Why are we obsessed with weaknesses? - Tracy Hutton

strength bloom

“During the 1950s, the Nebraska School Study Council supported a statewide research project to identify the relative value of different methods of teaching rapid reading. About 6000 tenth-graders participated…While analyzing the data, researchers were puzzled by the observation that the students who read the fastest at the study’s outset made the greatest gains during the study—from approximately 300 to 2900 words per minute. The students who read slower at the outset also made gains, but small in comparison.

These data stirred the hypothesizing. Could it be that the greatest gains in human development are based on investment in what people do best naturally—in their areas of talent? Although there have been many observations of the greater return from investing in talents and developing strengths, this particular event encouraged thoughts about a “strengths” approach to teaching and management, and has led to this hypothesis: individuals gain more when they build their talents, than when they make comparable efforts to improve their areas of weakness.”

(From Investing in Strengths – a white paper by Clifton and Harter retrieved here: http://media.gallup.com)

Why are we so obsessed with fixing weaknesses?

In spite of all the compelling research, why do so many of us default to the deficit-focused perspective time and time again? I consider myself a strengths supporter, enthusiast really, and yet, I regularly (daily?) find myself evaluating and keenly noting what is lacking in whatever I am observing at the time (animal, vegetable, mineral). And, like many of you, I’m sure, I’m most adept at pinpointing my own deficiencies. I wonder: Is it always going to be like this? What will I have to do to overcome this reaction? Should I even be trying to? It’s a paradox really- can’t I say that my critical eye is a strength and I should be looking to leverage it further? I also wonder: Is this trait of focusing on what’s wrong built in or is it a learned habit? Nature or nurture? On the built in side, perhaps it’s a function of evolution. I’m thinking Darwin - natural selection –you know: the “don’t hook up with that one, look at the size of his nose” sort of thinking that would have served to ensure the best possible chance of getting my genes into the next generation. On the habit side, I’ve certainly heard many people blame our school systems: how so much attention goes to our errors (big red pen errors). We’re so deeply immersed in this sort of thinking throughout such important development stages, we just carry it on through the rest of our lives. We learn to forage for and fix our mistakes so we can get good grades, pass tests, and satisfy someone else’s idea of success. Sigh. Ok.I’m not sure whether it’s Darwin or the poor teachers operating within the deficit-driven system or some combination thereof but what I can provide is one of the techniques that I use to help me manage my deficit-mindedness:

When I find myself looking for what to fix, I throw up a big (internal) STOP sign and reframe by asking: “What’s working?” or “What can I appreciate?”


Then, I continue asking “What else?” until I’ve got at least five meaningful things that I can celebrate. I do not let myself off the hook. Nothing shallow makes the list. I only accept substantial, significant observations. This new focus dulls the sharpness of my critical sword. It doesn’t make the problem disappear necessarily, but what may have seemed like a big issue suddenly becomes less important when viewed through a freshly polished appreciative lens.

I fight with my (habitual and ingrained) inner critic on a daily basis but at least, I tell myself, I’m striving to tame the beast and diminish the damage. Shifting our weakness- loving world is a big hairy audacious goal of mine. As the evidence and research for a strengths approach continue to pile up, I can feel the collective beginning to tip in the right direction.

Challenge: This week, try to catch yourself choosing a default critic and flip it around. What tricks or tactics do you use to shift your focus from weaknesses to strengths?

Written by Tracy Hutton - BLOOM 2015 Presenter.