Strengthsfinder is an enormously popular test to determine your career strengths. Unfortunately, it can cause real damage to your career. Here’s how…
Many, many people have taken the Strengthsfinder test online, the Gallop organization has popularized the test through the popular book Strengthsfinder (& Strengthsfinder 2.0) as well as a whole catalogue of speeches, videos and other trainings.
An estimated 1.6 million employees will be trained in it this year.
The basic premise is that you are happier and more successful when you focus on your strengths.
The argument goes like this: we tend to focus on fixing the areas where we are weaker. From the time we are in school we try to take our Bs and Cs and make them As. Instead we should focus on the things we are gifted at, as it is easier for us to differentiate ourselves and be exceptional in these areas.
…and it is a lot more fun.
Unfortunatley, the academic research on character strengths tends to focus a lot more on happiness than it does on workplace performance. It demonstrates that a focus on applying our character strengths day to day does make us feel more engaged and happier.
(See “Strengths of Character and Well Being” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology Vol 24, No 5 2004” for an in depth look at character strengths and happiness.)
Here is the danger with the Strenghtfinders test: many people will take the test, look at the results and believe that they best thing they can do is exclusively focus on maximizing their strengths in the workplace.
In other words, the results of the strenghtfinders test become an excuse for not shoring up problem areas.
Strengthsfinder damages an organization
Let me take a real example from the public sector. The leader of this particular organization was someone who was a conflict avoider who tried her hardest to please everyone on her staff.
She invested heavily in the Strengthsfinder test and training modules for her team. The idea was that everyone could figure out what strengths to celebrate in themselves and each other.
Here’s what actually happened: people with certain strengths grouped together. For example, the analytical people all got together and aligned themselves with a certain story:
“We are all analytical people, so we shouldn’t bother with strengths like “woo” (meeting new people and winning them over). This isn’t our strength, so we don’t need to worry about it.”
What the Strengthsfinder test and training did for this organization was create rigidity and excuses.
In fact, if you are an analytical type (and in full disclosure, analytical scores in my top 5 in the Strengthsfinder test), you best figure out a host of other strengths unless you want to end up in a corner crunching numbers all day.
But wait, you say, isn’t that what is best for an analytical type? Stay focused on analytics and do it really, really well?
Perhaps, but if you don’t gain other skills, like “woo” (influence) for example, you won’t be able to rise through the ranks and do the kind of analytics you want to do.
This is the dark secret of Strenghtfinders that Gallop and others don’t tend to focus on:
Focusing on your unique differentiating strengths will help you stand out, get promoted and recognized. However, if you don’t have a host of other skills that are strong, you’ll never get a seat at the table.
Let me provide a related example: I am naturally an introvert… but if you met me at a networking event you would have no idea. In fact, I have had people react to my claims of introversion with disbelief.
Why? Because meeting people, networking and forming relationships is a skill I have worked on.
I am never going to be as good as the person with this as their natural gift, but I absolutely need this skill to be successful in business.
Thus, the danger is taking a Strengthsfinder test and thinking that I can focus exclusively on the things that come naturally to me: NOT TRUE.
Yes, there may come a time in your career when you can focus on your core strengths and hire people with all the other skills, but most of the time having this position in life is the result of successfully applying a broad set of skills early in your career so that you can focus on the highest value adding elements later in it.
Is Strengthsfinder anything more than snake oil?
In 2016 Harvard Business Review had an article titled “Strengths based coaching can actually weaken you.” Here are the key points of that article:
- There is no scientific evidence that a strengths based approach to management works
- Strengthsfinder can give people a false sense of competence
- A strengths based approach to management leads to resources being wasted on C & D players
- Overused strengths become toxic
The article can be found by clicking here.
Clearly, there are some issues with the commercial enterprise that is Strengthsfinder, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Properly applying the results of your Strengthsfinder test
Once you know what your strengths are, the key is not focusing on them and forgetting about your weaknesses. Instead the goal is to try and find career opportunities where your unique strengths are valuable.
As an example, my top strengths from the Strengthsfinder test are: Strategic, Learner, Futuristic, Maximizer, Analytical. (Find out yours here.)
Thus, it should be fairly obvious that I am going to happily excel at things like Corporate Strategy, whereas a role in Key Account Management is going to be more challenging. (The right person for that role likely has strengths such as “relator” and “woo.”)
But again, notice that if I don’t have skills as a “relator” and “woo” then my career as a corporate strategist is going nowhere.
Should you take the Strengthsfinder test?
Personally, I prefer the free test by the Values in Action Institute, which was developed by the former head of the American Psychological Association. It is available at www.viacharacter.org.
The empirical research has shown that if you focus on these character strengths in your life (and work), you will tend to be happier. –And that’s mostly what we are looking for in life.
As for Strengthsfinder, it can be a useful validation of what you likely already know about yourself. The key is to apply it at the macro level to roles that are a good fit and not simply think that being the best “analytical” person in the world is going to get you well paid.
Being the world’s best “analytical” if you don’t have other skills isn’t much use. Consider Albert Einstein or Steven Hawking: both geniuses and likely off the charts on the “analytical” skill from the strengthsfinder test, but both strong communicators as well. Imagine how many other brilliant physicists there are out there that you have never heard of…