“Look on the bright side.” “See the silver lining.” “Accentuate the positive.” In life, we’re often told to focus on what’s good about a particular situation as opposed to what isn’t. Likewise, in business, we usually prefer to highlight and build upon a person’s strengths as opposed to acknowledge and correct his or her weaknesses.
However, when this approach becomes an actual learning and development strategy — otherwise known as strengths-based leadership development, which is currently in vogue among the learning community — it can pose serious problems, said Rob Kaiser, a partner at executive development consultancy Kaplan DeVries Inc. and author of The Perils of Accentuating the Positive.
“It is akin to making big-bet decisions based on potential and ignoring risk,” Kaiser said.
Strengths-based leadership development popped onto the scene around 2000 with the publication of Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, part of The Gallup Organization’s push into the consulting world, Kaiser said.
“The logic goes: There are certain things that you were born with a nature or proclivity for, and maximizing those is the best bet to become truly great. There are some things for which you will never be truly great, and trying to get better at those is a waste of time,” he said.
“Now, let’s get to some basic things that are at play here. Would you rather go to one of your colleagues and tell them about something that they did really well that you were pleased with, or would you rather go tell them about something you were unhappy with?” he continued. “There’s a general level of discomfort addressing issues, weaknesses. Think about our language: We don’t even really talk about addressing weaknesses — we talk about ‘developmental opportunities.’”
And this can be very dangerous for a variety of reasons.
“First off, many of the roles that make up the management or leadership jobs are not electives. If you can’t delegate, if you can’t provide clear direction, if you can’t hold people accountable, your team’s going to lose. The organization suffers and ultimately you will, too,” Kaiser said.
Additionally, research has shown that high-performing and low-performing leaders actually possess the same set of desirable skills, but the low-performers — also called derailers — are either lacking key qualities or exhibit other traits that ultimately prove fatal.
“There were really four kinds of differences,” Kaiser explained. “The derailers, first off, had a fatal flaw — big-time interpersonal relationship problems. They also seemed to overreact to [issues]: They didn’t handle [them] with equanimity and focus on solving the problem; they got caught up in blame. The other thing is, when you look at the career histories, yes, they both had successful track records, but the derailers were more likely to have a very narrow range of experiences. The stars had these deep zigzag career experiences where they had all sorts of diverse previous job assignments. The final [difference] was in stress tolerance.”
Another pitfall of strengths-based leadership is that accentuating only the positive often leads people to overuse or misapply their assets, “so they have this big hammer and suddenly every problem looks like a nail,” according to Kaiser. The true strength lies in knowing how and when to use certain abilities.
“The truth of the matter is, there are no such things as pure strengths and pure weaknesses — they’re all intertwined and mixed up together. It depends on how you use these qualities and abilities that determines whether it’s a strength or a weakness,” Kaiser said.
So, what might be a better development strategy?
“A balanced approach that acknowledges both strengths and weaknesses is the best bet,” Kaiser said. “Absolutely know your strengths. Absolutely build around your strengths. But, there are two caveats. [First off,] get behavior-based feedback about how you use those strengths. Almost every manager overdoes something, but well over half of them don’t recognize the tendency to overdo it.
“[Secondly, learning executives] really have to work hard to get people — managers especially — to internalize and truly embrace their knowledge and strengths. [And] don’t neglect the weaknesses!”
- 5 Forces Shaping the Future of HR
- Why ‘Leaders Eat Last’
- What’s holding inclusion back? Leaders’ behavior.
- Psychological safety: an overlooked secret to organizational performance
- Designing virtual learning for application and impact: the missing ingredient
- Brain-based leadership in a time of heightened uncertainty
- Creating an environment for effective learning measurement