Early in 2001 I picked up what was then a brand new book by Marcus Buckingham and Don Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths. Immediately upon reading it I was hooked on strengths theory. Over the past 10 years as an enthusiast and a practitioner, I’ve run workshops, coached people, and continued reading anything about strengths. I wrote an article recently for PositivePsychologyNews.com about what I’ve learned from practice, What Do You Do With a Strengths Assessment?
Now Robert Biswas-Diener, Todd Kashdan, and Gurpal Minhas are about to take strengths theory to the next level with a new article titled A Dynamic Approach to Psychological Strengths Development and Intervention scheduled for publication in The Journal of Positive Psychology. Having had the privilege of reading an early copy, I can tell you that it is worth reading.
The authors begin with an excellent summary of the research on strengths theory. Their focus turns quickly to the current state of strengths interventions and the practitioners who are applying strengths’ assessments in their professional capacities. Though the authors acknowledge practitioners as the front line for applying strengths theory, they caution that both the offering of theory and the interventions themselves need to be properly applied, and both need to be accompanied by data collection to evaluate their efficacy.
Through an admittedly limited survey of practitioners, the authors identify the “identify and use” approach as the one most used by practitioners of strengths assessments. That is, practitioners first help clients identify their strengths and then conduct dialogues about how to use them. Though they believe the identify and use approach is practical, they advocate a more general “strengths development“ approach that will serve Positive Psychology and our clients better.Fixed or Not?
A major pillar of the strengths development approach is the shift from a trait-like concept of strengths to a dynamic approach. They point out that the current trait-like model states that strengths are fixed across time and situations, but they argue that a more nuanced approach is necessary to understand strengths. The common understanding of strengths as trait-like runs in opposition to the idea that strengths can be developed. They claim that the movement to a dynamic model is not a radical departure from strengths theory, but instead an extension based on new research about strengths. Their reference list is a good place to start exploring the new research.
Because of this shift in theory, Diener, Kashdan and Minhas suggest to practitioners that we offer a theoretically integrated approach to strengths development that goes beyond the common ways to develop strengths (become better at them, use them more, know when to use them). They suggest a change of focus from usage of strengths to cultivation of strengths so that clients come to fully understand the benefits, liabilities, and ideal application of strengths.
Strengths in Isolation
The authors caution that much of current practice seems to isolate individual strengths. For example, the identification of a “top strength” tends to imply that strengths exist divorced from other internal and social factors. I liked the following five concepts that they offer to practitioners and strengths enthusiasts for increasing the effectiveness of strengths interventions.
- Strengths tilt: A key factor in maximizing strengths is the interest or natural leaning of the individual. By understanding not only the strengths of an individual, but also their interests, there is a greater possibility of full manifestation of strengths.
- Strengths constellations: It is important to examine the ways that pairs or groups of strengths work effectively in tandem that are unique to each person. These constellations of strengths can add a deeper level of understanding to strengths theory.
- Strengths blindness: Some individuals can have blindness when it comes to some of their strengths because they assume the similarity of everyone else. The authors suggest this as an interesting area of research. Are there, for example, strengths that are more likely to be overlooked than others? Are people, for example, more like to see their own humor and spirituality than their kindness, courage, or curiosity? The authors suggest in personal coaching, it is important to identify personal blind spots so that strengths aren’t overlooked.
- Strengths sensitivity: The emphasis on strengths might make people more psychologically vulnerable to failure than they might otherwise be. Practitioners need to be aware of this.
- The social costs of strengths: The overuse of a strength can have negative effects on others. There needs to be awareness about how the usage of strengths will impact others so that the person can judge when to use the strength or not.
Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, and Minhas are offering a more thoughtful, nuanced approach to applying strengths theory. They willingly admit where more data is needed, but they want to engage individuals and practitioners in developing a more complete research base that will take strengths theory to the next level. Look for the article in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Minhas, G. (in press). A Dynamic Approach to Psychological Strengths Development and Intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology.