Last weekend my UEL MAPP class was fortunate enough to have presentations from several external speakers, amongst them Alex Linley, founder of the UK’s Centre of Applied Positive Psychology, Peter Flade from the Gallup Organization, and Debbie Whitaker, Head of Sustainability at the global bank, Standard Chartered.
Our focus for the two days was applying positive psychology in organizations; unsurprisingly when it came to business, we concentrated on strengths-based approaches. Gallup and Standard Chartered’s recipes for strengths are similar: you start with a talent (something innate, which you either have or not, rather than something which you can develop from scratch) and you add skills and knowledge. The example given in Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 is the legendary basketball player Michael Jordan. Gallup then classifies these natural talents into a manageable 34 themes.
Linley, on the other hand, takes a much broader view of strengths, arguing that, rather than the 24 strengths outlined in the VIA-IS assessment or even the 34 StrengthsFinder themes, there are literally hundreds of different strengths. Of course it would be impossible to create a questionnaire which could accurately assess that many strengths. Asked how then could we go about identifying them, Linley replied “by paying attention to where you get your energy from.”
Standard Chartered, though, are achieving success by applying the StrengthsFinder model. They use a straightforward “talent management” approach which has become pretty common in large organizations over the last 10 years or so, i.e. define the target group and then focus development efforts on making these people even better. Resources are not infinite after all, and this seems to be a fairly pragmatic way to prioritize them. It’s a bit like the UK pub case study (Clifton & Harter 2003); I can see the attraction of this proposition, although as an accountant-turned-coach I would argue that the Return on Investment model for people is slightly more complex than the one for bricks-and-mortar hostelries.Many positive psychologists suggest that focusing on strengths should be encouraged; according to Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson (2005), for example, using strengths in new ways is a tried and tested way of achieving an increase in happiness. Asplund, Lopez, Hodges and Harter (2007), on the other hand, emphasize the benefits purely from a business perspective (reduced employee turnover, increased employee engagement, productivity and profitability); they do not mention what benefits, if any, might accrue to the employees themselves. Whether or not you go along with the view that employees of all ranks are the most important (and equal) stakeholders, it could be argued that a single-minded focus on using a strengths-approach to realize business benefits is not entirely risk-free, as we shall see below.
The Caution against Using Strengths
I’ve been studying Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success over the past few days, and I’m intrigued by her research which suggests that believing that your qualities (in this case talents) are carved in stone can lead to some very unhelpful thoughts and actions, such as an inability to tolerate failure or to recognize and accept one’s own shortcomings, which then leads to a lack of effort and ultimately a lack of resilience. She uses plenty of individual case studies to illustrate the point – I’m sure we’re all familiar with the great John McEnroe.
A fixed mindset individual lives in a world where some people are superior (having the sought-after natural talent) and some are inferior (without natural talent). In an organizational context, Dweck suggests, a fixed mindset starts to influence how the team behaves (for example, discouraging open and honest expression of disagreements over management decisions), and can even lead to groupthink. So I’m left with the nagging thought that a strengths-based approach (for example, by concentrating organizational resources into developing the natural talents or strengths of a small group of individuals) could lead to the creation of a fixed mindset both in these individuals and in the organisation as a whole. In today’s world of constant change, surely the risk of creating a fixed mindset is a big risk to take?
Dweck suggests that organizational scandals such as Enron occurred because “It created a culture that worshipped talent, thereby forcing its employees to look and act extraordinarily talented. Basically it forced them into the fixed mindset…We know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies” (pp. 108-109). This is an extreme example of course, but the chapter “Business: Mindset and Leadership” mentions many other organizational case studies if Enron sounds like a step too far. Dweck makes an important point here. Perhaps focusing on people’s strengths and creating labels (albeit positive ones) is not always a good thing. It would seem that there are very real dangers especially when considering how to apply a strengths approach in an organizational environment, and especially with those organizations whose sole reason for doing so is to maximise business benefits. That’s another reason to ensure that in an organizational context at least, diversity and humility are nurtured, and a balanced approach is maintained.
Asplund, J., Lopez, S. J., Hodges, T. & Harter, J. (2007). The Clifton StrengthsFinder® 2.0 Technical Report: Development and Validation. Princeton, N.J., The Gallup Organization.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Clifton, D.O. & Harter, J.K. (2003). Investing in Strengths. In K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton & R.E. Quinn (Eds), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 111-121. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
Only as strong as the weakest link. Part 2 courtesy of David