When strengths become weaknesses


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In this short article which considers when a strength becomes a weakness, we explore how important language is to meaning, whilst offering a critique (by highlighting the weaknesses) of the popularised strengths-based approaches to personal development.

As I commit pen to paper (or fingers to keypad more like) I was forced to reflect on how politically correct it is these days to even refer to a weakness?

In my own coaching practice I confess I am sometimes tempted to use the word ‘weakness’, although, I quickly find myself referring to a ‘development gap’ instead. At the heart of this, of course, lies a conceptual framework centred around positive psychology, and evolution of strength-based approaches.

When we use constructive language (associated with strength-based approaches) we impart a certain meaning, one which provides the end user with a more positive experience. There are obvious benefits to doing this. When we feel an increase in positivity we are more likely to feel inspired, empowered and productive.   

When we feel an increase in positivity we are more likely to feel inspired, empowered and productive

However, my concern with any approach which is biased in principle, is that it presents a potential flaw.

chains being linked by straw to demonstrate how to turn a weakness into a strength
Turn your perceived weaknesses into a strength by changing your mindset.

With a strengths-based approach the bias being towards a strength, which naturally downplays, or ignores a weakness (development gaps).  As a pragmatist, I am all for efficiency. Placing effort and emphasis on the things that drive results.

Placing effort and emphasis on the things that drive results

There is little point wasting effort developing a weakness for the sake of it. When we focus on things we excel at, such as our strengths, we are likely to thrive. However, what happens if the thing that stands in our way of achieving success is a weakness.

What then? How does our strength help us?

This is where language gets interesting. This is where strengths start to be described as weaknesses (sometimes referred to as ‘Achilles Heel’), or things that catch us out.

On the flip side, what do we actually mean when we talk about a strength becoming a weakness. Are we referring to an overplayed strength? Something that ‘derails’ us?   

A useful example of when a strength becomes a weakness would be perfectionism:

Perfectionism as a strength, such as striving for excellence, not settling for mediocrity, raising the standards, can all lead to better outcomes.

Sad, weak looking man looking down, standing in front of a chalkboard with strong arms drawn on; representing when strength can be a weakness
“Your greatest strength begets your greatest weakness.”
– William Shakespeare

However, perfectionism as a weakness (when this becomes our achilles heel) is when we become demanding, good enough is never good enough, hard task masters, frustration.

This brings us back to our starting point around the importance of language and meaning. The main point being, that it is important to pay attention to both strengths and weaknesses.  

It is important to pay attention to both strengths and weaknesses. The key is to know when to apply effort and where.   

The key is to know when and where to apply effort.

Sometimes focusing on strengths will bring the result we want, other times unless we address the weakness first, a focus on strength won’t deliver results.

If the weakness doesn’t interfere or catch us out, then a strength-based approach is constructive and likely to drive results which create positive experiences.  

My own research into mindset and readiness for change provides evidence around some of the key factors which underpin success.

Increasing awareness of the things that inhibit or accelerate change enables us to make effective choices about where and how to apply effort so that we optimise our potential.

To find out more take a look at our introductory webinar.

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