I’m an inveterate quiz-taker, I confess. I’ve also participated in more serious and significant assessments – tests rather than quizzes, with some actual science behind them. Myers-Briggs (ISFJ), Herrmann Whole Brain (1-1-1-1), Birds of a Feather (Dove), Insights Discovery (Supporter-Helper with hints of Creativity and Coordination), Focus Project Management (earth green), and Birkman (hard to explain, but consistent with the others). In 25 years of working and test taking, my basic self is pretty much the same – I like planning, taking care of colleagues, and getting stuff done.
So, it’s no surprise that, when my coach gave me a book that was one big test, I was keen. I waited till I had time to read and do it well (on vacation). Part of our work together last year included building on strengths, and so the book was about that: StandOut by Marcus Buckingham, author of previous works on identifying and building on strengths (appropriately called “StrengthsFinder”). The book itself is not riveting – the writing style would best be described as “motivational” – but the learning experience for me was also just that: motivational.
After reading through the background and overview, with the standard, “there are no wrong answers” and "just be yourself", I went online, entered my code, took the test (yes, more multiple choice questions), and then waited for my report to arrive by email.
The results are in: my primary strength is Equalizer. Level-headed, honest, decisive, consistent. Driven by, “what is the right thing to do?”. Helping others, seeking fair solutions, bringing structure and security to the team and work and home. Sounds about right.
And this is part of the danger of testing in general – what I’ll call Strengths Envy. It happens when we take an online test, when we get told that our spirit animal is a goat instead of a tiger, or that our soul is beige instead of bright green. The online tests protect us a bit from that by hiding the alternatives – you only get to see what you are, not what you aren’t. Want to be a different animal? Take the test again (complete with all its advertising and cookies and spam). With StandOut, you get to read about all nine strengths roles, and can covet what you are not, or at least a strength you feel more comfortable or confident in.
However, one should put their faith in the science and psychology. Mr. Buckingham and his colleagues put a great deal of science into their test and their results, so it’s somewhat hubristic of me to say that they got me wrong. And there’s little point in doing the testing and the learning if you’re not going to, well, learn.
The idea behind focusing on strengths is not just to avoid focusing on weaknesses (or “growing edges” as they’re more positively called). Weaknesses are areas for improvement that involve more significant work and change and learning, or sometimes just more control. Strengths are not areas you need or want to change, but because they are things you’re already good at, you can make them a bit better with just a little effort and attention. And it makes sense – people who are already really good at something (singing, writing, cooking, teaching) stay good at it through practice and continuous development.
So I revisited Connector, and after some considering (and some considerate coaching) recognized that it is a strength, just not a obvious one which is likely why it is not my primary strength. As a Connector, I recognize opportunities in relationships: opportunities to learn, to enhance, and to connect – to bring people together to make stuff better and get stuff done. Once I started paying attention to my relationships, I saw that I did bring people together in ways they may not have recognized as possible themselves. And by recognizing it, I could then consciously maintain and build that strength, without slipping into the slick salesman shtick I found so unappealing in my first impression of Connector.
I also thought about the people I knew who I felt exemplified the best elements of Equalizer and Connector, and connected with them. For as much as I recognized in others the things I didn’t want to be (which is the first step in development), I also saw strengths in others that I wanted to emulate. I’m working through that list now, talking with others about ways in which they can and do make those strengths their own and picking up new ways to strengthen my strengths.
The book itself? As I said, it’s not going to win literature prizes any time soon. But, for the insights and development opportunities that came from it, I would recommend it, recognizing that, like any development tool, it delivers as many questions as it does answers. And it doesn’t do the work – you do.