What Do Strengths Have To Do With It?
After thirty years of research the Gallup organization has discovered that “individuals gain more when they build on their talents, than when they make comparable efforts to improve their areas of weakness” (Clifton and Harter, p. 112, 2003). Building on that statement, Clifton and Harter define a strength as refining a talent with skill and knowledge (p. 111, 2003). In recent years, there has been a groundswell of support in the business community for a strengths-based approach. But now the question is how to measure and capitalize on those strengths? If given with certain caveats, assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the StrengthsFinder 2.0 and the Value in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) provide pertinent information for assessing aspects of character depending on the desired outcomes.
Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers created their assessment based on Jung’s theory of psychological types over five decades ago (Gardner & Martinko, 1996). Since then it has experienced enormous popularity within corporations and around the world. Since then it has become enormously popular within corporations and around the world. Over 2 million MBTI assessments are sold annually (Pittenger, 1993). Myers designed the MBTI because she believed that Jung’s theory could link “personality and job performance” (Pittenger, p. 468, 1993). Despite its popularity, there are a number of arguments against the MBTI. There is widespread debate about the oversimplification of Jung’s theories in the assessment. In addition, it is a forced-choice scale. The MBTI forces a “dichotomous category onto a continuous distribution” (Pittenger, p. 472, 1993). And can one really argue that there are types of people? Personality falls in a normal distribution with no inconsistencies in the data with the exception of psychopaths. (Professor Peterson, in communication, February 8, 2009). And if there are, do they break down neatly into 16 categories? And what about context? The structure of the MBTI gives no regard to the group of individuals or the situation that one is in. There is also some evidence that types can change every two and a half years (Pittenger, 1993). I have witnessed mixed results in my work but positive results in my own assessment.
Recently, I was facilitating a workshop where the participants were also receiving the results from their MBTI. As I ran into a vivacious participant in the elevator he expressed concern that perhaps he was in the wrong profession. All of his other colleagues were in the introverted corner of the 16 squares on the wall and only one other person of the 200 that weekend was in the opposite quadrant. At the same time the Myers-Briggs gave him insight into the differences that might crop up between himself and other employees, it alienated him from his workplace. “Maybe I don’t belong here,” he joked. Listening to him made me worry that by placing people; literally, in boxes we tell them that there are only a few correct types for a certain profession. Instead of seeing his extroversion as an essential asset of the team he saw himself as ‘other’. When this goes so far as to make someone think they don’t even belong in a certain profession, assessments are misused.
That being said, the MBTI has grown in popularity and can be a useful tool because of its very simplicity. My results on the MBTI are uncannily accurate. As an ESFJ I show “‘conscious’ extraverted feeling and ‘unconscious’ introverted sensing (and as tertiary functions, extraverted intuition and introverted thinking)” (Professor Peterson, personal communication, February 8, 2009). A section of my ESFJ interpretation says: “Wherever they go, Providers take up the role of social contributor, happily giving their time and energy to make sure that the needs of others are met, that traditions are supported and developed, and that social functions are a success. Providers are extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, which makes them perhaps the most sympathetic of all the types, but which also leaves them rather self-conscious, that is, highly sensitive to what others think of them” (Professor Peterson, personal communication, February 8, 2009). Having an accurate description of my personality type and being able to contrast with the other types of people I work with, I have come to see that our differences are just differences and not character flaws as I had previously interpreted them. It highlights the fact that we should expect some differences when dealing with others. The MBTI can help counteract the mirror image fallacy where a person predicts that other people are just like them.
In contrast, the VIA-IS Classification of Strengths gives more options than the MBTI and is not a dichotomous scale. It is more life oriented and less work oriented as it was created as a classification and not for the specific purpose of flexing a type or strength in a work setting. In addition it does not carry the negative connotations that some of the types of the MBTI can carry. Often, being an extroverted accountant or an introverted salesperson can be stigmatizing in a work setting.
As far as VIA-IS to MBTI concordance, my strengths focusing on others and the heart (extraverted feeling) do correspond to my signature strengths of: social intelligence, kindness, authenticity and humor. It does not correlate to my signature strength of perseverance. The overlap between these two assessments, as well as the following assessment, creates a certain confidence and a ‘sweet spot’ from which one can begin to work. Businesses who are training new managers or who need to help create higher functioning teams would benefit from this assessment.
