As a StrengthsFinder Coach, I get tons of questions that begin with, “So you mean that (insert myth here), right?” It’s time to clear all doubt on what StrengthsFinder can and cannot do – what it is and isn’t. I’ll take you through 12 myths that need to be busted.
Table of Contents
- Myth #1: We should focus on our strengths and ignore our weaknesses.
- Myth #2: Building a strengths-based culture is easy.
- Myth #3: Certain strengths are better than others.
- Myth #4: To be a good leader, you need a particular set of strengths.
- Myth #5: Fixing all of our weaknesses will lead to success in life.
- Myth #6: Our strengths will change over time.
- Myth #7: The greatest growth comes from working on your weaknesses.
- Myth #8: You can be all-rounded.
- Myth #9: Certain strengths are negative.
- Myth #10: I can learn to have a strength.
- Myth #11: You can be anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough.
- Myth #12: Having my Top 5 talent themes means that I am already at my best.
One of the things that I need to do here in my role at Strengths School is networking – talking to strangers. Having Relator in my Top 5 hinders me in doing this task well, as Relators enjoy deep conversations with people they already know (as opposed to breaking the ice with new people). I can safely say that networking is one of my weaknesses.
Some might jump to the conclusion that I should ignore this and focus on other tasks that energize me. But if I choose to do just that, it will hurt the overall business. The correct way to approach this myth is to understand the truth.
There are 2 ways that I could manage this weakness:
1 – Strengths Partnership:
I could bring a colleague with the Woo talent theme and feels energized by networking with strangers. This way, the team objective is still satisfied. This notion, however, can be easily abused and one can start to relinquish responsibility to others in the name of following this strengths paradigm.
2 – Strengths Innovation:
The second option is to tap on your other strengths to overcome weaknesses.
How does this work? For example, I mentioned earlier that my Relator talent theme is more of a hindrance than a help in networking. But I’ve got four other talent themes I can use: Ideation, Strategic, Adaptability, and Self-Assurance.
Now, I’ve got the Relator talent theme as my #4. Relators are energized when they’re able to have deep conversations with people they already know, but this means that they also feel drained by talking to many strangers, especially when the conversations are limited by time. The quality of these conversations end up being shallower than Relators would like them.
So I decided on an objective to counter this weakness: To build as many connections as I can in a short period of time. Another way of measuring the ‘success’ of this activity: the number of name cards I have in my pocket by the time I get back.
With Strengths Innovation, I would be using my other 4 strengths out of my Top 5 to find the motivation and strength to overcome this ‘networking’ hiccup.
So I now use my Ideation talent theme during networking. Ideation loves new ideas and concepts and can sometimes be very curious about another person’s industry and how it works. Instead of using my Relator, which would most definitely drain me, I start conversations with the mindset to understand another person’s industry and how their business works.
Some conversational questions that would activate my Ideation are:
- How does your role in (insert person’s role) make money for the company?
- Where do you usually get your clients?
- What are some of the ways that one could start a business like yours?
By activating my Ideation instead of Relator, I get a kick out of talking to strangers and come across as someone who is really interested in connecting with another. Which I really am!
I would recommend this solution as the first step towards managing your weakness.
Face it: we all have weaknesses that are hindering our productivity in our current roles. But overcoming these weaknesses with the strengths already within us is far easier than trying to tap on something we don't have.
Try running backwards or writing with your non-dominant hand and you’ll start to understand how difficult it is to change a culture.
This is one of the biggest myths about strengths in transforming your organization.
If you were to equate the buzz after your team’s StrengthsFinder Workshop to the ease of changing the culture, you are going to be extremely disappointed. That said, though difficult, it is greatly rewarding.
A Gallup study that surveyed 90,000 employees in 900 business units across 11 different organizations found that organizations that did put in that effort to change into a strengths-based culture reaped tangible rewards. Compared with teams that did not have any interventions, teams that had their managers undergo different forms of strengths interventions saw their productivity increase by 12.5%, with profitability following suit at 8.9%.
