Top Five Weaknesses of StrengthsFinder

StrengthsFinder is a well-designed diagnostic (and coaching / talent management approach) that can be used to help individuals and teams become more successful, by focusing on people’s strengths, as opposed to their weaknesses.  STRENGTHSFINDER 2.0Created by the Gallup organization and based on the research of Dr. Donald Clifton, StrengthsFinder 2.0 is a book by Tom Rath that serves as a “wrapper” for an online personal assessment that you can take through  The original version of the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths was co-authored by Clifton and Marcus Buckingham, who has since left the Gallup organization to start his own gig.  Overall, thumbs up. Very insightful and practical stuff.

Now, I won’t be discussing what’s great about StrengthsFinder, other than the words “well-designed,” “thumbs up,” “very insightful and practical” (above),  and “brilliantly lucrative and well-executed book and consulting services marketing strategy.”

Rather, just as the StrengthsFinder test will give anyone their Top Five Themes of Strength, I will now proceed to pick out what I think are the Top Five Themes of Weakness of StrengthsFinder. ‘Cause I’m contrarian like that.


THEME #1) ARBITRARY:  The premise of StrengthsFinder is to use an inventory of 34 “themes” to  help people discover their talents, which are defined as “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior” that are “enduring and unique.” By understanding and harnessing one’s talents, a person can cultivate their strengths, which are defined as “consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”

In order to perform an activity, the authors say we must have knowledge (defined  as “the facts and lessons learned”) and skills (“the steps of an activity”).  However, when you get right down to it, what the authors relegate as “skills” that can be learned versus “talents” that are innate can, at times, seem a bit arbitrary. Furthermore, when describing a situation where a person achieved greatness in an activity outside their core themes of talent, the authors explain it away by describing how that person could have drawn on a different strength to get the job done. Finally, the test is opaque: You don’t get to see your numerical scores on individual themes, and in the standard version, you only get a list of the top five, or what they call your “Signature Themes.”

(“Signature Themes”  ..makes me feel like a new line of fragrance from Sean John… )

In the end, these 34 themes have an almost horoscope-like quality to them, especially since we the readers are advised to not look at just our top theme but rather to “weave” or “braid” together our Signature Themes. With its black box survey algorithm, blurry definitions and distinctions, and its total lack of falsifiability, it’s impossible to prove or disprove anything about StrengthFinders. I’m actually tempted to do a comparison of the 34 StrengthsFinders themes and the 12 signs of the traditional horoscope.  No, I didn’t even test high for ANALYTICAL on StrengthsFinder, but perhaps this is just a combination my IDEATION and INTELLECTION themes, and my being a GEMINI and having a moon sign of…wait… I forget…

StrengthsFinder exhibits many characteristics of the Forer Effect, namely, that people lend credibility to descriptions of their personality that are vague and generally applicable, especially when those descriptions appear to be tailored to them, authoritative (backed by science, ancient wisdom, surveys of 2 million people, etc.), and generally positive.  Well, the idea of “strength” is positive from the get-go, and some of the 34 theme definitions are downright ebullient:  “You know you will be judged not by what you say, not by what you think, but by what you get done. This does not frighten you. It pleases you.”   Or how about this:  “Others may label you creative or original or conceptual or even smart. Perhaps you are all of these. Who can be sure?”

THEME #2) PERFECTIONIST: By defining a strength as “consistent near perfect performance in an activity,” and by laying down the opening premise that “Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength,”  the authors push an agenda which is fraught with difficulties in a world which is less than ideal.  As Voltaire famously wrote, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” The perfect is the enemy of the good.  No, depending on our circumstances, sometimes our greatest opportunity and room for growth is in an area that we’re not naturally gifted in.  In fact, one of the things I like about the 34 themes in StrengthsFinder is that it provides some helpful descriptions of personality traits that one can and should learn from, even if it’s not a core competence.  “Who is wise?  One who learns from every person,”  said Ben Zoma (one of my all time favorites).  If, according to your StrengthsFinder profile, you score low on Empathy, Command, Self-Assurance, etc, etc.  perhaps it would be a good idea to cultivate those abilities, especially in volatile market conditions that could see you needing them.

Buried in a few places in the books, the authors concede that one shouldn’t “forgo… weakness fixing” in the areas that they have marked-off as the exclusive domain of innate talent. Using the example of Empathy, they describe the effects of an empathy skills class as giving a “karaoke version of empathy” to someone who is not naturally strong in the Empathy talent theme.  “Of course, a karaoke version of empathy can sometimes better than no version at all… Damage control can prevent failure, but it will never elevate you to excellence.”   However one defines the term “success,” the definition may include the idea of “excellence” in it, but it definitely does not include its own reverse definition, i.e., “failure.”  Those of us who “view failure as a kind of success” have in fact redefined true “failure” as something else… perhaps, “failure” for us means the inability to learn from imperfect outcomes. Or maybe we just ignore “failure” altogether. Regardless of the semantics, weakness-fixing does deserve a high priority of personal development plans and corporate training budgets. Strength building does too. Which brings us to the next weakness of StrengthsFinder…

THEME #3) UNBALANCED: The authors of StrengthsFinders, like many authors, wish to make a point.  In the process, they make their point bigger than it needs to be. This is slightly annoying.  Or maybe that’s just my BALANCED theme at play (just kidding, there is no such theme in StrengthsFinders, nor is there a SNARKY theme or an ORNERY BLOGGER theme ).

One way in which the authors overstate their case is by resorting to a straw man argument that most companies and talent management professionals (especially recruiters) seek well-rounded candidates for hire and promotion, and that these misguided professionals should be looking for exceptional candidates who have the unique strengths needed to excel in the particular companies and roles being filled.

The fact is, if you ever listen to the conversations of recruiters and hiring managers, you will hear talk about “perfect fits,” “square pegs” and  “purple squirrels.”  In the spectrum of “everyone should do anything they set their minds to”  versus “everyone should only do what they are really good at,”  the world of corporate human resources is definitely skewed to the latter view.

StrengthsFinder is actually a pretty decent coaching tool (oops, I said I wasn’t going to give any more praise, there’s me with my FOX NEWS FAIR AND BALANCED theme swooshing around) and I include it in my consulting toolkit. But strengths-based management is also abused as a form of psychological pigeonholing — assign this type of person to this type of role because they have the innate talent for it. When combined with criteria such as prior experience and technical skills, the talents & strengths-based approach of selection and professional growth creates a hyper-specialization of the deepest kind.

The authors make numerous, valiant attempts to discourage pigeonholing and insist that, used properly, a strengths-based approach to talent development should have the opposite effect. Their arguments in the short section titled “Will I become Too Narrow if I Focus on My Signature Themes?” are only somewhat convincing and are overshadowed by the larger theme of “stop trying to make a fit that’s not there” and “do what your nature has made you good at…. and keep focusing on that.”   Unfortunately, many managers who read the book will likewise use the 34 themes as just another way to categorize and commoditize their human “resources.”  In fact, the authors  (in Now, Discover Your Strengths) suggest creating a “theme inventory” of entire organizations and to map people and roles against that inventory. While well-meaning in their intent, the authors give less the less-nuanced reader a powerful tool for stereotyping themselves and others… it’s like handing out scalpels to  non-surgeons.

I think this last point #3, UNBALANCED is actually two points:  UNBALANCED and EASILY MISINTERPRETED.  Or perhaps simply TOUCHING ON AN AREA THAT DAN IS OVERLY SENSITIVE ABOUT. No matter. On with the rant…

THEME #4)  WRONG:  Going back to the authors’ assertion that Empathy is an innate talent for which a true strength cannot be obtained through training, I must disagree. Empathy can be taught, provided the learner is willing, motivated and the instruction is done effectively and reinforced properly at a deep level.  Life experience (post age 16) can help too.  The StrengthsFinders thesis, with its definitions of STRENGTHS, TALENTS, SKILL and KNOWLEDGE, could be rendered as the following formula:


..where TALENT is a fixed variable, which has an overwhelming, multiplying effect on whatever learnable SKILLS and KNOWLEDGE are needed.

The firm I work for often uses a formula that has a similar structure:


…where all four variables K,S,P,M are learnable.  The MINDSET variable includes things like attitudes, values and beliefs.  Granted, this formula does not take innate TALENT into account, as the StrengthsFinder “equation” does, and both formulas don’t take things like LUCK and CIRCUMSTANCE into account. Add in all the disclaimers you want about life not being reducible to inane, contrived formulas, but there is a practical difference to all this formula nonsense:  If my company gives a course designed to help people develop their empathy skills (and it does), the course does not just provide a bunch of techniques to emulate and  create a “karaoke version of empathy.”  Rather, the course helps participants develop an attitude and belief about empathy that will underpin the tactical things they need to do and say, in order to cultivate it.  A person’s ability to be effective (or even “consistently near perfect”) in empathy is not dependent on a static variable of their brain circuitry, frozen at age 16.   I have seen mature adults fundamentally change their ability in this and other areas of talent, areas that StrengthsFinders reserves for its 34 themes.

 THEME #5) INCOMPLETE:  StrengthsFinder, according to its technical appendix, captures personal motivation, interpersonal skills, self-presentation and learning style.  It does not attempt to capture stuff outside of those areas — and in many cases, there can be important stuff. Also, it seems to miss some things that fall within the areas of cognition that it purports to cover.

