Home All When Is a Strength Not a Strength?

When Is a Strength Not a Strength?

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 October 2007

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

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.

Strengths Focus 

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.

Interlocking Chains

Interlocking Chains

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

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Senia 29 October 2007 - 3:04 pm


Thanks for this super-interesting article. I agree with you to the Nth degree! My friend David Seah quotes the famous designer Milton Glaser about the TOXICITY TEST on people: “…the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised.”

It sounds like Alex Linley has a similar outlook on activities. And that makes so much sense.

My favorite part of your article was when you contrasted Dweck’s work with having a reliance on strengths: “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.” It’s fascinating to contrast both sets of research. I’d never thought about this before you I read your article, but this makes a lot of sense to me.

I also agree with you here: “In today’s world of constant change, surely the risk of creating a fixed mindset is a big risk to take?” Yes. Ditto that. Agreed.

Why not believe that your strengths will ebb and flow – will grow to meet the needs of you at that time? Why not believe that you have the resources rather than that you don’t?


Jon Musker 21 February 2008 - 5:10 pm

I was convinced of my talents as an IT consultant 18 months ago. I knew I was gifted, and so did my colleagues and bosses (I made sure they knew, of course). I was also stressed, demotivated and undermining the team at work.

Less than 18 months after coming across Prof. Dweck’s material I am now running the company. And what am I doing? Spending my time spreading a culture of growth-mindset within the organisation.

It is the single most powerful psychological technique I have ever come across. Simple, broad-ranging and deep; it works for me every time I try it. Every time. Satisfaction guaranteed!

Kathryn Britton 25 February 2008 - 10:49 am


Very interesting.

Tell us more about how you ‘spread a culture of growth-mindset within the organization.’ What specifically do you do? Can you give an example of it working when you try it?


Wayne Jencke 26 February 2008 - 12:23 pm

I think there is another more important perspective. Chris Petersens work shows that there are several values (talents) that are more important with regards to life satisfaction – love, zest etc whereas others have limited impact – love of learning.

The question is why develop a talent that has minimal impact on life satisfaction.

Kathryn Britton 26 February 2008 - 9:38 pm


Isn’t Chris Peterson talking about relative contribution to life satisfaction, rather than absolute?

So Love of Learning might not have as big an impact as Love and Zest, but that isn’t equivalent to saying it has a limited or minimal impact, no?

Kathryn Britton

Wayne Jencke 27 February 2008 - 6:12 am

Have a look at the original research -they are partial correlations – some strengths give you more bang for your buck

The obvious piece of research which hasn’t been undertaken is to get someone to work on one of the top 5 (eg zest)and compare that to the impact that working on one of your top 5 (eg love of learning) and constrast the impact on life satisfaction.

I personally suspect that working on strengths taps into zest.


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