Strengths-based leadership development can hurt organizations. A few years ago, a client devoted to strengths-based development discovered that our coaching program centered on tackling weaknesses head on. We were dismissed—despite the outstanding results we had a part in helping them generate across their most profitable market. In the years since, the company continued to emphasize strengths-based development. Yet the CEO has complained that the leaders in the company have lost their edge. Market share continues to fall year after year.
This is just one example of the consequences a strengths-based bias can have on performance.
During the last decade or so, we’ve seen a lot of emphasis on strengths-based development, talent management, leadership and coaching. Marcus Buckingham, Tom Rath, and many others have grown their following with what seems an attractively simple idea: stop worrying about your shortcomings and focus on building on your strengths.
A Real-World Illustration
Encouraging people to enhance what they’re good at is a good idea. Your strengths are what help you succeed.
But playing exclusively to your strengths only takes you so far. If you’re only focusing on what you’re good at, you’re not paying attention to the weak spots that get in the way of excellence. There’s a great analogy here, and it has to do with speed, timing, endurance, strengths — and weaknesses. The analogy is sports car racing. Whenever I get the chance, I get out to the track. To go fast. To push myself. To test my abilities. And to see how I measure up against my competitors. (that’s me behind the wheel above) The lap times don’t lie!
Over the years, I’ve become somewhat fast, but at a price. To pull my best times, I rely on my strengths. I am late to the brakes at the end of every straightway and hard on the gas out of the slower turns. I don’t focus on the areas where my competitors are better, because I keep pushing on my strengths. But my strengths have reached a point where they are hard on the car, hard on the tires, and ultimately, slow down my lap times. I’ve topped out. To put it bluntly, guys who drive like me rarely win.
The Advantage of Facing Up
What does it take to win? My coach Kent Moore is a guy who knows a lot about wins given his epic history with Porsche. He is the former crew chief and two-time Le Mans winner with the White Lighting team. He has me on a new program that disregards my strengths. Instead, he is exclusively focused on getting me to overcome my weaknesses—and he is not shy about calling them out for me.
In Kent’s view, if I can overcome my weaknesses, I can be competitive, or as he puts it, “a hard guy to beat.” If I can’t, I am doomed to be mid-level at best—a fate far worse than tackling my shortcomings.
So, what do racing and lap times have to do with leadership? Everything. Leaders, just like drivers, can gain big advantages by facing and improving their soft spots. If they don’t, big performance gains are unreachable.
If You Don’t? A Hidden Downside
When you are in any position of authority, whether a supervisor with 10 reports, a senior manager, or an executive or CEO, all eyes are on you. People are hard-wired to pay attention to authority figures, to their leaders. Like it or not, they are rarely forgiving of those who they feel don’t walk the talk. Why should they listen to their leader’s coaching advice, a case for change, or a push for higher performance if that person isn’t facing up and working to overcome their own soft spots? For all those thinking that they can be a leader without dealing with the shortcomings, take notice!
The research on this topic underscores more downside. In an article on this topic by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the January 2016 Harvard Business Review, “Strengths-based coaching can actually weaken you,” Chamorro-Premuzic debunks the myth that strengths-based development is the way to go.
For starters, he argues that there’s no science to back it up. He points to evidence that “negative feedback and lower self-estimates do improve performance,” and that organizational superstars achieve their status by acquiring new strengths, not just building on their old ones. Chamorro-Premuzic argues that, when strengths are overplayed, they can “become toxic.” Confidence becomes overconfidence and arrogance. Ambition turns into greed. Finally, he maintains that a strengths-based approach to development fails to do much about the actual problems that workplaces grapple with, namely, that there aren’t enough solid leaders out there who can successfully navigate the roiling waters that businesses today find themselves in.
Why We Gravitate to Strengths
So why is the strengths approach so appealing?
It mostly comes down to this: focusing on strengths feels better. We all want to hear the positives about ourselves, and our ears prick up for the praise. Delivering feedback and coaching on improving on what’s already strong is just plain easier than fixing flaws. Research and our own experience developing more than 25,000 leaders shows that bringing up someone else’s weak-spots takes most of us out of our comfort zone. Forty years of research done by Harvard Business School’s Chris Argyris proved that a fundamental characteristic of human beings is the desire to find ways to protect themselves and others. Strengths-based approaches allow us to do exactly that.
Even in organizations that don’t champion a strengths-based approach, we see a chronic reluctance to tackle soft spots. Most managers hold a deep concern that a performance critique may demotivate people, cause defensiveness, and/or damage the relationship.
The Case for Coaching on Weaknesses
The fundamental flaw in that concern is that human beings are natural problem solvers. Directly discussing a weak spot activates that human instinct and engages people in ways that move them to action. If done well, and followed up with real support, our research shows people will embrace the feedback on their weaknesses and act. This strengthens relationships. People trust others who have the courage to share their concerns for the purpose of making things better.
Short of this becoming a norm, organizations will never realize the performance results they are striving for. Side-stepping weak spots in leaders is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. Or in driving terms, staying stuck in the pack, never in the winner’s circle.
As Chamorro-Premuzic says, “If the focus is on making people more competent, productive, or effective, managers and decision makers should work instead on mitigating people’s weaknesses.”
As a final thought, be grateful for your strengths. They got you where you are today. But be most grateful for recognizing your weak spots—tackling those is your ticket to winning, in racing, leadership, and in life.
Al Preble founded Cambridge Leadership Group to help organizations empower their people to make a greater impact in their work and in their world. He leads the Cambridge team, and he’s passionate about his work, always learning, and makes sure everything we do with clients has strong business impact. Al consults with Fortune 500 organizations on leadership mindset, building coaching cultures, and driving results in complex, matrixed organizations.