The inventory of 34 talent themes is based on “over 2 million interviews,”  with lots of granularity and distinction around talents that would come into play in the typical modern workplace.  One gets the sense that if those 2 million interviews took place mainly in non-corporate settings (e.g. artistic settings, or even workplaces with a strong element of creative design), you’d get all kinds of other talent themes not covered by StrengthsFinder. What about an innate sense of Rhythm,  Melody, Direction, or Spatial Organization?   Within the area of visual design and rendering, there are any number of talents that come into play, some of which are  included in StrengthFinders’ 34 themes (certainly ARRANGER, possibly CONNECTEDNESS) but if you’ve ever met someone with a talent at drawing or watercolor, you’d know there is more to doing it than just “the steps of an activity.”

But then, it’s too easy to nitpick (ANALYTICAL, DELIBERATIVE, COMPETITION, FOCUS), isn’t it?  Wait, none of those were my Signature Themes, either…

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About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 10, 2009, in Career, Coaching, Learning, Management, Talent and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 82 Comments.

  1. Ideation: People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.

    Input: People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

    Learner: People who are especially talented in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

    Intellection: People who are especially talented in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.

    Adaptability: People who are especially talented in the Adaptability theme prefer to “go with the flow.” They tend to be “now” people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.

  2. i get it. hook me on “attack!”.. then post big rants making sure ill have no time to comment.

    once again.. im speechless. im yet again in a position where i spend a lot of thought and introspection on an issue come up with conclusions then find out there’s a book written on it with similar conclusions.

    those strengthfinder ppl seem to be talking about the same thing ive been commenting about on this blog for weeks. except, they’ve got it down to a pseudoscience with formulas and top skills etc.. something i strongly disagree with.

    one thing i do want to comment about tho: there are certain things you cannot learn effectively. You cannot learn to be charming. you cannot learn to be social. you cannot learn to be charismatic. and to some extent, you cannot learn to be empathic.

    you can take courses and emulate, but in my experience, emulation is easily sniffed out, and “fake” is a difficult stigma to get rid of.

    actually, what i said above is not 100% true. you can “acquire” those traits.. but not thru “courses” or “exercises”.. but it takes things like deeply painful experiences or major selfconfidence boost.. or any drastic personality changing experiences.

    the bottom line is still simple.. someone who is antisocial, hates talking to people.. has no business being in sales or customer support etc…

    someone who is self-absorbed, lacking self confidence, constantly self doubting, has no business being in caregiving situations… etc..

    you cannot teach people to not be selfabsorbed. it takes some serious challenges in life.. and overcoming them.. to be able to start gaining those “strengths”.

    from what u explain.. those strengthsfinder people are stuck in a static system. and people, fortunately are not static. “potential” is a word i didnt see used in ur entire post…

  3. Yes, “potential” is what this stuff is all about — helping people achieve their desired potential. Thanks for bringing that up. Your comment has actually sparked some ideas for additional posts. But before I go and do that, let’s chat some more about StrengthsFinders :

    One of the hidden strengths of StrengthsFinder is in the scores for all the areas of talent that fall between a person’s “top five” and “bottom five” themes, which Gallup doesn’t show you… at least not for the $20 fee. Of course, the survey authors would insist that a strengths-only philosophy demands this opacity. I say screw that, let’s pull back the curtain and see The Wizard… open source, baby!

    While it may not have the scientific rigor of a particle accelerator, the StrengthsFinder tool does have some practical value in terms of talent management and professional development. Focus on what you do well… do more of it… do it even better… keep polishing. The authors strongly maintain, as you do, that some things such as true empathy cannot be learned. Other similar personality indexes/assessment tools say the same thing, although some of them allow for life-threatening-illness-new-religion-drastic-perspective-changing-quarter-life-crisis-event-type-things , just as you mentioned. But overall, these models maintain a similarly strong line about a person’s core personality being locked in their mid-to-late-teens. In my opinion, once you allow for the exception of profound existential experiences / desire to change as a way to reshape core personality traits , it all becomes semantics anyway. To quote a lawyer I once hired, “you can drive a truck through that loophole.”

    I also think it’s important when thinking about this stuff to get past the theoretical extremes and deep personality disorders — people who are 100% antisocial or profoundly narcissistic or whatnot — and deal with the more usual case of the people who have some non-absolute, highly situational, and moldable tendencies. I’m talking about ordinary people – the people we meet every day in business – people who have variegated, diffuse strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly, who also have values and opportunities that they may choose to follow, according to their own free will.

    Here is a fantastic recent article from the New York Times Magazine, by fellow Montrealer Steven Pinker. This guy gets it:

    There’s more to all this stuff than just genes or other innate tendencies. The new book by Malcolm Gladwell is an important read too. One of its messages is that excellence also comes through lots of practice, luck and help from friends. On the surface that sounds trite, and it might be, but… well… just read the damn book.

    I get worried when people start dictating that certain people “should,” “shouldn’t,” or “cannot” do something truly successfully, based on their innate tendencies. This is not because I believe that anyone can or should do anything, but because there are so many amazing examples that contradict any conventional wisdom about fitting square pegs in square holes. But rather than getting caught in the trap of describing famous people, let’s keep it a little more ordinary: you mention sales, specifically,

    “the bottom line is still simple.. someone who is antisocial, hates talking to people.. has no business being in sales or customer support etc”

    Leaving aside the straw man argument of the extremes (I’m going to unilaterally replace your word “hate” with “very very uncomfortable” ..and if you don’t like it, take it out on me in our next game of Attack), sales development is actually an area that I can comment on from direct experience – both as a manager and now as a salesperson and as an instructor at a consulting firm for some of the world’s top performing companies, dealing with all kinds of personality types. I’ll try to write a future post on some of the interesting things that happen in the world of sales, including sales performance, sales leadership, sales management, sales coaching, and sales training. For the time being, let me just note that I disagree with your business prescription. The real bottom line about salespeople is this: There is more than one way to sell, and more than one kind of salesperson. For many companies, the most effective and professional salespeople, who are most liked by their clients (who can sniff out “fakes” as you say) and who generate the greatest successes, are not the most naturally gregarious people… not by a long shot. Also, the “natural” personalities who succeed “effortlessly” in sales in one environment will completely fail in another environment. Finally, there are also many reasons why a person could be intensely uncomfortable talking to other people, and they themselves don’t always know what the reason for that is and how that might be best mitigated in their role as a salesperson.

    As for your caregiving situation example, well, that’s a touchy subject… definitely an area with diverse opinions about what constitutes a “good fit” or even just plain old competency.

    My challenge to you is this: When you factor all the other things that might influence a person’s success in an endeavor – their talents, their drive, their situation, their support, their timing, their commitment, their practice, their beliefs and guiding principles – might you consider that the thing we call “innate talent” is a very small piece of the outcome? In hindsight, it’s easy to look back at a person who is doing something very successfully and come up with all kinds of reasons why it’s “in their nature” or was “inevitable.” I suspect often times it’s just the bundling together of a whole bunch of stuff that isn’t necessarily a “top five signature theme.” In many cases, it’s the person’s sixth, seventh or tenth ranking “themes,” bundled together with some happy accidents (e.g., they were the best candidate available at the time and place of the opportunity) and 10,000 hours of practice, Karate Kid style, and all we observers can see at the end of this messy process is the resulting fluid, flawless execution.

    So here’s my stance on this StrengthsFinders stuff… at least for today: Use a strengths-based approach to professional development as just one of many tools, and try not to dictate functional roles based on personality profiling. I think the authors of StrengthsFinders would mostly agree with this message, except for the “as just one of many tools” part.

  4. before i make a lengthier post (with more thought into it), i’ll even add this to your point: a lot of times we might discover a strength we have by trying things we wouldn’t normally have thought of being good at it.

    so unless one does the horizontal exploration, one cannot find his full potential.

    on another note, talking about extremes is the only way to be able to connect social sciences to arithmetic (which i have to mention again, i strongly disagree with, even if i sing a similar tune as the strengthdfinders ppl).

    in extreme cases, with extreme personalities, the variables drop. at least to an acceptable enough level where we can make postulates (“a clinically depressive should not work at a palliative care unit”). the “normal” people, the middle 80%, can not be categorized, patterned, branded, cuz their personality is way too fluid. way too balanced.

  5. That’s an interesting point you make about using extremes to isolate variables. Historically, much of research on the mechanics of the mind has utilized situations such as twins separated from birth, lobotomies, etc. to limit the number of factors at play and uncover the underlying patterns and “rules” of human behavior. And yet, returning to the example at hand, what’s confounding is how, for example, you might say a person with no legs should logically not pursue a goal of running a marathon. We all know how that story ends, of course. We don’t know which people will achieve greatness by playing to their strengths, and which will achieve greatness by overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, or even those middling bunch that try to overcome those odds, “fail” at the initial goal, but discover something else in the process.

