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. Created 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 StrengthsFinder.com. 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.
**LONG RANT WARNING***
**LONG RANT WARNING***
**LONG RANT WARNING***
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:
STRENGTH = TALENT (SKILL + KNOWLEDGE)
..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:
EXCEPTIONAL PERFORMANCE = (KNOWLEDGE+SKILLS+PROCESS) MINDSET
…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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Posted on January 10, 2009, in Career, Coaching, Learning, Management, Talent and tagged Career Development, Coaching, Personality type, Psychometric, Strengths, Strengths-based development, Talent development. Bookmark the permalink. 81 Comments.