ITC and the Strengths-Based Approach: A Provocation

ITC and the Strengths-Based Approach: A Provocation

By Robert Kegan

A frequent question we receive from people as they get deeper into our ITC approach is: “But how does this fit with a ‘strength-based’ approach to people development? I thought we were supposed to stop with ‘critical feedback.’ Here you’re having people dwell on all their weaknesses [Column Two] and their ‘limiting assumptions’ [Column Four]! I don’t get it!” It’s a great question—and its frequency is testimony to just how widely the “strengths-based” movement has spread throughout organizations and businesses in every sector and geography.

While no one can dispute the merits of helping people identify and claim their strengths, it may be worth considering for a moment exactly how many organizations, flying the banner of a “strengths-based approach,” end up engaging the work of “people development.” A CEO we worked with anticipated the current direction thirty years ago when he told us, “I know it’s heresy, but honestly I wonder if it makes sense to keep investing in helping people to change. I mean, how much do people really change after all?  By the time someone’s in their thirties aren’t they pretty much who they are going to be? I mean, Al is always going to be Al. Maybe we should just identify people’s strengths, give them the satisfaction of exercising the capabilities they do have, hire around their limitations, and quit torturing people with their weaknesses.”

There is definitely a note of compassion in such an approach—”Why trouble people with who they are not; let’s celebrate who we are!”  But there is also a note of resignation—“You are who you are; you’re done growing; let’s face it.”

I suggest we face something else: A strengths-based approach, made use of in this way, is fundamentally not about “people development.” It may honor our strengths, but does it honor our capacity to keep growing? Seamus Haney has a wonderful line in one of his poems: “Believe there is a further shore reachable from here.” The way I see many organizations appropriating a strengths-based approach has a set of beliefs behind it, but this is not one of them. It is not about your navigating to your further shore.

Human beings are wired for two big endeavors: the first is to grow; the second is not to die. Two big endeavors: to pursue our further evolution, and to protect ourselves from loss. Any approach which does not engage our two big endeavors– no matter how good and comfortable it may temporarily feel—is moving against the bigger forces in the universe. Any approach that joins our two big endeavors—no matter how uncomfortable it may temporarily be—is aligned with our destiny: to reach—without drowning in the process— our further shore.

The Immunity to Change approach is literally wholesome because it engages the whole person in our biggest endeavors. It begins by inviting our desire—how do we want to improve, to further unfold, to become the bigger version of ourselves that is our destiny? And then it goes on to say, “We will be unable to accomplish this goal if we cannot connect our desire with our equally honorable endeavor not to die, not to suffer unacceptable losses.” In helping us explore this connection it helps us to reach our further shore.

What if the opposite of our “strengths” is not our “weaknesses,” but our unrealized potential? You may find appealing an approach that promises to ignore your weaknesses. How appealing would you find an approach that ignores your unrealized potential? If a strength-based approach is not anchored in some kind of developmental platform it becomes a form of compassionate resignation. If we brought this sort of strength-based approach to caterpillars we might have bigger and stronger caterpillars— but would we have more butterflies?