    I’ve been reading some Richard Feynman lately, and your issue with the “social sciences” is one he shared. Here’s a segment from a BBC interview hid did:

    On the flipside, Feynman had a respect for the non-scientific world, and is quoted as saying: “I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.” I think that quote might be a bit out of context here — he was probably referring to problems of philosophy, faith, morality and other spheres. The dissection of human behavior, human drive and motivation, the discussion of where talent comes from and how it can be most effectively harnessed, is well within the sphere of the natural world that science tries to explain.

    The first people to use bows and arrows didn’t wait until Newton worked out all the equations for understanding projectile motion. So tools like StrengthsFinder, with their lack of truly scientific rigor, can be effective nonetheless. Yet the audience craves an aura of statistics and science.

  6. you are right re: “innate talent”. it is definitely far from being the pivotal piece to success.

    i wonder how much context has an influence on what the strengthsfinder style analysis can be useful for.

    from a managerial point of view, when faced with the decision of who to assign to what position, i think it is reasonable to assume “playing for strengths” is the recommended course of action. assign the correct personality to the correct job. (as opposed to, assign them to the opposite jobs and expect them to change.)

    In contrast, from a personal development point of view, working on the weaknesses would definitely be a much more productive exercise.

    i agree things like should/shouldnt for career picking is definitely not recommended. in fact, i was advised at cegep career counseling that the career i picked today was a very bad idea for me. they based it on report cards, and choice of courses. i’m sure the logic was solid, but their data was not reliable. and it’s situations like this that worry me when it comes to “arithmetizing” social sciences.

  7. Nicely put, well stated! Your distinction about context, management vs personal development, is quite sharp.

    The manager looking for talent is like a prospector looking for gold. They can chisel away at any wall and hope gold will appear, or they can choose which wall to chisel against, based on what hints they can see, using their own experience, tools and talent as prospectors.

    From a personal development point of view, my bias these days, when asked by people for career advice, is not to just have them figure out “what they’re good at that they also enjoy and can make money doing,” aka their “marketable strengths.” What I like to do is ask them what kind of environment they would most likely want to work in, be surrounded by, and then, based on the opportunities in the near vicinity, to test those waters. But that is just my bias at this particular time, and I am not a professional career advisor. 🙂

  8. Yep it’s just a tool.
    I’m for listing all the 34 themes in order 1-34 as the report with the top 5 reported fully (maybe extra $5).
    FYI mine are Activator,Woo,Strategic,Futuristic,Command

    My feeling is that otherwise the suggestion that it is just an intro for the $750 gig is always there.
    Now Marcus Buckingham has started his own gig too.
    Was he pushed or did he leave over creative differences??
    my two cents worth.

  9. I did enjoy this post 🙂

    A thought for you: I think what this all boils down to for me is simply this: tests like Strengthsfinder give me a language to describe what I already know to be true about myself. The danger of this language is that new experiences may change me completely (and therefore I’d need help in articulating the different aspects of this “new” self). That said, its benefits, for most, seem to outweigh its costs.


    • Thanks Katie — glad you enjoyed this post and were able to work your way through the comments thread! 🙂

      Yes, your synopsis pretty much nails it. When we use a language, we structure our thinking according to its underlying assumptions. Yet, without language our thinking is muddled and inarticulate.

      So I guess it helps us to be multi-lingual… and to be lifelong students of vocabulary.

  10. It’s important to note that the developers of the StrengthsFinder assessment “do not call it a TEST!” As an “inventory” or “indicator” it is not intended to have pure construct validity. It is not measuring specific unique “behaviors” (constructs). It is a developmental assessment to be used in discussion and reflection with someone skilled to help the individual interpret the results of the assessment. It’s “theme” approach is appropriate for this and other instruments that serve the same purpose. Themes provide a range of “actions, attitudes, and behaviors” that are similar in a few particular ways but vary in how they are applied, in what situation, for what purpose, and to what outcome.

    For more than twenty years I had differences of opinion with my graduate mentor who claimed in the area of personal development counseling that if an assessment was a precise as the constructs used in some clinical psychological instruments, it was like a horoscope. Developmental instruments like the SF are unique because if they are not approached with an understanding of their development and purpose and a thorough understanding of the technical manual (which is available for free) AND with appropriate instruction from experienced facilitators (better with MA/MS or Phd/EdD training) clients and students can gain a clarity and a personal understanding that is remarkable. Otherwise, negative evaluations that I read about the SF, career and psychological cardsorts, as well as assessment instruments like the Myers Briggs Type Inventory are all too common.

    I’ve used the SF for six years with graduate students, professional counselors, faculty colleagues and private clients. I always suggest that those who take the SF and similar instruments take two to four months to “sit on the results”, discuss them with friends and family, and refer to their facilitator or counselor for clarification. For my students I suggest they take a full year of reflecting, reading and research to come to terms with their results.

    One of my sayings is that “assessment results in and of themselves mean very little. It’s start of a discussion. As a career counselor and strengths consultant, its not what the assessment or inventory results are, it’s how the client/student relates to what it says.” And from what the client says we, can discover THEIR truth, potential as well as identify barriers in helping them identify their form of excellence.

    • Well said, Gregory!

      I particularly appreciated your statement, “assessment results in and of themselves mean very little. It’s start of a discussion.” It reminds me of something Douglas Adams once wrote in his book Mostly Harmless, “It’s just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge.” Mind you, Adams was talking about horoscopes, not psychometric instruments… but I think he would have regarded the statement as applicable to both.

      I’ve had a similar experience coaching other people who have their StrengthsFinder results in their hands and who ask me the question, “Yeah, ok, so now what?”

      You might enjoy this other, related post: What Kind of a Personality Test are You?

  11. I really enjoyed reading the Top Five Weaknesses of Strengths Finder just like I enjoyed reading the book and not taking everything that was written there literally.I think that there are many things/skills that people can learn and many other things we can improve in ourselves. And then there are many other things we cannot learn, and many other things about ourselves that we cannot improve. Things are so relative. Everything depends on the person, on the way s/he is brought up, on the environment around him/her… I have so many ideas running through my head regarding this topic that it would take me a couple of hours to put all my thoughts together.

  12. Ok, I will try to. A friend of mine gave this book to me about 10 days ago. One day before this book came to my hands, I was saying to myself that the best way to make a living is to do something that you enjoy doing (I had thought this even before.) The novelty was that I came up with the idea that the secret of happines at work is to do sth tha you are REALLY good at. In this case, success is guaranteed. So, when I started to read the book, I was thrilled because it was exactly what I was thinking one day before. I read it very quickly, because I was really enjoying it, but then I started not to agree with many things that were written there. And then, I was more excited to know that there’s a writing out there which does not agree with the ideas of the book. I read your article, and I was like “Wow” This is so smart, so well written, so thoughtful, so professional…”

    I am from Albania, a small country in development, south east of Balkan / Europe. I will try to put my own thoughts with which I came as I wwas reading the book – before I read your article. They are:

    1) The book a lot of emphasis on sb’s strengths, to the extend that sb should ignore his or her weaknesses. And I think that this is wrong. Being aware of our weaknesses – whether at the professional or behavioral level is very important. I started to think about people whom I know who think that they are perfect, when they are totally the opposite of that. Until 3 years ago, I thought I was perfect, until it came a time when I faced myself and I found out that I was not perfect at all! Also, there are people who are so proud do be very direct to people and that they are not afraid to tell people what’s on their mind, but when people are direct to them, they don’t like it at all and they overreact. So, people can learn self-awareness.
    2) The book is mostly about masterminds! Nature has gifted some people with lots of talents, but not everyone is like that. In everyday lives we cannot always follow our passions. We have to take in considerations other things.
    3) There are lots of people who have not been talented in an area, but due to a great zeal, people have mastered that skill and have excelled. Some cultures are like that. Also, there is a saying which says: “Only 1 percent talent, 99 percent should be work.” Actually, if you can do something that is out of your comfort zone, is more rewarding spiritually than when you are naturally talented in that area.
    4) I thought that the authors are great businessmen! You had found the right words to describe the book. One of them was …brilliantly lucrative.

    Ok, this is what I have for now. I thank you for reading my previous post, and for taking time reading this other one.

  13. I apologize for any mistake in writing. For example:
    1) The book puts a lot of emphasis…

    • Vilma, no need to apologize… your English is infinitely better than my Albanian. (Faleminderit për përpjekjet tuaja. Nëse ju nuk e kishte bërë këtë, unë do të duhet të përdorni Google Translate për të mësuar nga ju, dhe siç e dimë ato llojet e mjeteve nuk janë shumë të besueshme … edhe pse ata janë goxha të mirë, ndonjëherë.) So thanks again, for taking out the time to write out your reflections.

      On your point #1) I like how you referenced self-awareness… seems like self-awareness is a required “meta-strength” if one is to do strengths-based developmental work… and true self-awareness doesn’t come from ignoring the weaknesses/critique points about ourselves.

      This is not to say such critical self-awareness has to be overwhelmingly negative or demotivational. One of the things I find myself doing more and more, drawing from the field of Positive Psychology, is to uncover the “positive intent” embedded within a behavior and finding better ways to satisfy that intent. That and other nuances (such as “an overdeveloped strength can become a weakness in itself”) are some of the other things I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve continued to explore this topic in my talent development work. I’m a fan of some of Marcus Buckingham’s post-Gallup work, too.