Businesses with more nuanced needs could benefit from the StrengthsFinder 2.0. Studies from the Gallup organization indicate that people who focus on their strengths every day are “six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs” and more than “three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general” (Rath, 2007). Their research is reason alone to explore the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment. Indeed, it is a finely shaded measure with 34 themes of which they pick the top 5 and show you how they interact.
Unfortunately, the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment was incredibly difficult to navigate. I found myself panicked at the 20-second time limit and confused at the choice between two items that frequently bore no relation to each other. The result of the test claimed that my top five strengths are: Empathy, Positivity, Relator, Arranger and Individualization. As I read the descriptions, two of them seemed to bear only vague resemblance to me: Individualization and, to a lesser degree, Positivity. Indeed, as I read Tom Rath’s book I recognized myself in two other strengths almost immediately: Communication and Developer. This complication with the assessment means that perhaps the most useful part of the assessment, the “Personalized Strengths Insights” which sees how your strengths interact, was not applicable for me.
While it is an indication of the problems with the assessment that it was not accurate for me, it is a testament to the detailed descriptions that I was able to recognize myself immediately in their description, quotes from ‘real people’ and “Ideas for Action”. In addition, I recognized family members and co-workers in other descriptions and found their suggestions for how to work with others who have specific strengths incredibly helpful. I think this assessment would be most useful to for-profit or non-profit organizations which are already at an advanced level of social functioning and wish to determine how to manage employees and work in a high functioning way.
The VIA-IS Classification of strengths has a more manageable number (24) than the StrengthsFinder 2.0 (34). The VIA-IS is also more universal to life than the StrengthsFinder 2.0 which is created for people who work outside the home in presumably a large office. The VIA classifies real strengths derived from extensive global and historical research where the StrengthsFinder 2.0 seems to reframe weaknesses as strengths (Command) or to chose items that are only strengths in North America (Competition, Strategic).
In comparing my VIA-IS scores to my StrengthsFinder 2.0 scores I see there is some correlation both to the strengths that Gallup would choose for me and those which I would choose for myself. The VIA strengths correlate to the StrengthsFinder 2.0 on an almost one to one basis (Professor Peterson, in communication, February 8, 2009). Based on these correlations, perhaps the strengths that Gallup would choose for me are more accurate than the ones I would choose for myself. My second ranked signature strength of kindness corresponds to Empathy (which I might agree with) and Positivity (which I might not) was in my top 5. My number one strength of social intelligence strength correlates to Individuation (which I also took issue with). There is no correlate for humor and my persistence and honesty did not seem to translate to the StrengthsFinder 2.0. Instead the latter assessment chose Arranger (which correlates to creativity) and Relator (which correlates to love and is akin to Developer which I would have chosen for myself). And lastly, I would have chosen Communication which correlates to another strength which is not in my top five – teamwork. Again, the concordance is not quite as simple as comparing the VIA to the MBTI, but there are similarities which highlight which strengths might be deemed ‘super strengths’. And if one were to have to choose which strengths to focus on, it is helpful to have the reinforcement of multiple assessments to guide you.
So what do strengths have to do with it? Everything. It just depends on whether an organization is assessing work-place strengths or character strengths. The MBTI would be beneficial for organizations with team building or basic management issues. As long as the organization knows that a) the test might not be accurate after two and a half years; b) it should not be used for recruitment purposes; and c) it has the downside of typing and possibly alienating individuals. I would recommend the StrengthsFinder 2.0 for organizations who have management and leadership needs and are looking for more nuanced and advanced ways to flex their strengths. And finally, I would recommend the VIA for non-profit organizations interested in assessing character or companies focusing on managing the whole of a person. I don’t think there is a downside to the VIA if it is taken for this purpose.
I see the MBTI assessing the mind, the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessing the heart and the VIA-IS assessing the soul. All three of these assessments have benefits when placed in the proper context. You must, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “let your own discretion be your tutor; suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (III.ii.16-18). In the same way, if we suit the assessment to the audience we may “hold the mirror up to nature” (III.ii.22) and show that one does not need magic to see our strengths.
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-Koehler.
Gardner, W. L., & Martinko, M. J. (1996). Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to study managers: A literature review and research agenda. Journal of Management, 22, 45-83.
Pittenger, D. J. (1993). The utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Review of Educational Research, 63, 467-488.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. Gallup Press: New York.
Shakespeare, William (1982). Hamlet. (Proudfoot, R., Thompson, A., and Kastan, D.S., Eds.). Italy: Methuen & Co. Ltd. (Original work published in 1601).