StrengthsFinder: Look before You Leap

StrengthsFinder is a new assessment device that is enjoying blockbuster popularity. It is based on the philosophy of Walt Disney’s cartoon rabbit Thumper, who famously opined, in the movie Bambi (1942), “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say nothing at all.” StrengthsFinder is being marketed as a powerful instrument for quickly (please take a few minutes to fill out this questionnaire) clarifying who you are, what you’re good at, and the tremendous potential that lies hidden within you. Despite all the hype, Christian folk would be wise to look before they leap.

The StrengthsFinder instrument was first developed in the 1990s by the late Chip Anderson, an evangelical educator in California. Later Donald O. Clifton, a psychologist and management consultant, got on board the project and took it to the next level. Since then it has obtained the ultimate endorsement among growth-oriented evangelicals—the support of the Gallup pollster organization. It’s not just in Christian book stores; enthusiasts for the tool include a growing number of institutions of higher education.

Dr. Chip Anderson began with the best of intentions—helping students clarify their vocations by identifying and tapping into their deepest inclinations and interests. That was a good thing. But then the problems began, and not all of them were the fault of the founder. Here I’ll list just a few of my concerns.

1. Arbitrary Design
First, the design of the assessment tool is flawed by its arbitrariness. Its creators compiled a list of thirty-four personal strengths, with names like “includer” and “maximizer” and “woo” (which describes people who love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over). Grammatically, of course, it should be wooer, but evidently that’s not important. More seriously, though, Why just thirty-four? And why these particular thirty-four? There are no good answers. Moreover, the StrengthsFinder questionnaire asks people to respond to a series of questions that go something like this: “Would you rather eat turtle soup or rake the lawn?” “Would you rather help a motorist with a flat tire or drive a dirt bike in the desert?” Based on your responses to questions like these, the survey designers set their computers buzzing according to their secret formula and—presto—your five greatest strengths pop out at the end. It’s the new astrology. If you can buy this, then I’ve got some great tropical island getaways for you in Saskatchewan.

2. Self-Reporting Bias
Second, the assessment tool relies on self-reporting. The StrengthsFinder massages data derived entirely from participants’ opinion of themselves. It assumes a level of self-awareness and honesty that most of us can only dream about. The fact is that self-reportage is notoriously unreliable. The survey may reflect what a person values or who they wish they were, but that’s not the same thing as actually possessing those qualities. There is a huge difference between wanting to be, for example, a maximizer or a developer, and actually functioning in these ways. It would be a healthy reality check to ask others, who know you well, what they think your demonstrable strengths actually are. Such second opinions would almost certainly be closer to the truth.

3. Weaknesses Matter Too
Third, constructive self-assessment will attend to weaknesses every bit as much as one’s alleged strengths. That’s because our weak spots are our Achilles’ heels—our points of vulnerability. And certainly our spiritual growth occurs along the fringe of our weaknesses, not our strengths. A simple deficiency in social intelligence, for example, can doom a person’s leadership career quicker than a flash, regardless of all the strengths they brought to their position. Sober self-assessment, the kind the Bible recommends, requires attention to both our strengths and our weaknesses (Rom. 12:3). For the StrengthsFinder enthusiast, it’s like the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich uttered the definitive words in self-assessment: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

4. How the Results Are Often Used
My fourth concern is how the results of the StrengthsFinder tests are too often used when they fall into the wrong hands. In some organizations, they become the principal schema by which a person is identified and subsequently introduced to others. One’s strengths are listed on business cards, personal websites, and even on office doors. The wonder and complexity of human beings, as image bearers of God, is reduced to a five-point construct of dubious derivation. Even hiring decisions can now be based on the correlation between one’s self-reported strengths (think about it—self-reported!) and the needs of an organization. Used like this, the StrengthsFinder generates a new kind of profiling. In the end it conveys about as much truly helpful information as you can tease out of astrology. It’s a very good thing to know your personal strengths and to develop them, but attempting to do this by means of the StrengthsFinder is probably naive.

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