      Anyway, the saying you quoted made me smile: “Only 1 percent talent, 99 percent should be work.” 🙂

      There’s a song refrain along those lines:

      This is ten percent luck,
      Twenty percent skill,
      Fifteen percent concentrated power of will,
      Five percent pleasure,
      Fifty percent pain,
      And a hundred percent reason to remember the name

  14. I am a collector of song lyrics. So, thanks for these nice lines. In my culture I would hear that quote a lot, the one of 99 % vs 1 % – not that I apply it. When I was younger, I was more willing to do different jobs to challange myself. Now I want to do only what I am good at. But, I appreciate people who are courageous and challenge themselves by trying different things. I think that’s what makes strong living.

    This is such a broad topic and I still have thoughts running in my head, but the writing cannot catch the speed of my thoughts. Plus, I should organize them. Anyways, it was valuable sharing thoughts with you.

    P.S. Your Albanian is great! :))

  15. Thanks for posting for this wonderful article, I have managed to share it, please do create more valuable posts like this one.

    Let’s Talk Personality

  16. My unique combination seems to also make me automatically skeptical about these things. Well that, and a lot of statistical training that helps me better understand the way data is often data mined in non-valid ways. More than that though, it did have the quality of a horoscope. At the end of it I read off my top five, and was left with the feeling that I already knew that about myself. I’m curious about people that are so self-unaware that this information would be life changing.

    I’m at a cross-roads in my life and I got the book and took the test so I would get a better insight on what professions I would be happiest in, because perhaps there were a few that I might have misconceptions about. And, I would like to work with like individuals that are drawn to such professions. I didn’t get that. I’m sure I would if I paid the $550 to sit down with a consultant. If I don’t know where I can maximize my strengths in combination, then WTF?

    That and the fact that there’s no algorithm designed to combine the top five into an amalgam. For example, my top three are:
    1. Strategic 2. Ideation 3. Individualization

    That’s true, so how do I find the right industry or position that blends contrary strengths like:
    4. Activator 5. Command

    I’m left with the same issue I had before. I realized already that academia wasn’t for me, because it’s filled with people with my first 3 strengths, but annoyingly absent of my latter 2. The same with my time in the military, and business; full of the latter 2, and depressingly missing the first 3. I had decided to get my MBA and manage research to try to combine them, but would I be happy with that decision? Or, would I just waste a lot of time and money to prepare and train for an idealized position that doesn’t really exist in the numbers necessary for me to have a shot at getting it? After reading the book and taking the test, I’m no closer to an answer.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Rick, you seem to have an excellent understanding of your own strengths. I particularly enjoyed your characterization of the academic vs. military and business worlds. I once heard someone describe the difference as follows: “In business, you try to make the biggest possible statement with the least amount of evidence. In academia, it’s the reverse.”

      So let’s call your other (undocumented) strength as Moderator,” as in, “Everything in moderation.” 🙂

      Rather than analyzing your way into a new career path via an assessment instrument, you sound like the kind of guy who might want to just try out different working environments, even as a volunteer, in order to figure out where you would be most comfortable. Based on the opportunities available to you, which working environments and organizational cultures are the best fit for you? Functional role aside, what is your ideal named target list of potential employers? Also, if you were to start your own company, what would that look like?

  17. I’m new to this topic, and came across this in my search for some backstory on the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment (which I took earlier this week for the first time). The company I work for has an initiative going on that led to me taking the assessment. I’ve been skeptical of these kinds of personality classifications for a long time, because they all seem to be trying to simplify something that has too many variables to be simple. I applaud the effort, but also think the data behind the effort should be more accessible.

    At any rate I took the basic assessment which, besides reminding me of a list of hits from High Fidelity, is tantalizingly frustrating. I want more. And I want data to make me feel like this is more than a random roll of the dice. I want to know how this works, and see what the score distribution is (as you mentioned early on). I want to know (out of the BIG34) what the distribution is from people who took the test, because, naturally I want to know if I’m part of the crowd or just wildly special. Right.
    Not finding that yet. But other questions arise.
    Can I skew the results if I take this more than once? Not that it would lead to anything especially effective, but it might give me a more complete picture and feel a little less like voodoo.
    For example, if I’m feeling particularly outgoing today, will the test pick up on that? Or does the content of my breakfast have an effect? Or if I argued with my wife this morning? (Morning theme developing. We don’t argue in the morning. No, really.)

    But I’m a noob to the topic and not trying to be hypercritical. Much. 🙂
    Around the community getting involved with this (where I work) the reaction smacks of Meyers-Briggs pop from a few years back. Where this seems better (in some respects) is the attempt to develop action plans based on your knowledge. However, that could lead to further specialization and lack of experimentation, don’t you think? I think you talk about it somewhere here that failure, or at least falling down, is part of success, and trying stuff you’ve never done before – not one of your strengths – is key.

    Thanks for the post. Highly useful.

    • Wow, Neal… you’ve pretty much captured the essence of this post, as well as much of the subsequent discussion. Nicely done, and quite agreed!

      I especially like how you connect the issue of over-specialization with a lack of experimentation. While we live an age that rewards expertise, we also live an age that punishes rigidity and a lack of innovation. Maintaining curiosity and adaptability is critical in our rapidly changing environment.

      Thanks for reading and posting!

      • A few months after I had read Now Discover Your Strengths, I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad and I can say that this one is the opposite of the first book. I was impressed by both though. Maybe a good thing to do is to get different skills throughout your twenties and then decide what you like best and what is more beneficial for you. Best Regards, Vilma

      • Vilma..!! Welcome back!

        So glad to see that you’re still in the loop with this post, and especially glad to hear that you’re continuing to explore this theme and making other connections. I’m also a fan of Rich Dad, Poor Dad… and I agree there is a conceptual clash (or perhaps, an intersection) between it and StrengthsFinder. Definitely a topic for a future blog post… but I have a feeling you could write it better than me.

      • Thank you for the kind words, Danspira! : ) I read the StrengthsFinder as soon as a friend of mine gave it to me. Whereas Rich Dad, Poor Dad had been staying in the shelf for 3 or 4 years until I decided to read it last summer (again given to me be a friend). I didn’t like the cover and the title – I thought it had a strange title. A blog about the two would be good – but I don’t know much about blogs. You seem to know such things better.

      • Yeah, Dan… I sure didn’t *add* anything did I? 🙂 Thanks for the blazingly quick reply.

      • Certainly… at the very least, Neal, you’ve added the notion of situational breakfast-based strengths… 😉

      • Also, I can say that Now Discover Your Strengths leads to self indulgance, whereas Rich Dad, Poor Dad shakes you up.

      • Yes! Expand on this, please… 😉

  18. Some articles have been making the rounds lately, based on a study that came out a while back, “THE USE OF PERSONALITY TESTS AS A HIRING TOOL: IS THE BENEFIT WORTH THE COST?” by Prof. Susan J. Stabile.

    “The costs of making bad hiring decisions and the difficulties of getting
    meaningful information from reference checks of prospective employees have led many employers to use personality tests as part of their hiring process. Employers choose from a wide variety of tests in an effort to both weed out job candidates with undesirable traits, such as dishonesty, or tendencies toward violence or tardiness, and to judge the “fit” between the prospective employee and the job by seeking to identify prospective employees possessing personality traits likely to predict success in the job in question.


    “While some employers are convinced that personality tests are akin to astrology and tell no more than an interviewer could learn during a standard interview, other employers swear by them and are convinced that they are hiring better workers as a result of their use.”

    Bottom line of the study is that the tests are unreliable or invalid for most hiring decisions, and potentially discriminate against certain groups. It should be noted this study sets out to prove an existing point of view… in terms of more objective approaches, it would be interesting to compare employee retention data across organizations that did/didn’t use these sorts of personality test screens… but isolating all the other variables and getting a big enough sample size would be a real challenge.
    More here:

    (I think that using a personality test as a major component of the hiring process is ultimately a test of the applicant’s compliance with the sort of organizational culture that uses personality tests as a hiring screen.)

  19. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for this post. It’s refreshing to see some critical thought on this subject matter. Most of the other stuff online seems very cheerleader-y.

    Just wondering what you think of Seligman’s VIA test vs the Clifton test? I know the Seligman test tends to be more “life” oriented whereas Clifton’s descriptions are more workplace oriented. Do you feel one test or the other is better?

    What’s interesting to me is that I think the intuitive concept “find and emphasize your strengths” is highly valid. I do wonder, however, if a self-administered test can ever be truly useful? Adam Grant makes a great point that we might well bias our answers to fit a profile that we may consciously or unconsciously want to fit? He suggests a method of getting feedback from others as another way to attack this important question which I’m sure you’ve probably seen..

    Thanks again.


    • Hi Herb,

      Likewise, thank you for these thoughtful comments and questions. Yes, I am a fan of Seligman’s work – and that’s an interesting contrast (VIA vs StrengthsFinder) that you raise.

      Which test is “better,” you ask? As you indicate, the answer to that may depend on the intended purpose: The VIA inventory goes deeply into character, personality and intrinsic (positive) feelings, while the StrengthsFinder inventory focuses more on external behaviors and other talents that could easily apply to a white collar career / job description. Therefore on the surface, StrengthsFinder tool seems to be a better fit than VIA for industrial applications – although I dispute the degree to which StrengthsFinder positions its “signature themes” as stable character traits vs. learnable behaviors.

