Why I don’t recognise Hogan’s view on strengths based coaching, as published in the HBR

I was really intrigued to read the article, published in the Harvard Business Review, describing “how strengths based coaching can weaken you”. Written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan, it was carefully presented, and used some well-researched statistics. But, based on my own experience as a strengths coach, it didn’t seem to describe the whole picture.

Firstly, Chamorro-Premuzic describes a strengths approach leading to “the word “weakness” becoming a politically incorrect term in mainstream HR circles, where people are described as having strengths and “opportunities” or “challenges” — but not weaknesses. Some businesses are even planning to scrap negative feedback”.

This is, in my experience of using a strengths approach (including using Strengthscope®, a psychometric tool developed by Strengths Partnership), is simply not the case. I welcome a discussion when working with individuals and teams about areas that are less energising – which may or may not be weaknesses. If a strength that doesn’t energise the individual is not needed for a role, then it won’t be weakness. Or, the individual may have developed strategies to overcome any potential area of risk and so that non-strength isn’t a weakness. For example, an individual may not be energised by efficiency, however their energy for relationship building will mean that they are meticulous in responding to emails and calls in order to maintain those relationships. And so their low energy for efficiency simply isn’t a weakness.

However, a weakness is always an opportunity. An insighful conversation with a strengths colleague at Strengths Strategy this week highlighted to me how weaknesses are always an invitation for connection. In order to overcome our weaknesses most effectively, we either develop those areas (which means connecting with those who can help us, and as Chamorro-Premuzic himself says, this is what “high performing leaders” can do), or we reach out to colleagues who are energised in that area, and can help. Weaknesses are the ultimate team development, relationship building and collaboration opportunity – as long as we see weaknesses in that way!

The author highlighted that “meta-analytic evidence shows that negative feedback and lower self-estimates of ability do improve performance” but there is also evidence to suggest that a focus on weaknesses leads to actively disengaged employees.

I don’t know who Chamorro-Premuzic was speaking to in order to get his view on strengths based coaching, but none of the many exceptional strengths coaches I have met and work with would have taken that view. The ones I know are all comfortable with exploring weaknesses with individuals and teams – in fact my favourite work is seeing the transformations that happen when teams look at areas of weakness together and identify new strategies that lead them to success – using their strengths!

Another point Chamorro-Premuzic made was about how there is no scientific evidence that strengths work. There is plenty of evidence to show that a strengths approach work – including the review of decades of data collected by Gallup by Rath and Conchie in Strengths-based Leadership .

We have come to equate scientific evidence as being only robust if it has been independently researched and published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Whilst it is important to be rigorous in collecting and analysing data, because we are all as practitioners responsible for ensuring that what we publish is based on evidence, I feel that the application of the definition of science has become too narrowed.

It is all to easy to throw out valid data simply because “there’s no scientific evidence” or because it hasn’t been “peer reviewed”. But what does that mean?

Typing in “definition of science” into Google gives us this: science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Science, in its purest form, is about observation and experimentation.

If I give an analogy of the scientific approach of a child. My son, who is 6, is fascinated by nature. He has started to notice every time there is frost, now that it is winter. He knows that this means that it must be very cold outside. This – in and of itself – is science is action. My son is observing something  – a change over time – and reporting it to me.  Now imagine that all his kindergarten classmates do the same. Imagine too that they, as a class, might have an idea to bring in a thermometer and all measure together, the temperature each morning and note whether there is frost or not. And so learn and discover the temperature range at which frost is present.

The class experiment, if conducted over a set time, might qualify it for publication in the kiddie equivalent of a peer reviewed academic journal, however my son’s individual scientific observations and personal experiment are accurate – and valid – irrespective of whether a larger scale experiment has taken place to support what he has seen. And he will know that when he scientifically observes frost – whether or not anyone else agrees with him – he needs to put his hat and gloves on.

Whilst peer-reviewed data on the positive impact of strengths is being gathered, there is plenty of observed and measured evidence of the positive impact that a strengths focused approach brings to individuals, teams and to overall business success.

I have worked with many businesses that have all observed the hugely positive impact that a strengths coaching approach has brought, and that is science in action. In fact, I am yet to experience a case where a strengths focused approach didn’t work. I don’t believe I ever will. In one intervention I was involved in for example, employees taking part in focus groups all openly and emphatically talked about how it is possible to “tell” (observe) which teams had been put through the strengths coaching approach and which hadn’t, such was the positive impact and difference it had made to people’s lives. That to me is science in action – and all those within the organisation – were the scientists observing the impact of the intervention and noticing its impact.

Academic research is hugely important in verifying what we see on the ground, so it’s crucial that we continue to support research that helps progress and prove the positive impact that different interventions can make. And of course measuring the impact of interventions helps to build the business case, which in turn makes it easier for organisations to justify investing in such approaches.

However we can lose a lot of time waiting for the results of academic research when actually, we know and can see the outcome of any action we take, just in taking it. This doesn’t just apply to the wonderful work of positive psychology, this applies to everything we do, every decision we make in every area of our lives. And whilst we wait for the research to come out, individuals and teams waiting for it, can lose time being disengaged, unmotivated, having less confidence, delivering poor outcomes, and being unhappy at work – and all the negative effects that this can bring to health, relationships, teams and the business as a whole.

Also, we don’t always understand how or why something “works”, but we see that it does. That is science. Our desire as scientists is to understand it, and I applaud that. But I also welcome more space to welcome in what we observe works as being valid too – without the need for scientific data to back it up, because we are all, ultimately, scientists, like my 6 year old son. And a strengths coaching approach is something that I, and everyone I have ever worked with, has observed “works”, without the evidence of a peer-reviewed paper.

It is time to reclaim science as a common sense approach that we can all access – to realise that we are all scientists. Then businesses can get on with getting in the best approaches to build stronger, happier and more capable workforces, and can grow their businesses as easily and quickly as possible.

This is how innovation works, and how leaders in the field succeed. They are willing to try something that may not yet have the academic evidence to show it works, because they, as a scientist too, have had an idea or observed something. They may fall, or they may fly. But when they fly, they are the ones the rest of us look up to – and it is because of them that the research into their success follows.