Why playing to your strengths isn’t like competing in the decathlon or heptathlon
Helping people play to their strengths has been a major part of my work for over 10 years and – as a Gallup-certified strengths coach – I spend a lot of my time helping people work with their strengths (and their weaknesses!). In Learning & Development, strengths and weaknesses are mentioned frequently but a lot of what I see shared isn’t actually a true representation of what it means to play to your strengths.
One example is the various sporting analogies that describe playing to your strengths as like competing in the decathlon or heptathlon. Sporting analogies can sometimes be really helpful, but I don’t believe this one is is a helpful analogy for strengths. I’ve heard varying forms of this, for example how Daley Thompson would work twice as hard on his weakest disciplines as he would on his strongest, of how you might want to focus all of your development efforts on becoming even better at your strongest disciplines, or how you might want to simply ‘top up’ the weakest and focus on your strongest disciplines. These are important decisions, but I don’t believe they’re a good analogy for playing to your strengths. The concept of strengths lies much deeper than just things that we’re good at, and focuses on the underlying talents that drive our success. My concern with the decathlon/heptathlon analogy is that it feels like it constrains us to making a choice of whether we accept our weaknesses or fight against them. And that compromise isn’t what playing to your strengths is all about.
Without stretching the analogy too far, let me try to construct a decathlon/heptathlon analogy that is representative of strengths-based development:
(1) Imagine that you’re really competitive and this really helps you in the track events where you can see your competitors, but you struggle with motivation in the field events where the competition has a different nature. Also, you hate losing, and this is a problem in the 1500m as the best running style for you is to start slow and finish fast, but you get really frustrated as you quickly fall behind and you then struggle because you feel like you’re losing.
The strengths-based opportunity here is to help you use your natural competitiveness more widely, and to be able to engage it even when you can’t see the people either side of you. Also, your competitiveness is becoming a weakness in the 1500m and you should explore ways of harnessing it more effectively. This situation is quite common where an underlying talent can be a strength, also has development opportunities in using it more effectively, and that same talent can also show up as a weakness when it is overused.
(2) In training, you recover more slowly than other athletes so you can’t train as hard as others. You’ve tried various ways to improve it but nothing has worked. This is a weakness as you have a limited resource of something (training capacity) that it would help to have in abundance!
The strengths-based opportunity here is to accept that it is what it is, and to work on mitigating the weakness and find ways to use the training time most effectively. Also, you might be able to find creative ways to make the most of limited training time and train for more than one discipline at the same time.
(3) You’re not very disciplined, so you’re not very good at sticking to your training plans. Again, this is a weakness as you’re not naturally good at something that would really help you.
The strengths-based opportunity here is that there’s loads of ways in which you could address this; you could find ways to apply a different talent and harness your competitive spirit on a daily basis so you become more disciplined; try introducing accountability for sticking to your plans; make your progress more visible; or try training with a partner.
This analogy feels much more like strengths-based development to me as it is focused on using what you’ve got to achieve what you want. It includes
- developing your natural talents
- learning how to apply them more effectively and not overusing them when that becomes detrimental
- thinking creatively about how you can use your range of talents to mitigate for something that doesn’t come naturally
- working with others in complementary partnerships
- learning how to systematically mitigate weaknesses
Strengths-based development is a rich discussion about making the most of what you’ve got, not a trade-off about what you haven’t.