      For example, the “Command®” theme (“People strong in the Command theme have presence. They can take control of a situation and make decisions.“) reads to me like something that anyone can nurture with practice, coaching and feedback – I teach and coach “Command” (without the registered mark) to people every week, and have seen many professionals turn themselves around precisely in those kinds of areas.

      Conversely, the themes in VIA – ideas such as “Creativity” and “Gratitude” seem to run much deeper. So perhaps the VIA instrument would be a better fit for more generalized purposes of self-discovery and self-help. Also, because VIA provides the ranking for all 24 items in its inventory, it could more easily be used as part of a ‘discover and improve on your weaknesses’ exercise.

      On the level of mechanics, the VIA test is transparent – before writing this reply to you I tried out the free test here: While taking the VIA test it was very clear and obvious how it was being scored: 10 x 24 questions about 24 things, in pretty much the same order on each of the 10 screens, for a total of 240 questions, on a five-point Likert scale. VIA has none of the opaque mystery of the time-constrained, non-linear, paired-phrase ranking approach of the StrengthsFinders test. Does transparency make for a “better” test, though? I want to say yes. Yet, as much as I hate to admit it (especially after decrying StrengthsFinder’s opacity in my blog post), there’s a part of me that says “no.”
      Since VIA was free and since it was so simple and transparent in its mechanics, my sense of its validity was lowered. Yes, all its questions are socially desirable, and I get that the paired phrase approach of isn’t always the best way… I guess I would have liked it better if VIA at least varied the sequence of items on each screen. After two screens, I already had a good idea of what the remaining screens would look like, scoring-wise. “An assessment that repeats back to you what you told it” is a term that some of my clients use, for this type of test experience. Also, that sort of predictable repetition can’t help with a personal narrative bias.

      All that said, doing VIA for the purposes of replying to this discussion did give me some results that were personally thought-provoking. Apparently, one of my top five strengths is “Capacity to Love and Be Loved” (“You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.”) Yes, this trait is a human universal… as are pretty much all of the VIA traits. However, that this should emerge as one of my top traits wasn’t something I had considered before… but it resonated for me. Recently I’ve been drawing a firmer line between those who I wish to spend my time with and those who I don’t, and love’s got a lot to do with it. In other words, lately I’ve found myself actively reducing the number of jerks that I work with. What VIA is telling me that there’s a strong reason for that, that I value and express a “Capacity for Loving” higher than themes such as Fairness or Spirituality.

      Or maybe I’m just improving in my “Common Sense” attribute (oops, just kidding… “Common Sense” is neither a VIA theme or a StrengthsFinder theme… alas…).

      While I’m in critique mode: I wasn’t too keen on some of the VIA questions, e.g. lots of use of the terms “always” and “never” which threw me off. Also, the definitions around some traits have cultural biases (“Love of Learning” includes by questions about read booking and visiting museums), which could skew results for some people.

      Wow, Herb. This reply has been a lot longer than I had originally envisioned. Nicely done. As for your second part about getting feedback from others, I’ll make this part quick: 1) No, I hadn’t read that Adam Grant piece before but it is excellent. Behavioral interviewing meets 360 feedback… love it. 2) Even when doing self-administered feedback, I like to ask people something along the lines of “what would other people say about you?” as a way of framing their focus on behaviors/decisions rather than intentions/desires, 3) Some of the best feedback comes from honestly appraising our decisions about how we spend our time and our money. If we let down our initial defensive barrier and set aside the rationalizations, we may even uncover the deepest and strongest elements of our personality playing out in broad daylight.

      Thanks for the opportunity to extend this rich discussion.


  20. I don’t know about all this intellectual discussion on Strengthfinders but what I do know is actual real world results. I been in business leadership positions for 25 years, especially sales and marketing. I been exposed to virtually every personality assessment tool, management fad and business self help concept. Back in the late 90’s, the large multinational pharmaceutical company I was working for purchased the full suite of customized, internal, Gallop lead, Strengthfinders management program throughout the organization (the CEO read & loved the book). I was skeptical at first as most mangers are of any new management theory shoved down your throat by a company. Then, I was fortunate enough to attend the 1st orientation lead by all the authors (I sat at lunch and had a long dialogue with Buckingham – a brilliant man and a business light bulb event for me). Gallop presented a well documented review of the data they had collected to support their theories (no other program has every matched the diligence they applied to their theories (and I would say a lot of what I see here in this web blog is undocumented theory).

    Okay, so why am I taking the time today, which I really don’t have (I am starting a new healthcare technology company from the ground up and will be shortly hiring many new employees with my version of “Discover your strengths” tools I’ve customized to my needs over the years)? Simply put – it works. When I met the Gallop team, heard the theory and read the book, I had a business epiphany. All my personal, diverse theories about who to hire and why, how to management different personalities to produce consistent superior results became much clearer. I had been getting close on my own but the concepts in SF catapulted my management technique to a new level. I returned to my team and my managers and we all took the assessments, shared the results, discussed them openly, agreed one-on-one how I should manage my direct reports based on their individual strengths. We then identified core strengths the team felt would make for high performing sales talent. Each manager then assessed our current sales team, held similar discussions with every field sales unit, focused on maximizing their strengths for career success. We then developed a hiring profile, interview questions to uncover strengths, bought the assessments for all leading job candidates to share with us and then executed a hiring plan to bring in sales talent that most closely matched our profiles (per job type).

    The feedback from staff at all levels was immediate, positive and surprising. I heard countless stories of “light bulbs”, I was caught off guard by the sometimes heart-breaking stories of individuals wanting to perform better but were so tangled up in years of being told what they were bad at, what they need to improve, need for additional training, blah, blah, blah – a phenomenon I call “HR gone amok with a budget.” Just look at any corporate field assessment, midyear or annual review. They force managers to use employees’ weaknesses to grade/pay on a curve because we all know “every team is a perfect bell shaped curve” with exactly the correct number of performers at each level (so the annual pay increases magically hit the CPI index they want).

    So, the results? Our business unit went from last place to first in one year – a result unheard of in this type of industry (conservative, slow-changing cruise ship turning type). the CEO flew out in the corporate jet to pay us a visit and snoop around (yes, the same one that loved the book & no I am not a brown-noser). We went through a tripling in size during year 2, expanding from 50 to 150 in the business unit. We maintained and grew our leadership within the company. At the end of year two I was offered the head of sales position for the entire company.

    I have since been a part of creating 2 new sales & marketing teams in start-ups. In each instance I used the same system created based on SF & each has been successful. Both ended with commercial teams of approx. 150 people. Both were successfully bought out by bigger companies and a lot of wealth was created. Interestingly, in both cases, ALL the commercial employees were offered permanent positions in the acquiring companies! How often in today’s M&A world do you hear that?

    Bottom line: SF, applied with good judgement & executed well gives a team so more than just a good “language” but a methodical way to hire, manage for results & help the folks on your team realize their career ambitions. In other words – results & and that is the bottom line in business today.

    • What a fantastic anecdote… thanks for taking out the time to share it, much appreciated.

      If you haven’t seen it already, you might enjoy checking out some of the continued work of Marcus Buckingham at as well as Zenger Folkman at Both are strengths-based development approaches which use as their evidence a set of statistical corelations based on extensive self-reported data samples.

      • It is a pass it forward thing…someone out there will try this or something similar (as I mentioned I used a “bastardized” version that has changed over the years) and it will rock their management world & everyone will benefit.

    • It sounds as though SF has provided some really valuable practical use. While I agree that it can foster some really good dialogue, there are some limitations to SF and I’d suggest that you reconsider the use of SF in any hiring context without consulting a employment law attorney. It’s up to you but using SF exclusively (in addition to modifying it) sans assessing competency could increase risk for a legal challenge to the hiring practice.

      My biggest concern for SF is the lack of clarity about what it measures and its confusion around two very different dimensions of behavior — preference and proficiency.

      Because SF is a self-assessment, it is only really measuring the “strength” of your preference toward some attribute or style or topic as compared to others. It does not validate whether you really are analytical, strategic, etc., or whether you are actually good at those skills, styles or behaviors therein. It definitely can help someone understand what it is that he or she prefers and help guide him or her to roles or assignments that leverage that strong preference. It also can stimulate some good team dialogue about diversity and how different preferences/styles might contribute to outcomes. it also adds a very positive spin on things which I think is additionally valuable.

      What SF DOES NOT do is measure how PROFICIENT or EFFECTIVE your preference (Strength) is in regards to a particular role or task. Based on other social or desirability contingencies in the culture, it would be quite easy to answer SF in a manner that reflects what someone “desires to be” as opposed to genuine preference. Likewise, I also think that it is easy for a culture or role to shape and strongly influence how someone might respond based on tenure in that culture or role (e.g., the job role says X, so I must prefer X. Or worse, I’d better say I prefer X so my boss/team doesn’t question why I’m doing X). I’ve seen some of the most tactical people I know take SF and “magically” their top strength is Strategic but they are anything but effective at strategy.

