Friday, April 29, 2011

I've Got Some Bad News That is Good News

Last week I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a workshop on story-telling as a business strategy. It is amazing how people say they want feedback, but only with a certain focus. Though I try to maximize performance by the feedback I provide, I have finally learned that I've got to change my language so people will hear what they need to do to be successful.

In the session we started by training participants on how to create and tell the best business stories. Subsequently we trained them to be trainers in their respective regions. Within the process we required them to "teach back" what they had learned from us. As the "expert" they wanted me to give them feedback on how they did. I identified what they had done right and encouraged them to continue to do what they were doing. Their comment at the end of the day was "We wish we had more critical feedback."

Why do people only think that feedback is valuable if it is critical; not just critical, but negatively critical? The studies point to maximizing success by identifying what is going well, identifying why it is going well and making sure more of the success factors happen. All of that feedback is about good news. Yet it seems difficult to hear it. Our ears don't hear positive feedback as "critical" and yet it is critical to success. Just focusing on what is going wrong only promotes average behavior. The highest achievement comes from analyzing and maximizing successes.

So, two things have to happen. The first is that all of us, myself included, have to start hearing positive feedback as critical; it is critical to optimum success. As for me, and those of us asked to give feedback, I'm going to start telling people "This is critical. You're not doing enough of (fill this in with the successful behavior). Start doing it more." Maybe if I say the good news as bad news, they might listen to the feedback and do something different. Or not.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Taking Strengths Theory to The Next Level

This article has been published in Positive Psychology News Daily ( and is a review of a new article on strengths theory.

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 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.

Strengths Ascent: 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.

1.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.

2.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.

3.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.

4.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.

5.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.