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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11 Responses to StrengthsFinder: Look before You Leap

  1. Dave Harvey June 2, 2008 at 6:10 am #

    I also had to take this test while at Bethel, and found it only marginally helpful. None of the “Top 3” were much of a surprise to me, but the first thing I did was to send the results off to two of my closest friends and see if *they* though it was a accurate description. That, in my mind, validated it far more than the little chat I had with the “interpreter” in Bethel’s library.

    I think tests like these are helpful up to a point. Hopefully, the person taking the test has a bit more going on upstairs than to take the results and let it define them – putting themselves inside a box, as it were – rather than seeing it as a starting point.

    Speaking of self-reporting, there was another test given at Bethel (can’t remember the name) that I thought was absolutely ridiculous in terms of the inane questions it asked. Things about the nature and frequency of my drug/alcohol use and whether or not I hear voices in my head (doesn’t everyone??) or have hallucinations made me wonder who they thought would actually answer this stuff. I mean, hello, I’m a seminary student – even *I* know that it wouldn’t be in my “best interest” to be candid on a voluntary personality test to admit to aberrant behavior!

    I can see it now:
    Me: “Yes, I still smoke lots of pot, bu I’ve managed to get my coke habit down to 1/2 a gram a week, and I rarely drop acid or take ‘shrooms anymore, but ecstasy is still pretty fun. I also am into cutting, S&M, and animal sacrifice, but I no longer keep the organs in my freezer.”
    Bethel: “Uh, yeah… we’d like to talk to you for a moment… in private.”
    Me: “What? Was it something I said?”

    Of course, when I went in for my psychological assessment later, it was pointed out that I had somewhat high scores in PIM (Positive Image Management), apparently because I have an “addictive” personality (whatever that means), yet claimed to have never done drugs nor ever been alcohol dependent! Imagine that! Of course, it could’ve been the fact that I’d been raised in a strong Christian household and then spent 18 years in the Marine Corps (who *really* frown on having their officers be druggies – go figure).

    So yeah, all that is to say that these tests aren’t wholly without merit, but they shouldn’t be looked at as some sort of magic 8-ball that’s going to tell me what I should do with my life. I already have a pretty solid calling from God – so for me it was rather affirming to see that my “strengths” would be helpful to me in terms of being a chaplain. But then, wouldn’t that make sense for God to equip His servants to do the work to which He’d called them?

  2. Glen G. Scorgie May 22, 2008 at 7:40 pm #

    This most recent posting is helpful, but I prefer when contributors are willing to identify themselves.

  3. Benson May 9, 2008 at 7:23 pm #

    Scott Wildey, I think has brought up some excellent points. Thanks for sharing that.

    It seems there like are some very enthusiastic folks who are passionate about StrengthsFinder. Perhaps in their zeal it has been interpreted as idolatry or even passing over some of the limitations of the test.

    I think maybe a larger argument needs to be made that affirms the strengths of these tools as well as the limitations. so we do well to heed some of the pitfalls that Dr. Scorgie brings up. But I also hope that we can sit in the tension that these tools can be used for redemptive purposes as well destructive ones. The devil used rock music for evil — but dare I say that it can be used to bring glory to the one from all music comes from?

    From my experience, the Enneagram and Strengthsfinder have been very helpful in my journey to be more aware of how I interact with God and knowing him more. Growing in deeper clarity of my strengths (as well as my resulting weaknesses), my gifts, and my sins — leads me into a place of worship of how God has made me uniquely as well as in deep repentance of the ways that those gifts have been twisted and manipulated.

  4. Scott Wildey May 7, 2008 at 10:30 pm #

    Dr. Scorgie, as usual, has written a thoughtful piece that causes examination of something many of us take for granted.

    Though I’m not necessarily in disagreement with Dr. Scorgie’s post, I do want to offer a different perspective. One reason is that I’m a biased long-time (seven years) practitioner.

