A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled Strengths Based Coaching Can Actually Weaken You was timely, given the topic I wanted discuss in my latest blog. I tiptoed around the topic because strengths based coaching is powerful and it also misses something fundamental about personal change. The article asked: Can focusing only on strengths give a false sense of competence? Yes I think it is quite possible and this is not a widely held view.
Let me provide some context for my view. When I worked in brain injury rehabilitation, we used the term deficit awareness which simply referred to the degree to which a patient knew he had a problem to address. It is considered the most important prognostic indicator for recovery. It foretold the capacity for improvement. After all, why would you make any effort to change if you didn’t think there was an issue in the first place? It wasn’t unusual to see someone assert that he or she could go right back to work after a major brain injury if the hospital would just sign a release. It’s wasn’t a hope, it was a sincere belief!
My 25 year career in brain rehab likely pre-calibrated me to look for strengths as well as areas of low awareness in my coaching practice. My business moniker is Uncover Your Potential. However, in my years working in rehab and now as a coach, it is clear to me that developing personal potential was definitely enhanced by having a reasonably accurate self-appraisal . In coaching, we wouldn’t use terms like deficit awareness- the term is harsh and it suggests a lacking. However I do like the term blind spots and they aren’t always obvious.
When working with an individual, either using formal assessments or performance reviews, there is a temptation to jump from assessment to goal without going through a deeper probe into why we do what we do. In fact, if we are only looking at strengths, we might gloss over evidence of blind spots. That might be a big mistake because it actually takes a long time to truly address a blind spot. This important information unfolds gradually and often incompletely. There are at least 6 levels:
1. A person receives feedback from an outside source. It could be a standardized assessment, a performance review, or comments from another person. There may be repeated experiences providing evidence of a blind spot, except one doesn’t identify it as such.
2. Next, an individual must see the connection between a blind spot and specific outcomes.
3. The connection might be acknowledged but its relevancy and impact disputed. One might ask: So what? Why does it matter? Or it weren’t for this or that factor, I would have what I want.
4. An individual must care that his or her effectiveness is decreased as a result of the blind spot.
5. Concern begets motivation. An individual must resolve or be motivated to make changes based on this increased clarity or more accurate self-appraisal.
6. Goals and strategies are formulated.
In my experience, the greatest hurdle occurs at level 3 or 4, seeing a connection and being concerned about it. Oftentimes, we go straight from assessment to goal generation without examining deeper levels of self-awareness. I believe that it’s at this level that coaching becomes most important. Back and forth conversations tend to provide clarity allowing for exploration of self in a non-threatening way. The goals are important, of course, but they stand a much greater chance of being met if the lay of the land is clear.