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Coaching Tip

The Importance of Internalizing Strengths by Cathy Bolger

Much of my coaching work involves an initial session of helping managers interpret and apply the results of multi-rater feedback. In most cases, the managers quickly target their deficits or weaknesses. By doing this, they overlook their strengths. In addition, a substantial number of coachees underestimate their own strengths when compared to their ratings from others. By overlooking strengths as well as underestimating strengths, managers may miss a pathway to effectiveness.

One of my challenges as a coach is helping people appreciate and understand what they do well. In order to convince them of the importance of recognizing and internalizing their strengths, I have started using some of the key points from the book Internalizing Strengths by Robert E. Kaplan.

According to Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, by not recognizing their strengths, managers often doubt themselves and shy away from certain challenges. For example, an executive who is skilled with people, but underestimates this skill, may inhibit himself interpersonally.

Or, they may react to a perceived "lack' by trying too hard to compensate for it. For instance, if a direct report asks a question, managers may immediately give an answer out of a need to prove themselves. This denies the direct report an opportunity to grow from figuring out a solution by him or herself.

Another example is when a highly intelligent manager doesn't recognize a difference in level of ability, and becomes unnecessarily impatient with people who don't pick up things as quickly. Another potential challenge stemming from underestimating a strength, is when managers step up the horsepower which results in working all the time. They may believe that if they let up, they become ineffective—or are perceived as ineffective.

Kaplan also discusses how talking to executives about their strengths can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Managers may be uncomfortable with praise. They may fear complacency. It is often the case that managers with self-imposed pressures of expectations or perfectionism never permit them to feel satisfied with their work.

What is to be gained from helping managers internalize strengths? First, managers can stop worrying about things they are good at doing, and put their energy where it is needed. Also, they are less likely to take their strengths to counterproductive extremes.

By understanding and internalizing their strengths, managers can use their strengths more selectively. This frees up energy to develop other skills. Using sports terms, managers don't have to use their fast ball all the time.

For instance, a person who is direct and assertive can work on developing a softer style of assertiveness which may improve relationships. At the very least, it expands a manager's skills set when strengths are intentionally managed.

Kaplan recommends that we help coachees understand how far they have come along in developing certain of their strengths. We can engage managers in reflecting deeply on their strengths and track record, and not let them take anything for granted. We can remind managers that sometimes gifts that are apparent to everyone else may be invisible to them!

So, as learning professionals, it is important for us to remember that an effective pathway to helping people to do better is to provide a safe environment where they sufficiently recognize and internalize their strengths.

Kaplan, Robert E. Internalizing Strengths, An Overlooked Way of Overcoming Weaknesses in Managers. Center For Creative Leadership, Greensboro, 1999.

Cathy Bolger is a San Diego-based consultant specializing in Presentation Skills, Meeting Skills and Conflict Management training as well as leadership coaching. She can be reached at 619-294-2511 or Cathy@CathyBolger.com.

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