"Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer."
If you ask them about their weaknesses, most people will probably respond quickly. They've had plenty of practice with this question.
One of the most common (and most dreaded) questions in job interviews is "What are your weaknesses?" The question is so common that "How to Interview" books devote pages to ideas for how best to answer the question (hint: honesty is not the best policy).
Even after you get the job, the questioning doesn't stop. Once a year (and sometimes twice) many American corporations participate in a practice known as the Performance Review. Managers are told to take time out from their otherwise busy schedules to write multi-page reviews of employee performance, including the supposedly important "Needs Improvement" section. The review provides a basis for salary increases and promotions. The "Improvements" section provides a basis for future assignments, training, and much discussion.
I have never liked the "weaknesses" question. In writing my "self-assessment" at performance review time, I have never liked the requirement to list "improvements needed". (One of my worst experiences was with a manager who invented what he wrote in this section, claiming "it's required but no one ever reads it.")
Recently, I have discovered a new approach. Rather than focusing on determining and eliminating people's weaknesses, we should instead focus on understanding and enhancing their strengths. This view asserts that it is each person's values, talents, skills, and strengths that are important, not their weaknesses and "areas for improvement".
Marcus Buckingham (co-author of First, Break All the Rules, and The One Thing You Need to Know) and Donald O. Clifton, Chair of the Gallup International Research & Education Center, have "created a revolutionary program to help readers identify their talents, build them into strengths, and enjoy consistent, near-perfect performance." The program is StrengthsFinder, described in the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths.
Guided by the belief that good is the opposite of bad, mankind has for centuries pursued its fixation with fault and failing. Doctors have studied disease in order to learn about health. Psychologists have investigated sadness in order to learn about joy. ... And in schools and workplaces around the world, each one of us has been encouraged to identify, analyze, and correct our weaknesses in order to become strong.
This advice is well intended but misguided. Faults and failings deserve study, but they reveal little about strengths. Strengths have their own patterns.
To excel in your chosen field and to find lasting satisfaction in doing so, you will need to understand you unique patterns.You will need to become an expert at finding and describing and applying and practicing and refining your strengths. ... shift your focus. Suspend whatever interest you might have in weakness and instead explore the intricate detail of your strengths.
[ from "Introduction: The Strengths Revolution at Work", in Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton; (emphasis mine) ]
The StrengthsFinder program introduces 34 "themes of talent" which could be combined in thousands of possible ways. Almost everyone will find that some themes reflect their talents better than others. After all, each person is unique. Even if you share themes with someone else, the way you utilize those themes will be different.
Some themes refer to a type of person, e.g. Achiever, Maximizer, or Learner. Others refer to a category (e.g. Discipline, Focus) or "quality" (e.g. Adaptability, Positivity). Buckingham and Clifton say they chose this approach because attempts to standardize the "types" of the themes "yielded increasingly clumsy and unfamiliar terms". (Even so, some of the terms, such as "Ideation" or "Woo" are decidedly unfamiliar. But, read the book. Things will make a lot more sense after you do.)
A web-based assessment tool can be used to determine an individual's five "signature themes". These signature themes represent your foremost strengths. If applied properly, these strengths can be translated into personal and career success.
Each copy of the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, comes with an ID code that allows the reader to complete the StrengthsFinder assessment on the web. I've posted my results, along with additional background information, on my website.
I was originally unhappy that it isn't possible to use the assessment tool without buying the book. However, after reading the book, I have realized that Gallup is making a correct decision. There's a lot more to Discovering Your Strengths than the simple results of an online "test". You need to read the book to reach a better understanding.
The practical purpose of StrengthsFinder is to highlight your dominant patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior. Here we are drawing a distinction between your signature themes and your responsive themes.
Your signature themes are those that you lead with. No matter the situation, they filter your world, forcing you to behave in certain recurring ways. By contrast, your responsive themes fire only occasionally, usually when a very particular situation presents itself.
The StrengthsFinder program, and the books, represent the result of 25 years of research by Gallup, conducted with over two million individuals and 80,000 managers. For someone like me, whose first question is usually "show me the data", this is impressive. Gallup has the data. The conclusions they draw are worth investigating.
[ This is part 1 of a 2-part entry on the Clifton StrengthsFinder and the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths. Part 2 is entitled, Strengths Finder. ]