So if you’re willing to take this to the next level after the initial strengths workshop or coaching, here are a few suggestions:
1 – ‘Let thy strengths be visible’
Most people cannot remember their strengths after only a single week. If they need to start opening up their Gallup StrengthsFinder® app or log into the StrengthsFinder portal, you have lost the war. At Strengths School™, we have created customized name tags with each person’s top 5 strengths beautifully color-coded by their respective domains. I recommend displaying your team’s strengths prominently somewhere beside your desk. I have my entire team’s top 5 displayed prominently, and I only need to turn my head approximately 45 degrees to see the entire team’s top 5.
2 – ‘Talk about thy strengths frequently’
Changing any culture is going to be difficult.
When it comes to changing a culture, one of the most basic ways is in how often the new language is used. The more you talk about strengths, the more likely it is to be on people’s minds.
In formal settings such as performance reviews, managers can start to share about how they noticed their staff use a particular strength to achieve great results.
Share with your team members how you appreciate a certain strength that impacted the team positively. For example, I recently shared with a team member, Meiling, that I really appreciated her Learner theme when she took on a task that she knew very little about and turned into our team’s subject matter expert on SEO.
Changing any culture is going to be challenging, but changing your organization’s culture to become a strengths-based one is totally worth it.
People usually think of the Strategic Thinking domain talents as more powerful or useful when it comes to getting work done. And the same people would discount the Relationship Building domain strengths as more fluffy and intangible. After all, as you climb higher on the ladder, you need to start thinking about strategy rather than people, right? Wrong. Though I get this question quite often, this belief is flawed.
The truth is that each talent has a unique and specific value-add to the team that cannot be discounted. What we need to understand is that as a team we are very similar to a human body. Our legs are just as important as our hands when it comes to manual labor.
For some, working as a team can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling, not to mention more productive. When you are able to leverage on what each individual team member is good at, you have a chance to see how one plus one can equal to 11 (window jokes aside).
Let me give you an illustration. Imagine James has Strategic (Strategic Thinking Domain) and John has Empathy (Relationship Building Domain). They are both running a marketing team with similar objectives but adopt very different approaches to these same objectives:
1) Conceptualizing marketing campaigns
James (Strategic): Conceptually comes up with a whole array of options for the client’s needs
John (Empathy): Feeling for the end user (client’s client), comes up with a few ways to market the client’s business
2) Keeping the team together in a high level of engagement
James (Strategic): Has a strategy that inputs the birthdays of all his team members on his phone, reminding him to appreciate each of them on that very special day
John (Empathy): Is sensitive to his team members and will approach them individually when he has a feeling that they might be upset or simply has something bothering them
In the above example, we can see how both a Strategic Thinking Theme and a Relationship Building Theme can do well in different situations.
Every strength is powerful; it is up to the individual to creatively use them in different situations to make them shine.
I’ve worked with a huge range of leaders from C-level management teams of multi-billion dollar companies to principals and key management teams of schools. Wherever I go, I am always asked the same question when it comes to leadership and strengths:
“Jason, what are the best strengths for a leader?”
I can almost hear this question tinkering away in the minds of my clients when they receive their personalized top 5 name tags and start comparing their top 5 with those of their head honcho’s top 5. Many times, I’ve heard my clients say, “no wonder lah, he’s got (insert perceived strength here), that’s why he’s the commander.”
So during our StrengthsFinder workshops, I do an exercise in which I ask the entire management team,
“Give me the top 5 strengths of a great leader.” What I usually hear can be categorized into 2 groups:
- A few of the strengths that the top leader in the room has, or
- Perceived “leadership strengths” like Command, Strategic, Futuristic, and Communication
When we think about what makes a great leader, we often start to reverse-engineer the famous leaders in our mental libraries. They can be people who are on the Forbes list of Influential Leaders, or our country’s past leaders, or perhaps a reputable tech company’s CEO.
So how do I bust this myth? I show them the Top 5 StrengthsFinder results of a few of the top leaders in the world who have done the online assessment. In the subsequent slides, their paradigm is forever changed. Why? There is no consistent individual talent theme that these great leaders have in common.
What is also very apparent is that great leaders are authentic. They have a particular flavor that is unique and individualized to them, just as a lion’s mane is vastly different from a leopard’s spots. Each leader knows very well who they are and expresses that flavor in their leadership.
Don Clifton, the inventor of StrengthsFinder® and the father of Strengths-based Positive Psychology, puts it nicely:
Potential leaders and current leaders alike can feel a sense of freedom knowing that you don’t have to follow your existing leader or try to be someone you read about in an autobiography.
