“Strengths and Challenges”: The Tragedy of a Workplace Euphemism

By Todd J. Sukol
It is at great cost to our organizations’ missions that we have turned “weakness” into a dirty word and “challenge” into a weak word.

Two of the most powerful concepts to hit mainstream management from the world of psychology and human development in recent years are: “Strengths and challenges” flies in the face of both. In the work of management, words matter. Under the spell of good intentions to spare people’s feelings and a misconception about what makes for constructive criticism, we have created a workplace communication norm that has tragic consequences for individual growth and organizational performance.

People can and do grow. I have seen with my own eyes that it is possible to cultivate work environments that support individual and group efforts at constant improvement. I am blessed to work in such a place now, where people regularly acknowledge strengths, admit mistakes, expose vulnerabilities and accept unvarnished criticism as well as supportive guidance from one another. Caveat for the faint of heart: This environment can be quite uncomfortable at times. We run our shop with an explicit ethic that willingness to endure uncomfortable – even painful — moments along our journey is a small price to pay for the combined value of attaining our collective mission, making strides along our individual growth trajectories and achieving genuine success. What we value most on our team is ongoing performance improvement in service of our collective mission. Imperfection is welcome. Progress is possible, expected and celebrated.

When we design and nurture environments that encourage profound, genuine growth, we don’t need to dress up criticism in euphemisms, deluding ourselves that vague allusions to problems will be met by anything more than the most superficial, incremental improvements. When we focus less on protecting people’s feelings and more on providing the structure, support and accountability that helps individuals thrive, people grow and organizations succeed. You will know you’re on the right track when it becomes more insulting to disguise negative feedback in a disingenuous “feedback sandwich” than it is to come out and say: “Hey, you screwed this up.”

There’s another ethic that goes hand in hand with a culture of constant learning and improvement: Every single person on our team has extraordinary value as a human being and is uniquely qualified to contribute to our organization’s work today.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easier to remember that on some days than on others. And yes, it’s easier to see the beauty in some personalities than in others.  This is where positive psychology comes in. I’m not talking about a superficial, Pollyannaish attitude that “everyone is wonderful,” but rather a sustained and rigorous search to identify authentic greatness in each person. Like all really hard work, this pays off in spades. When I make a genuine effort to understand people’s inner character strengths, and let them see mine, they know I’m for real and they tend to respond.

From a positive psychology standpoint, challenges can can be seen not as the opposite of strengths, but rather as what I need to do to make my strengths more impactful. Positive psychology encourages us to expend less effort fixing problems and more identifying, building and deploying inner strengths.  That’s what I call a challenge! The hard work of making our strengths stronger – and making better use of them — is a choice for awesomeness, a choice for life. Why in the world should we settle for relegating the word challenge to euphemistically refer to weaknesses when it can be deployed so powerfully to encourage us to build on our incredible strengths?

In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicolson’s character famously declared “You can’t handle the truth!”  If you saw the movie, you’ll remember that he was dead wrong. You *can* handle the truth. And when you make a genuine effort to understand your colleagues deeply, they can handle the truth too. It may make them uncomfortable at times, but your employees can, and often will, accept your challenge to build their strengths and deploy them in increasingly complex situations. They can also take your strident criticism when appropriate, because they know it comes from a place of respect for their strengths and belief that they are capable of continual growth. We show more respect when we challenge employees to grow strengths and acknowledge weaknesses than when we protect their feelings and settle for mediocrity. As a manager, you owe your team and your organization nothing less.

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