    Here are a few things to consider:

    First, when I heard the history of how the instrument was created, and the thousands of people interviewed and assessed, it provided credibility to me. Brian Schubring had this research, and I’m not sure where to access it (it would be helpful if Gallup published this more openly). You can Google Brian to contact him if interested. It may help (as stated above) that every instrument has its limits as the human person (and mind) is so complex, and has so many variables. Should people stay away from instruments altogether for this reason?

    Second, Though the instrument is self-reporting, the follow up is often communally confirmed (or rejected). The instrument provides a language that most people can identify and communicate with (because it is relatively simple). It provides a hypothesis for someone to engage others with as they continue their journey of self-discovery. And, with a Christian view, this can be a wonderful act of worship. To paraphrase Calvin, “To know God is to know thyself, and to know thyself is to know God.” Much of the homework we have given people in our community of faith involves interviewing people to see how their “strengths” match up with reality.

    Third, Marcus Buckingham’s new book is a great, practical corrective for anyone who desires to know themselves better beyond 34 terms. It’s entitled: “Go, Put Your Strengths to Work.” It helps people think and consider how their God-given talents play out in every day life. For example, instead of just saying, “I have WOO (winning others over)”, I might say, specifically, “I am good at influencing people when I first meet them, and I often do this by smiling and building a bridge with them.”

    Fourth, viewed in the light of Scripture and Christian tradition, StrengthsFinder has the potential to propel people towards becoming whom God has intended he or she to be. After all, we each are specifically, and uniquely knitted together with as God’s masterpiece (Ps. 139, Eph. 2:10). And, isn’t “The glory of God humanity full alive”? Well, strengths asks, “What makes you alive.”

    Fifth, Strengths does not speak into character weakness or flaw (that’s not its purpose as I understand). I feel as though this point (#3), Dr. Scorgie, can be misleading. Contrary to your statements, the idea has more to do with Return on investment. So, if two people take a language class, and put the same time into, there is a good chance, one will have a higher affinity, as well as, higher aptitude. The one with a lower aptitude may be “weaker”, but why should they focus on something they aren’t naturally (or spiritually) gifted to do. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on what they ARE good at. Even the apostle Paul says, “Do all have the same gifts” in Corinthians.

    Sixth, Inherent in Strengths is knowing what you ARE NOT strong in. This has everything to do with a healthy doctrine of humanity and the gift of limits. I would say, most of us in our face-paced, Blackberry, Latte drinking life don’t know limits—we have more of a Messiah-complex—that is, we can do EVERYTHING. Strengths stresses the value of team and everyone contributing what they are good at. So, this can actually build unity, decrease unhealthy competition, and increase the value of asking for help and partnering with those gifted in areas others are “weak” in.

    Seventh, having a common language can actually put someone outside the box that assumptions often keep people in. It may be counterintuitive to say that having a limited language of 34 terms actually gives people freedom, but in my experience, that’s exactly what it has done.

    At the very least, Strengths gets people talking and discovering—even if they disagree 🙂

  5. Bill Steinwedell May 7, 2008 at 9:31 pm #

    These tests, as all surveys, or even exams are just tools. Yes, anyone can be misused, and certainly has been in the past.

    I am not an expert in much at all, many are my betters. However, in commenting on these two I found them extremely helpful to me. The Enneagram, of the many I have taken in the past 15 years, was the best.

    God did make us completely unique. Even in our ability to have good grammar and type without errors. (true but put here for a little tongue and cheek! smile). In this we must take care. Our natural tendency to use what was developed in our homes, upbringings, etc. as our tests, especially first impressions, taking our filters, and categories and judging others by them can be, well we can miss the greatness and genius God designed, as well as greatly hurt others, by prejudice. I am amazed at how intolerant some people who defend tolerance are!

    The bottom line is loving one another. You shall know his disciples by the love they have for one another! Are we passing this test? Loving our parents, our wives, children, neighbors? How about loving our enemies!

  6. Kim Olstad May 3, 2008 at 1:05 am #

    Truly, any assessment has its flaws and weaknesses (and possibly even spelling or grammatical errors!)

    You’ve spotted some of the weaknesses in the instrument, but for some of us, it can draw out and hold up for our examination what we’ve missed. Others who have done their reflective work can do without it. I happened to find it a helpful tool in identifying my own areas of strength — and the shadow weakness in those areas.