Why? Because the best leaders lead using whatever strengths they have.
Gallup surveyed people from different countries and had them answer this question:
Which do you think will help you become successful in life?
- Fixing Weakness
- Building on Strengths
Here are the percentages of those who voted for Building on Strengths:
After 5 years and much advancement in the realm of Positive Psychology, Gallup again asked the American people the same question. You’d think that people would be more aware of their strengths and start to have a paradigm shift, right?
The results remained exactly the same at 41%. The needle did not even move a single percentage point.
Of course, if you’re already a firm believer in Strengths-based personal development, the answer is obvious – building on strengths. But if you’re new to this philosophy and belong to the majority who believes in fixing weaknesses, hear me out.
Think of someone you admire and answer this question: “Did he or she reach that level of success by being good at one or two things, or by fixing major weaknesses?”
If you dig deeper into that person’s life, you will realize two things:
- They focused on one or two things that they were talented in and invested all their efforts into becoming even better at it. In other words, they reached success by building on their strengths.
- They were really bad at many other things that might have been required, but did not invest all their effort and time into fixing those weaknesses. They just partnered with people who were extremely talented in those areas that weren’t their strengths.
One of my favorite entrepreneurs to listen to is Gary Vaynerchuk. He built a 60-million dollar enterprise on firstly being aware of his own talents -- talents like selling baseball cards and wine to now owning a media company, Vayner Media, that generates $100 million per year in revenue with 750 staff. He was also named Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40.
When Entrepreneur.com interviewed him on 2nd Oct 2015, they asked him:
Q: What is going to make somebody successful? Be it the best monk, entrepreneur, car mechanic?
A: The biggest thing is self-awareness. If you know who you are, then by nature you’ll probably bet on your strengths. If you bet on your strengths, you’ll win. Because I know what I am good and what I suck at, I spend most of my time on what I’m good at.
In this holy grail called success, we can switch our deep-seated paradigm from believing that fixing our weaknesses will bring us there. Instead, the truth is that building on strengths will lead to success in life.
Another question that I get asked time and time again is, “Jason, do strengths change over time, especially when you change your job or your role?”
For the majority, the official answer is, “No, strengths do not change over time.” But there are instances I have encountered when people around me take the test again after a year and do see a change. So how do I explain this?
When someone does the StrengthsFinder assessment, they get to see their top 5 talent themes. Unveiling the rest of their themes from #6 to #34 requires an additional investment of US$69.
But the fact is that when we are performing our daily job tasks or making decisions, we’re usually using our top 10 to 12 talent themes on a subconscious level. So it may very well be that most of the people who saw a change in their Top 5 could simply have had the talent theme move from their Top 5 to somewhere in their #6 to #12. This can only be verified if you’d opened your full 34 for both instances.
This means that even though you might see your strengths changing, they actually have not. They may just have moved to a lower position that would remain hidden if you only had access to your Top 5 for both tests.
For example, I’ve got Ideation as my number 1 talent theme, and since I was young I have always been fascinated with ideas. These ideas were expressed in different mediums, like business ideas (books full of them), poetry, drama scripts, songs, logos – the list goes on and on. When I’m 80 years old, I am quite sure that I will still have as much fascination for ideas as I have now.
This is where it gets complicated. I have encountered instances where strengths drop down from a person’s Top 5 to somewhere below 12. This is not the norm; it’s more like the anomaly. Plainly said, it is quite rare.
In my experience working with such people, I’d attribute it to the following:
1) Perceptive error
StrengthsFinder is, after all, a test of what your state of mind is like while you’re taking the test. Any given individual wears multiple hats. He could be a father, leader, colleague, best friend or even an entrepreneur. It is hard to clearly dissect who you are since you are made up of many identities based on the context and situation that you are presented with. While your strengths do not change, how we answer the question sometimes does.
During the 45-minute online questionnaire, we can sometimes over-think a certain question and start to wear a hat that might produce a different answer. If we were given an unlimited amount of time to answer that question, we would weigh factors like frequency of that answer being true, past experience on how that answer might have differed and situational context of how you behaved previously. All these actions can definitely skew a few of your answers.
