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In employee development, focusing only on strengths is a weakness

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Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from Harvard Business Review and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief of Hogan Assessment Systems and professor of business psychology at University College London.

In the past decade, there has been much enthusiasm for the idea that behavioral change interventions are most effective when they focus exclusively on enhancing people's inherent strengths, as opposed to addressing their weaknesses. This is particularly true in employee- and leadership-development programs, with strengths having a cult-like following among human resources and talent management professionals.

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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. Although there is no reason to expect the fascination with strengths to wane any time soon, organizations — and people — would be better off if it did. There are reasons to be skeptical of a leadership development approach that focuses only on strengths:

There's no scientific evidence that it works. The strengths-based approach to management is not grounded in science. I have seen no scientific studies to support the idea that developmental interventions are more successful if they ignore deficits. High-performing leaders tend to get better by developing new strengths, not just enhancing old ones.

It can give people a false sense of competence. Strengths-based approaches help individuals to identify their strengths, key competencies, and talents. This is a noble goal because people are generally unaware of their abilities and incapable of evaluating their own performance.

These approaches attempt to do so by comparing a person's strengths with his or her other strengths, as opposed to the strengths and performances of colleagues. Thus your top strengths could mean you are truly exceptional — or your other strengths are just worse. Say, for instance, that I'm a lazy person, but that I'm even more selfish, narrow-minded, and stupid than I am lazy. Would that make me hard-working?

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Individual qualities should be considered strengths if they align not only with the individual's role or job but also with the company's goals. Strengths approaches focus too much on the individual out of context.

It leads to resources being wasted on C and D players. Strengths-based approaches argue that every employee deserves to be developed because everybody is talented in his or her own way. It is easy to understand the popular appeal of this idea. But top performers are many times more valuable than other employees, and companies will see the highest return on investment from training programs if they focus their development resources on their high-performing and high-potential individuals. That means focusing on the 20 percent of people who are responsible for 80 percent of the revenues, profits, and productivity.

Overused strengths become toxic. For example, conscientiousness and attention to detail can turn into counterproductive perfectionism and obsessiveness. Confidence becomes arrogance. Ambition turns into greed. And imagination into odd eccentricity.

It doesn't address the real problem that workplaces face. Like most of the leadership-development literature, which has been hijacked by the self-help industry, the strengths movement exudes an inexplicable degree of optimism. Reality is not so sunny. It seems a little odd, even intellectually irresponsible, to ignore our limitations and shortcomings. There is little to be gained, as Voltaire's Candide noted, from "the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst."

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We cannot solve the severe problems we face in leadership with wishful thinking. Strengths-based interventions might be useful if the goal is to help individuals "self-actualize" or increase certain aspects of well-being. If the focus, however, is on making people more competent, productive, or effective, managers should work on mitigating people's weaknesses.


Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review.