March 11, 2009

The perils of accentuating the positive

Yesterday, an interesting book fell on my doormat: The Perils of Accentuating the Positive (edited by Rob Kaiser). In this book 15 authors challenge claims by some advocates of the so-called strengths movement that in order to flourish we should focus on identifying and developing our strengths instead of fixing our weaknesses. The authors argue that this perspective is dangerous and describe several problems. One of them is that there are important differences between an individual's strengths and what organizations and jobs ask of them. If individuals ignore the part that is asked of them but does not fit with their strengths, performance will suffer. A second problem is that a strict distinction between strengths and weakness is hard to make (for instance: strengths can become weakness when they are overused). A third problem is that the strengths perspectives ignores that working on weaknesses does matter (if a skill is required in your role and you're not good at it, it helps to improve it).

As you know, I have written several times about my idea that the strengths perspective is probably not the essence of the solution-focused approach and also not of positive psychology. I think this focus is probably too individualistic and we'd do well to move into a more interactive, dynamic and situationist perspective. Instead of focusing on strengths I think we should focus more on what (whatever) works. Functioning, well-being, flourishing and performing at core is a matter of person x situation. When we want focus on what is right (which I think often is a good idea), we should keep that in mind. We are always looking at what someone does in a certain context. We should not separate the individual from its context.


  1. It is a tragedy when people don't know their own strengths. This is something the strength movement is trying to correct. People are even worse at recognizing others strengths.

    Focusing only on strengths would be a serious problem if it ever happened in real life. Have you seen this happen?

  2. Hi Eric, Thank you. I would like to create some confusion about what strengths are. What seems like a strength in one situation seems like a weakness in another. Another thing I want to create some discussion about is about whether how possible or useful it is to know ourselves fully. I am a bit skeptical about whether we can ever fully know ourselves (see Timothy Wilson's book Strangers to ourselves, for instance). But also I doubt whether it is necessary to fully know ourselves. More important than fully understanding who we are we have to be able to work with ourselves in a useful way.
    I think you're right. I think in practice there will be few people who will focus only on strengths. Fortunately!

  3. Did you really mean to "create some confusion about what strengths are."? Maybe we can simplify personal strengths by saying "doing what works for me".
    You're right. We can't know ourselves as we are constantly changing (hopefully improving). Accepting things about yourself as true might prevent you from expanding your self awareness. We need to be aware of what is working for us, and that will change. OK so update that to "doing what works for me now".

  4. Hi Eric, Yes, I think that we generally talk as if it is quite clear what strengths and weaknesses are. Saying that I want to 'create some confusion' is perhaps a bit too provocatively put. Better would have been to say that I would like to clarify how confusing the concept of strengths is. Doing what works for me now seems more useful. Three additional considerations about what you say:

    1. You could argue against the 'now' that sometimes we do what turns out to have worked later.

    2. With respect to the 'for me' part -> I think this is important but 'for me' is often best when it collides with 'for us' or 'for a common good'

    3. With respect to the question whether we can know ourselves I am reminded of a view on wisdom which was formulated by Confucius: "To know that one knows what one knows, and to know that one doesn't know what one doesn't know, there lies true wisdom." This view was elaborated by Karl Weick who said that in order to remain wise we should keep a balance between acknowledging what we know and acknowledging what we don't know. I think this might apply so self-knowledge too. It would be unwise to think we know nothing at all about ourselves just as it would be unwise to underestimate all the things we don't know about ourselves.

    Thanks for your responses, I hope my answer contains something of interest to you

  5. Very interesting discussion. So easy to get into semantic tangles with "positive" and "negative" isn't it. "Strength" and "weakness" is a little clearer, but still suffers from a similar perspectivism.

    We now know from Dweck and others that unselective praise to boost self-esteem can be downright harmful with respect to motivation and self-concept. The biggest problem: the message that we are strong because of a fixed trait. We also know that praise that is inongruent with our self-concept has paradoxical effects.

    So we have to be careful about just what we consider to be "strength" and "weakness" from the perspective of the outcome.

    Understanding strengths and weaknesses in dynamic and contingent terms is very important.

    This becomes especially true when we aren't talking about basic abilities anymore, but more sophisticated abilities like resourcefulness and creative intelligence. Flexibility then becomes as important as individual strengths. It becomes a "strength" of its own in a sense, although "waffling," a different way of being flexible, is a weakness.

    Hope this isn't too off the subject.

  6. Strengths based assessments, what works, etc, are useful but not in isolation. I facilitated a session this morning where we focused on strengths / what's working in a loose-knit sector of organizations. It was critical that early on we assessed barriers to success, what's worrying us, etc. We then knew what to do with the strengths. Still, the strengths were only a platform on which we could stand in order to look at how we might be successful in the future. One member of the group later reminded of the problem - it was very helpful in adding more ideas about where we needed to go. A year from now the group will have forgotten the strengths, but will be making more progress than if we'd studded the problem. Strength inventories are a resource tool for change not a new steady state to be analyzed for validation. Take them seriously, not literally. BTW, I love having skeptics in the room - they are soo helpful.

  7. Hi Alan, Thanks for your example!

    I like this remark a lot: "I love having skeptics in the room - they are soo helpful." I agree!


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