employees.
But all managers need to be strategic when developing people, focusing on those employees whose roles are most critical to the business. This might mean developing some strong employees and helping others address weaknesses.
It would be suicidal to spend all of your time with stronger people while ignoring a weaker employee whose role is critical to the organization's success.
Buckingham and Clifton argue that organizations have faulty assumptions about people. The fact that most training dollars are aimed at fixing weaknesses shows, they claim, that organizations see most room for employee growth in addressing weaknesses. But the organization's needs might be in areas where employees are weaker. Surely a business can address such gaps without making any such faulty assumptions about people.
Executives are failing at ever faster rates today. Hired for their strengths, they derail because of their weaknesses. Playing to their strengths can't work if their weaknesses get in the way of what their employer needs them to do.
One of the articles in the Kaiser collection mentioned above discusses executive derailment. William A. Gentry and Craig T. Chappelow of the Center for Creative Leadership cite research that identifies the following "five fatal flaws that lead to derailment: (1) Problems with interpersonal relationships, (2) Difficulty leading a team, (3) Difficulty changing or adapting, (4) Failure to meet business objectives, and (5) Too narrow of a functional perspective."
The fifth "fatal flaw" partly explains the other four. People get promoted for their functional strengths, often despite lacking people skills and not being very adaptable.
In a related article, Morgan W. McCall, Jr. cites research on how strengths can morph into weaknesses. For example, confidence can become arrogance, planning can become rigidity and decisiveness can become inflexibility or blindness to reality.
Overplaying a strength is a risk for organizations as well, hence the popular saying: "nothing fails like success." Because the world changes, a key strength for success is agility, being able to recognize that today's strengths have become weaknesses and to develop new ones.
There are two kinds of innovation: (1) improving your current products and (2) breaking completely new ground. It is arguable that playing to your strengths is fine for the first kind of innovation: continuous improvement, but not for breakthrough progress.
Of course an organization can achieve breakthrough innovation by bringing in new people but individuals can't so easily develop fundamentally new talents. Still, it's not wise to stick to the knitting when people stop buying what you're knitting.
Is it good advice to choose a career based on your strengths? Not necessarily, according to Robert W. Eichinger, Guangrong Dai and KingYii Tang in another article in the Kaiser collection. First, there might not be a market for your strengths. Second, your best strengths might not be strong enough to beat others to jobs if too many people are stronger than you are in your best strengths.
These problems suggest that career decisions should be based, at least in part, on customer needs: what the employment market is demanding and what your competitors can offer, not just on your strengths. Buckingham and Clifton narrowly focus on the individual, ignoring the context.
Defending the Strengths Movement
What can we say on behalf of playing to strengths? Buckingham and Clifton are right to criticize a one-sided emphasis on weaknesses. Constantly highlighting people's weaknesses can be very de-motivating.
Employees are much more used to getting negative feedback than positive. It's not that managers are naturally mean. Rather, it's just more efficient to "manage by exception" – to address problems while taking good performance for granted.
Partly for this reason, people are more aware of their weaknesses than their strengths. We discount our strengths because it's easy for us to use them, so we assume that anyone could surely do what we do.
Further, we're likely to be most confident and motivated when we're doing what we like doing, which usually means doing what we're good at. Striving to overcome weaknesses is not very stimulating; dwelling on them can be a confidence killer.
Also, in fairness, it must be noted that Buckingham and Clifton don't advocate totally ignoring weaknesses. They use the phrase "damage limitation" and talk about "managing around weaknesses," recognizing that it is harder to overcome a weakness than to enhance a strength.
Still, whether Buckingham and Clifton intended it or not, the strengths movement has taken us from one extreme to the other and we now need a more balanced approach. While it is no doubt harder to overcome weaknesses, we can't downplay addressing them as mere "damage limitation."
Individual Strengths and Organization Needs out of Sync
The strengths movement feeds individual success not team achievement. Robert Kaiser's claim that "the strengths approach can become an exercise in self-indulgence" echoes Marshall Goldsmith's conclusion that executives have an excessive "me" focus. Similarly, our glorification of leadership over management complements our love of heroes and our desire to be one ourselves.
Here is an extendable list of clashing individual strengths and organizational needs:
- Getting work done vs delegation & developing others
- Selling your vision vs two-way dialogue, buy in
- Decisiveness vs consensus
- Assertiveness vs conciliation
- Self-reliance vs collaboration
- Creative thinking vs drawing ideas out of others
- Efficient execution vs innovation
- Organization vs adaptability
- Functional brilliance vs facilitation skills
However, the popularity of the strengths movement in American business shouldn't be a surprise if Geert Hofstede is right that the U.S. is the most individualistic culture in the world. Playing to strengths works well for independent types: piano soloists, artists, entrepreneurs or professional golfers, but it isn't so apt in an age of complexity that demands close collaboration. Yes, we'll always need specialists but we also need people who can foster collaboration and engage diverse stakeholders, which means more low profile asking than high profile telling and selling.
The crux of the problem is illustrated by the executive who, coached to be more engaging, said he didn't see acting as a catalyst or facilitator as making a "real" contribution, as doing "real" work. He wanted to be in the limelight scoring goals by promoting his ideas not in the background drawing them out of others.
We need to make the best use we can of our strengths while recognizing that, to keep up with a rapidly changing world and succeed in complex roles, we need to develop new strengths and overcome some weaknesses.
Also, where collaboration and engagement are critical, managers play too much to their strengths by doing the lion's share of the thinking, planning and deciding. To be more engaging they need to develop facilitative skills. This means shifting their identity from analytical solution generator to catalyst and coach, not easy when they have excelled by getting things done as they did when they were individual contributors.