    Though you haven’t won me over with this opinion — I’m glad you’ve shared it!

  7. Brian Tallman May 2, 2008 at 11:32 pm #

    What did the poor church do before tests like this? The only advise she had before Freud was such sagacity: “Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”

  8. Ron Short May 2, 2008 at 5:44 pm #

    It seems that these four concerns could be applied to almost any personality inventory.

  9. Chris Armstrong May 2, 2008 at 3:38 pm #

    I feel about this instrument, which I was pressured to take here at Bethel and refused, the way I felt about the Enneagram when my parents pressured me to take it (though I did do that one): human beings are too complex to be divided into these kinds of categorical, absolute boxes, and questionnaires (thanks for the wise words on self-reporting) are in any case a very flawed instrument for doing the dividing.

    Furthermore, the finality and absoluteness of these instruments’ supposedly “scientific” judgments on our whole character and deepest soul can easily harm us. They can do to our self-awareness and motivation what Cinderella’s stepsisters did to their feet when trying to cram them into the glass slippers. “Gee, I guess I’ll never be able to do such-and-such because it’s not in my Strengthfinders profile.” “Gee, I guess I’ll always struggle with this sin area because it’s in my Enneagram profile.”

    And finally, the potential is certainly there, as Glen points out, for other people and organizations to abuse this supposedly accurate and powerful information.

    These last two aspects of such instruments SCARE THE HECK OUT OF ME. I won’t do them. I won’t do them, Sam I Am!

    I know this probably makes me sound like a romantic and an idealist. So be it.

    A final, only slightly tongue-in-cheek comment:

    I refuse to subject myself to questionnaires that contain grammatical errors. These PROVE the untrustworthiness of the instrument, without need for further evidence.

    My inner logic on this–insofar as I can understand it and accurately report it (see Glen’s caveats on self-reporting), goes something like this:

    Bad grammar bespeaks poor grounding in the humanities, which bespeaks a modernist/scientific mindset, complete with naive faith in the omnicompetence of instrumental reason, and devoid of the moral checks that come from long training in tradition, moral reasoning, and the spiritual dimension of human beings.

    Really. That’s what I do think (I think!). Prove me wrong.

  10. Chris Wheatley May 1, 2008 at 1:29 am #

    Did you have a chance to read the entire book? It seems like a lot of what you’re saying is coming out of hurtful personal interactions with people that may have been abusive with their new-found StrengthsFinder freedom, but that much of it is off base with even what the authors of the book would say. I’m surprised at how quickly you are dismissing a rather helpful tool (notice, not “savior”) that, like any other tool, can be destructive in the hands of people that would misuse it. Just some thoughts I’d like to shoot your way.

  11. Joe April 30, 2008 at 6:37 pm #

    I will not comment on the arbitrary design of this test, because I know nothing of what it would take to design a test like this. Beyond that, yes it is self reported, but any sort of personality test is. So it is too when I think about how God has wired me. Only God truly knows my personality, but that I should trust others to know my personality better than myself? Seems equally arbitrary to trust myself to know my personality better than friends. I can see things one doesn’t perceive about themselves, but I can also make an assumption about someone that is completely off base. And I do not see others 24 hours a day, so how one acts with their spouse in private will be different from how they act with a group of people they do not know well. Because I do not see them 24 hours a day, I am only making an assessment off the period of time that I do see them.

    Weaknesses do matter, but how do we find them out? Some other test? Asking friends? See above. Strengthfinders does not address weaknesses, but I do not feel that is a weakness in and of itself – it does not set that out as a goal, so to say it does not meet that goal is critiquing it against standards that do not apply. I do not know of any point in the book or test where it says “Because you have these strengths, it means you have no weaknesses,” which would be the only point on which you could then lambaste it for failing to address weaknesses. This lack of a focus on weaknesses is a flaw of people who hold too much value to the test, not the test itself, and you cannot fault the tool for how people use it (it is not the gun’s fault someone was shot). The test also doesn’t tell me what to eat for dinner, but I don’t think anyone would fault it for that.