      On the more technical side, I’ve not researched it but would be interested in the construct validity associated with each of the strengths. I would assume that Gallup has conducted factor analyses on each of the strengths but on the surface it does appear that there is a lot of overlap.

      As Dan mentions, SF isn’t the only approach that emphasizes strengths (competency based and preference based) such as Zenger/Folkman, etc.

      • Yada, yada, yada. This is a classic example of making something that is in essence extremely simple, difficult to confuse managers and create HR jobs. Oh, let’s scare everyone with attorneys! Like “Targeted Selection”, a mainstay of the pharma industry for decades, really uncovered proficiency or effectiveness in a candidate. I guess it beats the old standard “sell me that ashtray” model. Here is how you handle it. You have required experience and/or skills for the job that are go/no go (called a job posting). You assess & grade them in the CV review, phone screens or follow-up in an interview. More importantly, during the interview you are assessing job “fit” – fit with customers, peers and/or management. this is where a tool (any descent tool actually) helps managers, untrained in the finer interview techniques (i.e. virtually all hiring managers), have a dialogue with the candidate and get a feel for their personality and the match to the position.

      • “Yada, yada, yada. This is a classic example of making something that is in essence extremely simple, difficult to confuse managers and create HR jobs. Oh, let’s scare everyone with attorneys!”

        –You have the liberty to do whatever you want to do, I’m just mentioning what’s legal and what’s not when you use an assessment in the hiring process. I’m not trying to scare anyone and the fact is that when you use an assessment in the hiring process, laws apply. Use the House-Tree-Person for all I care and let Gallup know that you’ve “improved” SF and use it for selection and see what they say..maybe they are missing something you’ve discovered an will now advocate for it as a solitary selection assessment (ask them).

        “Like “Targeted Selection”, a mainstay of the pharma industry for decades, really uncovered proficiency or effectiveness in a candidate. I guess it beats the old standard “sell me that ashtray” model. Here is how you handle it. You have required experience and/or skills for the job that are go/no go (called a job posting). You assess & grade them in the CV review, phone screens or follow-up in an interview. More importantly, during the interview you are assessing job “fit” – fit with customers, peers and/or management.”

        –My point is that assessments measure a lot more than preferences and best practice is that when you use an assessment, you assess competencies first and personality or preference as a secondary measure. Targeted selection is an interview technique not an assessment. TS has the same biases as any other interviewer would which is generally why assessments are used in the first place.

        — If you get value out of it, have at it. I’m not saying that it can’t be useful in some respects.

        — By the way, have you run a regression analysis against all your employee “job fit” profiles to validate that the strengths you believe to be associated with job fit correlate to sales per month? How else are you supporting your claim that the profiles are predicting success in “bottom line”, “business outcome” measures and that SF is what’s “causing” the positive outcomes?

      • So, in essence you agree with me. All the rest is just academic defensive BS. By the way, how many 100+ person teams have you personally built from the ground up and had to have your results measured weekly or be fired? Not many I’m sure. Take you regression analyses and….oh sorry, I have to go explain to hiring managers the difference between an assessment and a interview technique. Give me a break! Gut instincts are better than an “assessment” designed by a cubicle sitter.

    • John and Dan,

      I’m 3 years late and a dollar short but would like to reply. I’m in the middle of a masters in leadership course and reading and studying about the use of these tests. I have been bothered by their overuse partially because of my own beliefs and experiences. I’ve been good at many different roles using my positivity, WOO, activator, ideation. What struck me from Dan’s post is that most of my success has been due to liking my environment that I’ve worked in quality, engineering, operations management, sales / customer support, and continuous improvement. When I first got out of college, my developer score would not have been strong. I was fiercely competitive and didn’t care about developing others. I didn’t do the score then, but now my developer is in my top 5. I firmly believed that moved way up. Conversely, my competitive nature was out of control high when I was young and out of college. Now, that takes a back seat to teamwork and a host of other things because I’ve witnessed it out of control to hurt people in business – firing people because results weren’t perfect, people stepping on each other to get promotions, etc.

      John – I appreciate using your results to support the theory that SF works. However, I would raise a question about a large portion of the equation you left off. It seems your company had outstanding leadership. You had open and genuine conversations, you approached touchy subjects by talking about things that were going well / not so well. SF was a tool / gauge, but it doesn’t appear that it was the engine. Did your company have a good vision, strong values, and clear goals? Were the leaders motivational? I could go on and on. Point being, I wonder if you used a different test, and had open conversations with the current leadership, if the results would have been just as good.


      • Dave – Your reply coming in “3 years late and a dollar short” is certainly appreciated… never too late, never too short! As it is, I’ve been taking a hiatus from blogging for over a year now and miss it… so I appreciate getting spurred back into revisiting this conversation.

        You story illustrates beautifully the power of environment to shape our tendencies and preferences, sometimes in subtle ways over time. At the time that the StrengthsFinder book was originally written, the dominant ideology around neuroplasticity was that people’s brains don’t change much after age 18. That is starting to change… scientists are now recognizing that people’s brain structures can grow and change dramatically in later years of life, particularly around the “quarter life crisis” points. Taken together, the effects of both environment and internally-experienced deep change mean that we are far more malleable in our “talents” than the book suggests.

        My current thinking on the value of StrengthsFinder (and the various alternatives to it) is that it’s a great tool for individual self-reflection to help with prioritization and focus for the best opportunities and tasks on a 3-5 year timeframe.

  21. Dan,

    That was a great read, thank you. I found my way to your site, because I was looking for the downside to the greatest strengths. I am individualization, arranger, positivity, self-assurance, and connectedness. Like you and a few posters here, I would not only like to know my weaknesses to continue growing, but I would like to know the positive and negative aspects of each “strength”. I was hoping you could point me in the right direction.

    • Michael,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Any strength taken too far, in isolation of anything else, becomes a weakness. The art of strengths-based development is to nurture a set of complementary (or “companion”) strengths that work together as a set, reinforcing and amplifying the benefits of each other. This holds true for whatever strengths-based system/vocabulary you’re using, including the Gallup StrengthsFinder book + instrument.

      The standard StrengthsFinder documentation doesn’t provide any specific descriptions of what happens to each of the signature 34 strengths if those strengths are taken too far… and I think this is because the book is trying, above else, to move people towards an attitude of “be remarkable” vs. “be balanced.” However, that shouldn’t dissuade you from being self-aware… why don’t you go through you list of strengths and answer the question yourself? i.e., What happens when you over-express a given strength?

      e.g. “When I am overly focused on Individualization, I…”
      e.g. “When I am too much of an Arranger, I…”

      Another area that can help: In the Action Planning section of StrengthsFinder, some of the strengths descriptions note how other people might (mis)perceive you… you may be able to use that as a kind of guide to knowing if and when are over-expressing a given strength, and figure out how best to modulate (or co-develop) your strengths in a way that is optimal.

      Hope this helps… and do please let me know if you come across anything else!


  22. Just ran across this conversation because my employer asked us what trainings we might like to see and I wanted to see if StrengthsFinders had one because I found the quiz to be really helpful on a personal level. The main thing I got from the book was a re-thinking of “strength” to mean something that “strengthens” you, which actually may not be what you – or others – consider to be your talent. I’m good at teaching, maybe even talented, but teaching in a school with a repetitive curriculum absolutely drained me. Others love it – power to them. In fact, when I took the quiz, my first strength came up as Learner, which I had come to think of as a weakness, having been accused of being a professional student or someone who couldn’t stick with something because I would get bored after I learned it. Never occurred to me that fields such as marketing or government with changing products or regulations would be more suitable – environments where they pay you to learn and grow and come up with new ideas. I got a lot of good information from my other strengths as well – for example, that my Strategic thinking can put people off if I immediately go into the mode of thinking things through to a possible conclusion and then bring up what could go wrong, because people who don’t think that way think you are being negative. That happened to me SO many times in meetings and I couldn’t understand it. Now I know how to couch what I’m saying in a positive way so people know I’m on board with the idea, just want to do everything possible to ensure success. I have to say that for 35 bucks the amount of self awareness and action steps to improve my life that I got were well worth it. Of course, I took it with an open mind and a willingness to just see what resonated or would give me a fresh perspective on things… I never imagined that people would try to use this for more than self-understanding and improvement. This kind of awareness can lead to better performance in the work place – or to looking for a different kind of work! It never occurred to me that people would base hiring practices on this! Because yeah.. you can learn stuff from astrology, too. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs book – a classic that I read in junior high – describes 12 different personality types (it’s not your average horoscope b.s.)… do check out the Gemini section – smart ass of the zodiac! I guess you could even do a training on the astrology signs – I mean, there are ALL kinds of fun ways to get people to stop for a minute and think about their behavior. But it would be pretty weird to hire for a job that way… INNOVATIVE COMPANY SEEKS CREATIVE TRIPLE VIRGO WITH CLEAR THINKING, ATTENTION TO DETAIL AND A LOVE OF SERVICE TO TAKE ITS MESSAGE TO THE NEXT LEVEL. SUBMIT COMPLETE ASTROLOGY CHART WITH RESUME. SAGITTARIANS NEED NOT APPLY.

    • Brilliant, Elizabeth!