While Gallup tries to mitigate this variance by having a 20-second time limit for the user to not ‘over-think’ the correct answer, human error is something that cannot be 100% eradicated from this equation.
2) ‘Something happened’
Between the two times you took the test, an event might have changed your views on a few aspects of life and therefore caused the differences in how you answer some of the questions. Certain events, such as deep emotional traumas, could lead you to respond to the statements differently.
One example of the statements this might affect would be:
‘I am very careful in talking about my private life.’
I’ll put this point out there for comments and experiences from other StrengthsFinder coaches, and I would like to re-emphasize that this is something that I believe based on my experience with the people I’ve coached.
However, for the majority of you reading this, test your Top 5 talent themes against your past experiences. If they resonate with something very fundamental about who you are, start to leverage these talents and begin to use them more intentionally in everything that you do.
So the truth? As you grow, you become the best version of who you already are.
One of the clues to talent is this notion of ‘Rapid Learning’. In a given task, imagine that no one in your group (including you) had any prior knowledge of how to accomplish it. However, you were still able to complete the task better or faster than anyone else. I would say that it is likely a few of your talent themes were activated, which caused you to have success in this small competition.
I remember one of the instances this was true for me was this thing called ‘Change Parade’ in the military. It is compulsory for all male Singaporeans to give 2 years of their time just before university to serve the nation in the armed forces.
As a form of team-building cum punishment, we had to form up in the parade square in our full dress attire, run up two floors to change into another attire, and then come back down again in a few minutes.
This was where I saw my Strategic (#2) at play even when I was 18 years old. I realized that I was always the fastest in the entire group to be ready, and was wondering why everyone else was so slow. I realized that I broke down the entire task into major and minor objectives.
Major: look uniformed with the rest of the team
Minor: putting the entire uniform on properly
While everyone else took 20 seconds to do a proper boot lacing, I took a mere five seconds because I simply tucked the excess laces into my boots. (I still looked the same as my fellow soldiers.)
And while everyone else meticulously took the time to button all 4 buttons of our full dress attire, I strategically buttoned only the top and bottom, and left the other 2 buttons which were in the middle unbuttoned. This saved me large amounts of time. I was so fast that I could help my fellow soldiers as well. Then, on the way down the stairs, I’d button the other two.
By the time we all formed up again in the parade square, my attire looked no different from the rest.
I learnt the art of ‘Change Parade’ using my Strategic talent theme, which no one had to teach me.
As a coach, I share this story with my clients and ask them to do the same: look into the past and draw out these peak experiences of rapid learning.
When you use your strengths to accomplish a task, you get more growth than you would ever get from working on your weaknesses.
We all want to excel and do so rapidly. Who wants to waste assets like time and energy?
I leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the Management Guru himself, Peter Drucker:
Choose excellence. Choose strengths.
In school, we were always encouraged to try out different areas of interest and be all-rounded in our studies, sports and other activities.
But as we grow up, we are valued in our organizations not for being all-rounded but for being very good at a few particular tasks.
Peter Drucker, the guru of management consultancy, said in his 1967 book The Effective Executive:
Top achievers build their lives upon their talents no matter what field they are in. They apply their strengths in roles that best suit them. And they invent ways to apply their strengths to achievement tasks. (Clifton, Anderson, StrengthsQuest)
Although a lot of us like the notion of being all-rounded, the fact is that you can be excellent at only a few things.
I’ve noticed that there are a few strengths that people have misjudged as negative. The ‘usual suspects’ are:
- Self-Assurance: Often judged as ‘full of themselves’ or cocky
- Command: Often labelled bossy or rude
- Harmony: Often deemed quiet and passive in discussions, even when they disagree
I have also heard the reverse about certain strengths (in that they are often more highly valued than others):
But the truth is that strengths are as neutral as a knife or money: any one of these tools can be used for either good or evil.
The onus is on the individual and how he or she uses that talent theme. Every talent has an Infancy stage (basement) and Maturity stage (Balcony). The former tears the team apart, and the latter builds the team up.
Instead of jumping to conclusions and condemning a person based on their strengths, our stance should be to help that person be more aware of the times when that particular talent is in its infancy. Only with this mentality can we build a stronger team. (If you’re interested in learning more about how to grow each of these talent themes, check out our Strengths School Blog.)
