Screaming Into The Abyss

Looking For Your Strengths?
By Ben Zvan
On October 28, 2009 at 08:47
General News

Strengths Finder 2.0I recently had the opportunity to take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment and I thought I'd share my experience with people through the immense audience of my blog. My day job offered a free book to anyone who wanted one along with a group followup to discuss and learn from the assessment. The basic premise of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is that they have...let me just quote them:

Based on Gallup's 40-year study of human strengths, we created a language of the 34 most common talents and developed the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to help people discover and describe these talents.

Which basically means that they did a lot of interviews and compiled their results into a simplified list of categories (they call them 'themes') that describe people. The StrengtshFinder 2.0 assessment asks you a long series of questions and uses your responses to find the top 5 of the 34 themes that fit you. For reference, my themes and their descriptions were:

Relator: People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

Ideation:
People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.

Futuristic:
People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.

Empathy:
People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.

Adaptability:
People who are especially talented in the Adaptability theme prefer to “go with the flow.” They tend to be “now” people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.

My first thought was that these were pretty much no-brainers as far as describing me. I have a small group of close friends. When I get an idea in my head that really appeals to me, I can keep coming back to it over and over for weeks. I love to think about what the future could hold for us and I'm concerned about how the actions we take now could affect the future. I don't like to see my friends, or anyone really, sad because I want to help, though often don't know how. My whole life outlook is based on going with the flow and not worrying about the things I have no control over.

In addition to these short descriptions, there is a long list of maybes and perhapses that are supposed to more specifically describe how each theme fits me. This section, unlike the descriptions above, will be different for everyone who takes the assessment. I thought these were pretty hit-and-miss as far as accuracy.

One of the things that we were asked to do before attending our followup meeting was to send our assessment to a few friends and ask them when they'd seen us exhibit the behavior described by our themes. I talked to my wife about it and she said that the first thing she thought of was cold readings, so lets talk about that. According to Wikipedia:

Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, and mediums to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person's body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.

So basically they ask a bunch of questions and, based on the mark's responses and the reader's past experience, make statements that they think are likely to be correct. They also don't make those statements specific or conclusive, they leave them vague and tentative, allowing the subject to fill in the missing details that they couldn't possibly know because they're not really psychic; if they were, they'd already have won the lottery and collected James Randi's prize.

I took a longer look at the other 34 themes that the StrengthsFinder 2.0 offers and tried to decide, on my own and from the short description of each theme, how well each of the other themes fit me. Of the 34 themes, 5 were picked by the assessment that I mostly agreed with. I also picked out 9 that I'd have agreed with just as much. I could make an additional 13 fit me if I stretched a bit. Only seven of them would have been completely off the mark for me. For example, my world is not "best described by the order I create." This tells me that out of the 34 possible themes, there was a 79% chance that I would agree with any one theme. Maybe my Adaptability is just way way off the charts, but that seems like a stacked deck to me.

The StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment and a cold reading both ask a lot of questions and they both give a lot of vague responses. On the other hand, what does a psychologist do? All three of these things seem to have the same potential of making the subject think more about their situation than they have in the past and gain a better understanding of themselves and their personality.

The problem I see with this approach (and talk therapy for that matter) is that it depends on self-assessment. Any time you're asked to come up with information about yourself, regardless of the method, it will be information that you already have. This information is also of questionable merit given that the information you have is generally information you believe to be true, rather than information that is verifiably true. For example, one person I know to be a poor communicator had the 'communication' theme in their top five. This person might communicate frequently, but never seems to communicate accurately.

My conclusions about the StrengthsFinder 2.0 can be summed up thusly: It could be useful, but take it with a grain of salt. If you're going to try to apply it to your life, talk to others about the results and see if they agree with your assessment. Other people probably know more about your behavior than you do and can provide more insight than a book written by people you've never met.

--Photo courtesy Ben Zvan Photography

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