      Yes, I really like the distinction/re-definition of “strengths” as “the activities that strengthen you,” very well said, and definitely a great perspective to bring to this here conversation. In his most recent work, Marcus Buckingham also describes “weaknesses” as “the activities that weaken you.” What’s nice about this is that it makes the conversation just a bit less essentialist… but only a bit. In other words, as a Gemini I’m no longer calling myself a smart ass… I am simply strengthened by smart ass activities! 😉

      I think the next verbal trick is give ourselves permission to add the conditional phrase, “up until now,” when desired. As in, “my weaknesses are the activities that have weakened me up until now.” Wdyt?

      LOLed on the job description, well played!

  23. A short way to sum up SF would be to say it is a bit of a blunt instrument.

    However thst do

  24. Dan,
    Thanks for examining this pop pscyhology/culture phenomenon, from one contrarian to another. This is similar to the various ineffective assessments used by career centers on university campuses nationwide. If the career center people would call the psychology department on the other side of campus, they would find out they need to change their tools in order to help people choose majors and careers.
    I have reviewed dozens of the more popular career assessments out there… most (MBTI, etc) are indefensible to a logical argument.
    Keep up the good fight of questioning “conventional wisdom”, which is normally dead wrong.
    Cheers, Richard

    • Richard,
      Thanks for the insightful note. Great suggestion, re: having the career center people call up the psychology department people. The mind races to think of all the factors that would keep those departments from collaborating with each other… and what it would take to overcome those factors.

  25. I read through your blog as I was interested in your “take” on the work of Donald Clifton. As part of a health care executive team, I was privileged to spend several days at Gallup in group as well as individual sessions. I use Strengths Finder 2.0 in my career consulting practice as I believe it does add insight into “who you are” and answers the question “What are your greatest strengths”in an interview instead of a “wishy washy” answer.

    You are certainly entitled to state your opinion, but I must have missed the part where you did the research on which you based your comments.

    • Hi, Reed. I hope you are well. If you could direct us to the details about the research and validation information for the StrengthsFinder assessment, that would be great.

      • Reed, glad to hear you’ve had some positive personal experiences in sessions that featured the Strengths Finder tools.

        My own experience is that there a wide assortment of tools to help people achieve their personal potential and more effective business outcomes. Depending on the person and situation, some tools seem to work better than others.

        I also think it’s important to distinguish the terms “very popular” from “research-based.” From what I see, there is very little peer-validated, evidence-based work when it comes to Strengths Finder… or many other tools, for that matter. However, some people like the idea of being measured and compared to other people, so in addition to the advantage of having social proof, popular assessments like SF will also have the advantage of providing a “benchmark” for people who want to know how well they “stack up.”

        But, yeah, as Richard (Executive Impact) points out, it’s on the promoters of SF to provide the proof of validity, not on those of us who have had mixed experiences with it.

  26. Dan, As a fellow contrarian who would love to help you root out the “pop psychology” that is rampant in today’s career advisement world (can you say “MBTI”?), I too would love to see the scientific assessment information that supposedly backs up the validity of StrengthsFinder in it various marketing incarnations. Perhaps this is a wonderful instrument, but I cannot find any backup info on their site or anywhere else.
    As we know. creating a survey, polling people, and developing an assessment tool does not create a defendable assessment instrument unless it can be shown that it conforms to certain requirements that have been set for question formulation, data gathering techniques, target population selection, etc.
    It is incumbent on the assessment creator to demonstrate the tool is valid, not on its detractors to prove the tool is invalid.
    A fellow contrarian.

  27. Chris Jensen

    Here’s a thought. Strength comes from exercise. What caused you to exercise the particular areas that StrengthsFinder highlighted?

    I would guess that all of my strengths are related to adversities suffered during my life. The more consistently types of challenges have arisen, the more I’ve had to exercise these areas to overcome them.

    My 5 signature strengths are: Analytical, Intellection, Deliberative, Connectedness, Relator.

    Connectedness is an interesting one for me. I would say it arises from analysis of cause and effect in complex social structures, like networks of people at school or work. Where I felt a negative effect in the past, I took pains to analyze why and became skilled at determining interaction patterns. It’s a valuable skill that I put to use at work fairly often. My mind goes places rather quickly and efficiently that others wouldn’t necessarily go and coupled with analytical, allows me to piece together a bigger picture of what might be happening. More often than not, I’m right or at least on the right track. It’s like having a highly tuned socio-political radar.

    Strength in Intellection was compounded daily by social isolation in grade school. You get to spend a lot of time asking yourself those deep questions if you don’t reciprocate when confronted with hormone-induced chest-thumping rituals because backing down or otherwise deferring causes loss of status. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have bloodied at least a few more noses. But then I wouldn’t be such a deep thinker. I’d probably be stronger in Command or some other action-oriented strength.

    Deliberative, well, that’s an easy one. If you aren’t careful about your decisions, people looking for a target or scapegoat will easily exploit them for their own enjoyment or gain. Taking a while to think through things a few more times can pay dividends if you discover a flaw in your plan which would lead to someone being able to take advantage of you. It’s all about keeping that pessimistic eye out for people with the Exploiter strength and protecting against them. Deliberation is the offspring of failure.

    Relator is easy as well. It’s simply deliberation applied to social interaction. Given a reasonable amount of time, using Analytical and Connectedness, one comes to a decision about whether an individual can be trusted or not. Once the deliberation cycle is fulfilled, it’s like opening a floodgate. Fewer but more trusted relationships means they need to be deeper to satisfy the same emotional requirement as someone otherwise not hobbled.

    Now… for each one of these 34 strengths we can hypothesize a negative stimulus that would cause them to be over-exercised and thus, given a list of the top 5 for any individual we can psychoanalyze them to determine their personality levers.

    For instance, let’s say that you are a WOO’er, well maybe that means that as a youth you had low self-esteem and needed to overcompensate by making everyone like you.

    Or, perhaps you enjoy Harmony as a strength because you’ve found that the best way to avoid being trampled by others is to get out of the way or take the path of least resistance.

    So, an Exploiter (if there was such a strength) would look at peoples’ top 5 strengths, derive their causes and apply leverage, such as denying an Achiever the opportunity to complete activities successfully on a regular basis, or force a Learner to keep practicing or studying something they already know.

    Yes, it would be fairly easy to write a book that turned StrengthsFinder, something designed to be a positive self-improvement tool into something that people can use against others.

    There should be a warnings section for each strength.

    “Since you are naturally Deliberative, be on the lookout for people who will attempt to force you to make decisions without obtaining the necessary facts, or who may attempt to deny you appropriate time for analysis.”

    “If you’re naturally Analytical, be wary of people who may intentionally feed you misinformation in a way that would lead you to draw the wrong conclusion.”

    “Relators should watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing who attempt to win their trust in order to later betray it. Be particularly vigilant of people with the WOO strength when combined with Exploiter.”

    Of course I’m having a bit of fun with all this, but the best jokes are those based on elements of truth with some genuine plausibility.

    I hope this doesn’t ruin StrengthsFinder for anyone. It’s always good to be introspective, whether you treat it as a positive tool to improve yourself or twist it around cynically and use it to protect yourself.

    I do think that it’s valuable to ask yourself where your strengths came from, but usually it’s not always from negative experience. You also grow your strengths when you use them to positive effect, and that is certainly a more desirable, perhaps milder way to do so.

    I would hazard to guess that most people have increased their signature strengths both ways and that is why they stand out. If you’ve only had positive stimulus for a strength, unless you’ve been far more successful than average, then that strength must not shine as brightly as those for which you’ve had both positive and negative stimulus. The opposite is also likely true. We learn from both our mistakes and our successes, although natural selection suggests that too many failures leads to fewer opportunities.

    Early failures lead to later successes, and early success should more often than not lead to continued success rather than failure. So in the beginning our strengths are fostered by failure or perhaps luck, but over our lifetimes they are more nurtured by success.

    I would guess that the older you get, the more well-rounded your strengths become, so perhaps StrengthsFinder is better predictive and powerful tool for the young and a bit weaker, more retrospective tool for the old.

    What do you think?

    • Chris – You’ve presented so many interesting and powerful ideas here, starting with, “Strength comes from exercise.”

      One of the challenges that this post presented (and which is getting nicely kicked around and reshaped through ongoing discussion and input) is how to ensure that a Strengths-based development approach is based on what Carol Dweck refers to as a Growth Mindset instead of a Fixed Mindset.

      “Strengths are what you’re good at.” is a Fixed Mindset statement.

      “Strengths are what strengthen you” is still a bit of a Fixed Mindset statement, with a hint of External Locus of Control.

      “Strengths come from exercise” is a statement that allows for much more possibility, much more self-directed potential.

      Building off the exercise analogy, you’ve also generously shared some powerful personal examples … and your stories resonates deeply for me. Here is another post that I think you’ll appreciate:

      Although Deliberative didn’t show up in my Top 5 Signature Strengths when I took the test years ago, I would like to take some more time to think over what you’ve written.

      Thanks Chris.

  28. You are all making the same mistake; focusing too much on the downsides of the assessment rather than creating a balance and appreciating the advantages and strengths of the assessment. There is some truth to the assessed strengths. After all, this assessment assesses your preferred approaches and working styles in a professional setting. Don’t overthink this, but see it rather as a tendency to thinking and executing acitivites and tasks.