Think about a team member who triggers you. Whatever his/her strengths are, it isn’t about the strengths -- it’s the person wielding that strength. Because ‘Strengths are neutral.’
There are a few things that can be learnt when it comes to personal development. We can learn a skillset (e.g Excel, PowerPoint, design principles) and we can gain knowledge (e.g. product information, supporting data). What cannot be learnt are talent themes.
For example, if Empathy is at your #34 (like me), you cannot be mentored by people who have the Empathy talent theme in their Top 5, and after a few months move that up to your Top 5. It just doesn’t work that way when it comes to strengths.
By definition, a talent is a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.
The keyword is naturally.
These talent themes that you have are innate and cannot be learnt, taught or forced. The only thing you can do is master your talent and apply these creatively to serve you in different scenarios that are beneficial to you or your team.
Stop trying to be somebody else and be proud of your own, because ‘strengths are innate and cannot be learnt.’
We see this myth in motivational posters and as advice given by award-winners to Olympians. There is a kernel of truth to this, and it has to do with what you were built or designed to do.
Your unique combination of strengths, skillsets and knowledge can act as a guide, similar to how the stars were used by ancient voyagers to reach distant lands. They can tell you roughly which aspect of your industry you would thrive in most. But to say that you can do anything you want and that the only factor involved is effort is to be overly simplistic.
An ER doctor working in a hospital might have Adaptability and thrive on a working environment that is mostly in a state of flux. In contrast, a GP (General Practitioner) with Discipline would enjoy the structure and routine of patients coming in at ten-minute intervals. Could the both of them switch roles and be good at their new jobs? It’s possible. But if you dig deeper and analyze their level of fulfillment, you may find that their new roles cause a lot more stress than satisfaction.
A better way of looking at this is that you can be more of who you were designed to be, rather than anything that you want to be.
The StrengthsFinder assessment measures the presence of talent. In other words, it measures the potential, or what I call the ‘seed.’ For a seed to become a fully-fledged tree and bear fruit, there needs to be a developmental phase. In the strengths paradigm, we call this phase Investment.
When that talent becomes mature and bears fruit, we call this fruit a strength.
A strength is the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity.
The developmental phase for a talent is when we put in the Investment: Time, Knowledge, and Skill.
Let me share with you how my talent of Ideation became a strength in the area of design.
Many years ago, I had an interest for designing logos, as I saw a logo as the essence of a company in symbolic form. I started drawing logos on my Moleskine notebooks. I would take a company’s existing logo and redesign it, coming up with multiple end-products that I thought was of a better design standard.
I knew that I needed to improve in my design skills, so I went on to read everything I could get my hands on that talked about logo design. I borrowed books from the library, purchased them from bookstores, and watched hundreds of YouTube videos. At this point I realized that if I wanted to reach a world-class standard, I needed to use Adobe Illustrator (AI) rather than just drawing them on my notebooks.
Almost every evening, I would tinker with AI and watch hours upon hours of instructional videos, practicing to the point where I developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome on my right wrist. All this just to be well-versed with this design tool! And since it was tapping on my Ideation talent, I was enjoying myself and time just breezed past (except, of course, when I felt the occasional intense pain on my wrist).
It came to the point when I felt I needed to benchmark myself against others and was searching online for a logo competition. What better way to test yourself than with other designers?
So I entered a logo competition, submitted my design, and waited eagerly for the results.
I got a call from the organizer and they told me that out of 148 international designs, I won 1st prize and a thousand dollars in moolah!
After that, I went on to design logos for companies and went on to win other competitions.
My talent of Ideation would still be a talent had I not invested so much time, knowledge, and skill into making it a strength.
And just to let you know that to this day, I’ve had to learn to rest my right hand: I now use a trackball mouse with my left hand as well as a trackpad with my right hand.
Though the assessment is called “StrengthsFinder,” it should theoretically be called “TalentFinder.” (Though I don’t think that could fly in the marketing department of Gallup!) We all have to put in the hours to become highly skilled at expressing that talent and making it productive for both yourself as well as the team.
In conclusion: The Strengths Philosophy has changed the way I now look at many of the myths that I held onto closely when it came to personal development. It is my hope that this article would help you shed light on your own journey in becoming the best that you can be.