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Five Challenges To Strength Based Executive Coaching Approach

I just read a great blog titled Strengths Based Coaching Can Actually Weaken You by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. In the blog he presented an interesting premise that executive coaching and employee development programs that focus only on strengths and ignore “weaknesses” (or challenges, opportunities, or any other descriptive term.) can weaken the overall effectiveness of the executive coaching engagement.

I really enjoyed reading this blog because it challenges the conventional wisdom that says that the most effective behavioral change should exclusively focus on enhancing people’s inherent strengths. As Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic states:

Google search for “strengths coaching” yields over 45 million hits. The top results mostly offer related services, while virtually none question the idea. Amazon sells almost 8,000 books on the subject, including several bestselling exemplars by Gallup, whose StrengthsFinder is now used by 1.6 million employees every year and 467 Fortune 500 companies.

The word “weakness” has become a politically incorrect term in mainstream HR circles, where people are described as having strengths and “opportunities” or “challenges” — but not weaknesses. Some businesses are even planning to scrap negative feedback.

I understand the inherent attractiveness of the strength based approach. It is a positive message that addresses what we do that is good versus addressing where we come up short. The Strength Finders methodology was so popular because it flipped the traditional coaching methodology (example - developing and tracking three developmental areas based on a 360 feedback) and turned it to developmental opportunity to work on the areas that you excel in (perceived or observed).

The problem is that the “strength based” approach swung the pendulum too far and made this type of executive coaching and talent development less effective.

Turning back to the blog by Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, he lists five reasons why he feel the “strengths based” approach is lacking. His reasons are:

1) There’s no scientific evidence that it works. 

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic provides a measured and reasoned observation that the strengths-based approach to management is not grounded in science. He points out that he was not able to find any research that supports the idea that developmental interventions are more successful if they ignore people’s deficits or provide no negative feedback.

He states:

But the main postulates of the strengths-based approach are incongruent with well-established academic findings. For instance, meta-analytic evidence shows that negative feedback and lower self-estimates of ability do improve performance. Furthermore, high-performing leaders tend to get better by developing new strengths, not just enhancing old ones.

2) It can give people a false sense of competence. 

The Strengths-based approach will give the coaching candidates an inflated sense of self and will enable them to avoid looking at any areas where they lack a critical skill or behavior.

It conveys the illusion of ability even to those who lack it. Since most people already have an inflated self-concept (especially leaders, who tend to be more narcissistic than average), it is likely that strengths-based feedback will only enhance people’s deluded self-views. In addition, any serious take on competence should examine a person’s capabilities in the context of the organization. That is, individual qualities should be considered strengths if they align not only with the individual’s role or job, but also with the organization’s goals or competency framework. Strengths approaches focus too much on the individual out of context

3) It leads to resources being wasted on C and D players. 

The strengths based approach also, according to Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, can play into the “everybody is a winner” mindset. What it inadvertently does though is divert valuable resources away from the A and B players (who are the primary drivers of organizational results) to a more communal approach where everybody receives coaching.

However, since top performers are many times more valuable than other employees, companies will see the highest ROI from training programs if they focus their development resources on their high-performing and high-potential individuals, the people who account, or have the potential to account, for most of the company’s output. That means focusing on the 20% of people who are responsible for 80% of the revenues, profits, or productivity (as the well-known Pareto effect states). Not, as the strengths-based movement so often argues, all employees in the organization.

4) Overused strengths become toxic. 

The strength based approach can lead to an over reliance and utilization of an employee’s positive qualities and lead to a:

“too much of a good thing” effect, which indicates that even positive qualities will become toxic if they are overused or expressed in excess.

For example, conscientiousness and attention to detail turn into counterproductive perfectionism and obsessiveness.

Confidence becomes overconfidence and arrogance.

Ambition turns into greed.

And imagination into odd eccentricity.

This can then lead to some ruinous effects where these strengths ultimately become career derailers. By working only on their strengths executive coaching candidates will avoid addressing the derailing behaviors.

 5) It doesn’t address the real problem workplaces face. 

The last reason Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic lists is that the strengths based approach is overly optimistic in its belief by ignoring one’s limitations the individual will somehow rise above their current capabilities and become something that they cannot achieve.

We cannot solve the severe problems we face in leadership with wishful thinking. Strengths-based interventions may be useful if the goal is to help individuals “self-actualize” or increase certain aspects of well-being. However, if the focus is on making people more competent, productive, or effective, managers and decision makers should work instead on mitigating people’s weaknesses.

Executive coaching and employee development is an evolving practice where theory should always be challenged and refined. The recent blog by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic provides an interesting counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that embraces the strength based approach so popular today. I believe that from this critique will emerge a more balanced coaching approach.

About the blog source: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University.