I’ve just finished reading Alex Linley’s Average to A+. The book is an attempt to popularise some of the ideas behind positive psychology and the strengths based approach. It is presented a kind of personal development manual, but if you look closely enough has got a load of academic references to back up some of what Linley says. Why popular books aren’t allowed to have references in them in any normal way I can’t imagine, but there you go.
The books argument is that psychology tends to focus on negatives far too much. There is therefore a need to explore the positive much more. Positive psychologist spend time working out why people are happy, contented etc etc rather than what makes people depressed and anxious. Linley’s answer to the question about what makes us happy and successful is the idea of strengths. If we are able to concentrate on the things that we are good at, rather than getting dragged down by the things that we are bad at we are more likely to achieve our potential.
This seems obvious, but when you think about it we spend an enormous amount of time trying to deal with people’s weaknesses. Competency frameworks are designed to expose how you measure up across a range of issues and usually then encourage you to work on your weak areas or conduct a gap analysis. The strengths based approach would say that this is a waste of time. The things that you are bad at you will have to spend a lot of energy just to get OK at. However if you spend that energy working on your strengths you have the opportunity to become really exceptional.
I think that this is a neat concept. People have applied it to the delivery of services like social work and special education as well as to management. These applications explore how the focus on the negative has not been productive as they have forced people to spend their whole time thinking about what they are bad at. Ultimately this is likely to be demoralising and also unlikely to lead to dramatic progress.
However I must admit that once I’d got the basic idea this book didn’t really keep giving. The psychometric “strengths finder” tool that he talks about reminds me of a whole load of other things I’ve seen e.g. Myers-Briggs, Belbin etc etc. All well and good, but essentially making the same point that careers guidance practitioners have been making for years. If you have good self-awareness and focus on what you are good at and like you will have a greater chance of happiness.
Having said that I do think that there are messages in the strengths based approach for all of those of us who are involved in delivering developmental services. Thinking about how much we are accentuating the positive and working out where we can support people to develop with their strengths is a good message to pick up and apply.