What should we do about our weaknesses? This is a question I’m asked often when I talk about my work in strengths-based development. It’s a good question - so good I decided to dig into it quite deeply for my M.A. Thesis which ended up being called, “A Balanced Approach to Strengths-Based Leadership Coaching.”
Don’t worry - I won’t go into all that detail here, but I will share some key nuggets from the research around the role of weakness in a strengths-based development approach. And then I’ll share my personal opinion about weaknesses based on lots of coaching conversations with clients.
“Strengths-Only” is Problematic
As we discussed in the post Why Focus on Strengths?, there are many compelling reasons for people to think more about what is right with themselves instead of obsessing about what is wrong. The “strengths crusade” of the past few years is part of a broader movement in psychology to counter-balance a pervasive negativity bias and deficit focus in society. To a great extent, this has been a good thing: the emphasis on strengths has led to increased engagement, productivity, and wellbeing for many individuals and organisations.
However, researchers and practitioners have raised concerns that rapid commercialisation of the “feel-good” aspects of positive psychology can lead people to overuse their strengths and ignore critical weaknesses, which can result in derailment. In other words, a “strengths-only” approach can actually keep us from achieving our goals and reaching our full potential.
So…if we want to avoid the potentially harmful pitfalls of a strengths-only approach, what are some key things to keep in mind?
1. More is Not Better; Strengths Can Be Overdone
When newly aware of and excited by the potential of their natural talents, people are at risk of developing a “more is better” type mindset.
But there’s an interesting relationship between confidence and performance. Studies of leaders have found that after a certain point, the positive effects of strengths use become negative. Kaiser & Kaplan (2009) found that “managers tend to overdo behaviors related to their areas of talent – the bigger their hammer, the more everything looks like a nail.”’
Too much of a good thing is, well…too much. So part of focusing on your strengths should include finding an optimal performance ratio. In other words, learn to use your strengths like Goldilocks: not too much, not too little….juuust right.
2. Context Matters; Strengths Can Be Mis-applied
Our strengths can be useful in one context but not in another, so it’s important to develop situational adaptability with our strengths.
Ibarra (2015) talks about something called the “competency trap,” in which “like athletes and companies, managers and professionals over-invest in their strengths under the false assumption that what produced their past successes will necessarily lead to future wins.” What is needed to succeed in one role may not be a perfect fit for another role; our strengths use should change as we move across and up an organisation (and from one organisation to another). In a personal context, the way our strengths resonate will vary with different friends and family members.
So when we focus on our strengths, we need to be mindful of changing contexts (home vs. work, new vs. experienced team member, local team vs. global team, the personality of each individual we're communicating with, etc.) and adjust our strengths use accordingly. It’s important to continually ask ourselves, “Which strength is being called for now, in this
particular situation? – and how should I apply it?”
3. Self-Awareness is Essential; Blind Spots Need to Be Understood
Significantly, the Kaiser & Kaplan study cited above also revealed that 94% of managers who received 360° feedback were rated as overdoing five or more specific leadership behaviours…and the majority were unaware of this use.
So how can we get feedback on our strengths use? Formal 180° or 360° assessments such as the Life Styles Inventory or the Leadership Versatility Index or the Hogan 360 can provide highly useful data for leaders and teams.
There are effective informal ways to get input as well. Inviting honest, constructive feedback on your strengths and how you use them can be done conversationally with a handful of people you trust and whose opinions you value. It can be especially useful to solicit input from people from different life domains (work, family, friends) and from different periods of time in your life.
Share your strengths and ask for feedback on three things…
Examples of how you use your strengths effectively
Examples of how you may be over-using some of your strengths
Examples of how you may under-using some strengths
Ask the person to share details about what they see and the impact of your actions. Then thank them, think about what you will do next, and congratulate yourself for being so brave!
4. Denial is Not Productive; Weaknesses Should Be Acknowledged
It’s important to be honest about our weaknesses and think about the impact they’re having.
Think about an area of relative weakness in your life, and consider the impact. Is it hurting you or others? Is it damaging your performance or career potential? Does it make you miserable on a regular basis? Then it definitely needs to be addressed.
But if your weaknesses are not “mission critical,” it’s best to stop fretting over them. In fact, there’s great freedom in acknowledging that something is just “not our thing.” We don’t have to excel at everything, and there are tremendous health, relationship, and professional benefits for teams and individuals when we can be vulnerable, ask for help, share the load, and do less of the stuff we’re not great at (Brown, 2012).
For example – If you stink at making presentations but need to do them often for reasons that are really important for you, it’s worth working to get better at presenting (or perhaps partnering with someone who is great at it). But if you don’t need to make presentations often, don’t worry about this area of weakness – focus on something energising instead!
5. Sometimes Bad is Good; Our Negative Traits Can Help Us
In their book The Upside of Your Down Side, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener (2014) present evidence to support the argument that we benefit from the parts of our personality that make us uncomfortable, and embracing them can help us feel more “whole," authentic, and fulfilled.
For example, anxiety in the right amount can heighten perception and help protect us, well-placed anger can increase our power and authority, guilt can motivate us to repair damage we’ve done, arrogance (toned down to confidence) can improve our creativity and performance, emotional detachment can help people manage a crisis situation more effectively, embracing “mindlessness” from time to time can help us relax and make better decisions, etc.
So getting in touch with your less positive and weaker side can be quite useful, instructive and motivating – which in turn are all positive things!
My Two Cents
I promised to share my personal/practitioner’s view on weaknesses based on my many strengths-based coaching conversations with people working hard to learn, grow, and achieve meaningful goals.
It turns out that most of the people I work with are either unaware of or under-using some of their strengths, and they have a tendency to dwell on their weaknesses beyond the point of utility. They work with me because they want to figure out how to shine more and stop being so hard on themselves. And they do.
So here’s my recommendation…
Focus more on your strengths than on your weaknesses. Specifically, focus on optimising your strengths use. Learn how and when to dial them up or down.
Don’t ignore your weaknesses, but don’t obsess over them. Understand them, own them, and decide what you’re going to do about them.
Whether you want to improve upon your weaknesses, minimise them, reframe them, leverage them, or work around them… your strengths will help you do it.
Ask for feedback. If you’re being too easy or too hard on yourself, someone you trust will tell it to you straight.
Over to You
Most importantly - what do you think about all this? What would help you most in your own personal development and goal attainment – a strengths or weakness focus (or perhaps a little of both)?
For Further Reading & Research Cited
Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing positive psychology coaching. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Brown, Brene (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Avery.
Ibarra, H. (2015). Act like a leader, think like a leader. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Kaiser, R. B., & Kaplan, R.E. (2009). When strengths run amok. In R.B. Kaiser (Ed.), The perils of accentuating the positive. Tulsa, OK: HoganPress.
Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment. New York: Plume.
About the Author
Kristin Lowe is a former international school teacher who now works as an organisational psychologist, strengths-based leadership coach, and positive parenting educator.
Kristin’s work centers around applied positive psychology, helping school communities cultivate what is best within themselves and leverage these strengths to help students become confident, capable, and caring people.
You can read more about Kristin’s background and qualifications here.