Complexity in Strengths-Based Coaching: Can We Overuse Strengths? | College of Executive Coaching
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Complexity in Strengths-Based Coaching: Can We Overuse Strengths?

By Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., MCC

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Complexity in Strengths-Based Coaching: Can We Overuse Strengths?

As a proponent of helping our coaching clients leverage their strengths, I want to clearly state the importance of individuals managing their weaknesses. Frequently, I stress how much of our success in life comes from utilizing our strengths—your intellectual strength and determination, for example, enabled you to complete your graduate degree. However, challenges we face in our future may involve doing things that are difficult for you—especially if one's goal involves moving to a higher level of leadership.

I'm a fan of strengths assessments such as the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths and the Gallup ClliftonStrengths (formerly called the StrengthsFinder). However, most coaches utilize these assessments to encourage the client to use their strengths more and often don't prompt an individual to consider if they might be using a strength too much, what we could call an "overused strength." These assessments are a goldmine of potential for the client but the complexity of fully understanding how strengths show up and interact with other strengths, and how they are underused or overused, makes a strengths-based coaching approach uniquely complex. Layered on top of that complexity is most coaches don't have a deep understanding of the terminology of strengths since the words used in the strengths assessment often have different meanings in everyday English.

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McCall and Lombardo's interview studies conducted at the Center for Creative Leadership of derailed executives led them to them introduce the phrase, "strengths can become weaknesses." I find it helpful to complement the strengths assessments with getting leaders feedback on how much they are demonstrating behaviors, "too little," the "right amount," or "too much."

In a study of 421 upper-level managers, Kaiser and Kaplan found that by comparing self-report and 360 degree feedback the least effective managers overrated their effectiveness, and the most effective managers underrated their effectiveness. In fact, the high performing managers often did not have a good grasp of what their strengths are. This lack of strength awareness can cause them to overuse certain strengths in challenging situations because they come naturally to them. Of course this also is an argument to use strengths assessments to increase self-awareness.

Is there a cost to overusing a strength? It seems obvious that to underutilize a strength, when that strength is needed, will lead to lower performance. It is just as true that to use a strength more than the ideal amount for the situation is equally harmful. Kaiser and Kaplan point out that you can have a manager that is a forceful leader—who can take charge and provide clear direction. This leadership quality is often needed, especially with a new employee or in a crisis. However managers who are too forceful, and too tough, make employees feel badly about their work, and at the same time a leader who spends too much time including everyone in a decision and is too concerned about people's feelings for the situation, will get lower business results.

The solution is to coach our clients to be versatile—to display the "right" amount of their strengths for the situation at hand. The researchers describe being high in versatility as being a master of opposites. For example, managers or leaders can be evaluated for versatility by looking at pairs of leadership attributes such as forceful and enabling leadership by calculating how close their ratings are to the "right amount" on both dimensions.

The bottom line is we need to balance our strength-based coaching approaches with a realistic assessment of where and how an individual may also be overusing their strengths.

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