    “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

    We all need challenge to grow as a humans, I agree, but do you want to be constantly challenged? If so, than competition might be one of your strengths if you like to grow through managing your weaknesses. However, I do not want to constantly do something and not be as good at it as others are in those areas. Constant focus on overcoming weaknesses has an negative affect on our self-concept.

    You can increase the feeling of productivity by challenging yourself within the area you’re good at, you don’t have to constantly torture yourself through something you’re not good at to feel productive. I usually need a big break after such situations and I don’t really look forward to practicing activities that involve lots of overcoming of my weaknesses.

    • Well said and duly noted, Angelina. I like to think that the (*ahem*) strength of this post and its comment thread is in the critical thinking and contrarian point of view that it presents. By dissecting StrengthsFinder and similar tools in this way, we can improve how people use strengths-based approaches to personal and professional development.

      I love that quote attributed to Einstein. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful comments.

  29. Very helpful article, just read ‘Now, Discover your Strengths” and took the test. Enjoyed the book immensely, but my ANALYTICAL theme immediately set out to disprove everything I’d just learnt by finding contradictory evidence. Enjoyed your balanced review (and the thoughtful debate in comments).

    The key insight I’ve found useful from SF, is that the Top 5 themes are those that *give you energy* when you employ them.

    Yes, despite the emphasis on strengths in SF, you can certainly develop your weaknesses, and I’ve done so. Sometimes you just have to!

    Eg, I’m far from a natural empath but I’ve forced myself to learn this skill (because reasons) – and it’s been invaluable. I’m now probably more a tad more empathatic than average and can perceive things in others I would have been quite oblivious to in the past. However, I find exercising my new-found empathy very draining – I need time to recuperate afterwards.

    OTOH, I’m very aware that when I get stuck into using my SF themes, I feel brilliantly energised.

    As long as you understand this then you can attempt to balance your schedule into energising/draining work to try and avoid burn out and motivation loss.

  30. Wow! A blog written six years ago and still leading to conversations? That’s impressive. Thank you for your thoughtful review. It was the only counter I could find to the above mentioned cheerleading. And I understand that you wrote the contrary position to offer balance, not to dismiss the value of StrengthsFinders.

    I agree that the SF assessment is a great tool for introspection, but I see three serious problems. First, there’s no way to check results based on the scientific method. If I could respond to the assessment, say, 20 times over a period of a few months, I would be comfortable that the results weren’t influenced by a cranky mood, a poor work environment or a bad bit of beef.

    Next is the subjective aspects. Can I really trust my own perceptions of how I work? I’m reminded of a managers’ meeting ten years ago. One of the team, who was a very intelligent, capable, analytical systems designer, was delighted that his Myers-Briggs results affirmed his belief that he was very nimble and creative. Everyone in the room knew he had many strengths, but he was provably neither nimble or creative in the least.

    Finally, I took the SF assessment a few hours ago. It consisted of responses based on a spectrum from one statement to another. In some cases I could clearly see that I favored one end of the spectrum to the other. But in many, I selected “neutral” (the center of the spectrum) because I didn’t feel much about either end, while I also selected neutral because I cared a great deal about both ends of the spectrum. Shouldn’t there be a difference?

    All of those considered, having this kind of assessment is still probably better than no assessment. At least it starts the right conversations.

    • Thanks Jim! Yes, this discussion thread is alive and well, which definitely suggests something about this topic that tends to ignite a certain kind of passion!

      I agree that there’s no way to scientifically assess the validity of the SF assessment.

      Hmmmm… if for the price of the assessment Gallup would allow multiple runs over a period of time, that would be VERY interesting for the customer and not necessarily require too much additional expense to Gallup other than upfront software development. It would also provide all kinds of new data to Gallup, with the possibility of metadata such as time of day, self-reported mood, etc.

      Yeah, I like this idea. While it would expose the possibility of changes in one’s “signature strengths,” given the right pre-frame / inoculation, the publisher could spin it in a way that does not diminish (or even add to!) the assessment-taker’s belief in the power of this instrument. (Imagined instructions: “Compare the results between when you in an optimistic vs. pessimistic mood… what does that tell you about how your strengths show up under stress?”)

      None of this, of course, would make the instrument any more scientifically valid. But it would provide something for the skeptics to wrestle with and an elongated customer experience / multiple touch-points / opportunities for Gallup to up-sell more services.

      (Yes, I am available for hire as a consultant, Gallup… or whoever else might be looking to do this kind of stuff.)

      Jim, as for your other comments about the subjective nature of self-assessments in general and the multiple meanings of the “neutral” option between a pair of options, in this case I’m actually a fan of how SF is set up.

      Their variation of the forced-pair question type allows the user to overcome social desirability biases and express clear preferences along a gradient of intensity. In cases where preferences are not relevant or equally balanced, their approach produces a zero result, which makes complete sense, provided they repeat certain choices in different pair configuration over the course of the assessment (which they do).

      In this way, the SF is not really measuring what we’re good at, but rather, what we value. Hence the notion that a “strength” is something that *strengthens* a person, and it’s that energizing effect that propels the person to become better (“stronger”) at it.

      Thanks again for your stimulating and strengthening comments. I especially appreciate that you get the balancing intent of this post and its subsequent discussion!

  31. Hi danspira,

    I just wanted to say a huge thanks for this post (a bit of an understatement, considering the wealth of insight shared in this thread). I don’t know if they have, but if not, I’m surprised Gallup hasn’t snapped you up already (presuming you were still interested, of course 🙂

    I’m an education consultant, based in London, and I stumbled across your sight a few years ago whilst also looking for ‘downsides’ to SF. Like others here, I was looking for a critique of SF. I’m only commenting now, because I intend to use SF with clients, but want to go in with ‘eyes wide open’ as it were.

    I’ve found your comments (and those of others here) to be incredibly useful. I use a tool called Motivational Maps (see here for a video I created on this, for which I’m a licensed practitioner. The tool is based in part on the work of Edgar schein, Abraham Maslow and the Enneagram, and in a way similar to SF, measures what makes us tick, but provides an actual metric of this. As coaches we’re trained to help others increase their motivation / energy, by showing them how they can feed these motivators (again see vid for more info)

    Whilst the tech doesn’t claim construct / predictive validity, the face validity is powerful. With 95% of respondents confirming th accuracy of it (though I realise that if you if consider cognitive dissonance theory, this that amazing, but still! 😉 I can understand why Gallup haven’t revealed what’s actually going on under the hood, I mean how could they guarantee that they wouldn’t be ripped off!??

    Anyway, I actually didn’t comment here to try to sell anything, I genuinely want to thank you, but also, givenyour expertise and insight into this, I wondered if I could also give you a test run of the Motivational Mal tech which I use? Simply because I’d be interested to know your thoughts..

    Would happily do I Skype call if you’re interesrsdl? No strings attached, this isn’t a marketing ploy (at least not my intention) – I’m British, remember lol?!

    All best

  32. I found this discussion tonight after coming to the conclusion that, in my organization, mandated StrengthsFinder testing and results are in fact, being used to profile workers and decide their function and worse- to identify weaknesses through preferred trait plotting. This comes after reading an email and realizing that the people being discussed for positions were compared using their resulting traits- basically the antithesis of its namesake. Frightening.

    I took the test 2X and came up with totally different results in three of the traits.

    As a newfound critic of the process I recommend Kouzes and Possner’s Leadership inventory as it does not focus on what you have but what you need to be a servant leader- in my opinion a much better path for individual growth. When reading through these materials, finding your strengths seems self-absorbed in comparison. They separate personality from behavior covering topics that are about how leaders interact with others in the Five Core Practices that have been observed from effective leaders’ histories. Much more powerful than learning about how “good you are”.

    • Yes, it would appear that using Strengths Finder to make corporate personnel decisions could be a perilous approach for both the employees and the employer. Similar to the negative effects of individuals using the MBTI.

  33. Whoa. Awesome post and comments. I have not taken the assessment yet. Found on google search re: “is sf worth it”. After all that I’ve read here, I will wait.
    I haven’t taken Briggs test but I seriously love Sally Hogsheads Fascinate system. I would like to hear your thoughts on that Dan and also I’m really tempted to invest in the wealth dynamics by Roger Hamilton. My brief research intrigues me and I have a good feeling about this one.
    Thanks so much for keeping this great conversation going into 2016!

    • Fascinating… but I guess it’s predictable that the self-reported data aggregated from millions of sort-of-sexist people will tend to be sort-of-sexist, i.e. people taking the self-assessment may gravitate towards preconceived notions around innate male-female neurological tendencies, some of which do have scientific basis for the general population but which vary widely on an individual basis. I’m not sure if the StrengthsFinder assessment tool itself is acting more than just a vehicle for individual self-expression, though.

  34. This article is right on; reflects much of my opinion about StrengthsFinder 2.0. I think it can be useful for putting together effective (and perhaps temporary teams, like in a Lean construction project, for example). But it isn’t a tool for personal development, and not even a great tool for self-awareness. After having taken a slew of assessments, I’ve landed on the Integrative Enneagram — it has helped tremendously in my coaching work and very much so in my own self-development.

    Thank you for articulating so well the weaknesses of StrengthsFinder!

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