While at the SIOP (Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists) Annual Conference a couple of years ago, I attended a discussion on the Problem with the Strengths Fad. Several books and different versions of the StrengthsFinder assessment that Gallup, Inc. markets and sells have come out of the strengths psychology movement primarily led by Donald O. Clifton. The basic premise is that you need to discover your strengths and focus on them in order to succeed in the workplace. Likewise, companies should take time to match employees with positions that play to their strengths (person-job fit) in order to drive company success.
A key panelist in this discussion was Robert Hogan, a major figure in personality assessment and owner of a large personality assessment firm, Hogan Assessment Systems. Hogan is known for his research on the “dark side” of personality and argued that focusing only on our strengths is counterproductive. One of Hogan’s assessment offerings is the HDS (Hogan Development Survey) which seeks to identify personality “derailers” and is used in leadership coaching and development. The dimensions on this assessment may actually manifest as strengths (none of the dimensions would strike you as strongly negative), but under stressful situations, they may manifest themselves as huge performance risk factors.
Although I think there is obviously room for both schools of thought in the marketplace (both Gallup and Hogan are laughing all the way to the bank on the money they are making off the assessments they have developed), I think what is important to consider is whether strengths and derailers or the dark side of personality actually come from the same key personality dimensions inside us. McCall and Lombardo (1983) speak to this curvilinear relationship between strengths and weaknesses in studying success versus derailment in upper-level management. Basically, when we maximize one outcome, through a behavior manifesting itself as a strength tied to our personality, we are minimizing the chance of the opposite outcome of that core dimension of our personality manifesting itself as a weakness or derailer through a negative behavior.
To illustrate, I use an exercise as a part of a 360° evaluation process where employees of the leader being analyzed are given a list of words that would describe desirable characteristics in a leader. I ask them to pick the top two strengths and weaknesses of their boss. This is also a consensus building exercise where I sit and listen to the employees discuss what they see as key strengths and weaknesses of their manager. The last time I conducted this exercise, after much discussion, the employee team decided on the same two words for both their choice of the two strengths and two weaknesses in their boss.
Odd you may think, how can a strength also be a weakness? Well, for example, some of the best speakers who inspire action through their words are also the worst listeners- both, however, are communication dimensions. Some of those that are most energetic in the leadership style can manifest both positive and negative energy depending on the situation.
So what’s the point? The point is, what we need to be doing is not arguing over whether we need to focus on strengths or weaknesses, but make sure that individuals’ key personality characteristics manifest themselves in positive ways- they come out as strengths in behavior instead of weaknesses.
A couple of quick ways to do this for yourself:
1. Seek input from the people who are around you the most- your family, your co-workers, etc. and ask them to help you identify examples of behaviors you demonstrate when you’re at your best and at your worst.
2. Then, I bet you can boil these “angel” and “devil” moments down to one key dimension of yourself.
3. Once you’ve identified your key strength/weakness, focus on making sure your behavior demonstrates the strength side of the equation. You can do this in several ways, but I would suggest asking those that around you the most to again call you out when you are showing both the good and the bad.
For example, when you’re in a conversation with someone close to you, ask them to help you identify when your strength of communication is getting in the way of you listening. If your strength is discernment about other people’s character and motives, make sure someone close to you calls you on it when you start to be overly critical of someone you’ve “figured out”.
Also, when you see yourself about to “derail” by showing that negative behavior that really is one of your strengths, remove yourself from that situation. For example, if you are easily excitable and you know of stressful situations that make you excitable in a way that honestly freaks your co-workers out, take a break from that stressful situation and come back to it before you make a-you-know -what out of yourself.
After all, when you’re being true to who you are (your personality) all you have to do is make sure it shows itself in a positive way. When you do, you succeed at work and in life.
When have you caught yourself about to derail and flipped the switch to make sure your behavior was actually positive?