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Balconies and Basements: A Strengths Based Practice

Balconies and Basements: A Strengths Based Practice

by Stephen Shields

It was quite clear he was a leader who was used to being in charge. With a firm voice, the senior leader intoned, "Stephen, what we're going to do is that you are going to help me to focus on each and every one of my Bottom 5 CliftonStrengths so that I can master them." I think he was a little surprised when I quickly and just as firmly responded, "Sir, we aren't going to do that."

In our strengths coaching session, I disagreed with the senior leader's proposed approach, because it ran directly counter to Gallup's CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder) philosophy. The first thing that many folks do when they receive their full 34 strengths report is rush to the bottom of the list. Yet, what Gallup actually believes is that while failure can be avoided by focusing on weaknesses, excellence is only achieved when we focus on and leverage our strengths.

Now, that's not to say Gallup advocates ignoring weaknesses. No one can afford to do that. Weaknesses that keep individuals, teams or organizations from accomplishing their goals have to be attacked swiftly and directly. So if that's true, how can leaders and individual contributors leverage their personal strengths to attack weaknesses and implement a strengths based approach?

In other words, what does one do with their Bottom 5 when they're an issue? Well, first of all, they usually aren't an issue. But when someone does identify that a lack of talent in might be an issue, this does not mean that there is no remedy.

I'll use a personal example. My No. 34 strength is Includer. I was in a two-day meeting with a client group, I admit this to you with some shame, when I realized I saw someone at the end of the second day for the first time. Because of my low Includer, I literally paid no attention to them if they were quiet. It's because I lack that natural tendency to ensure that I pay attention to everyone in the room. But that doesn't mean I'm trapped there. Here's the trick:

  1. Ask yourself, "If I were to film someone using Includer, what actual behaviors would I be filming? What would it look like?" These could include someone intentionally taking the time and effort to look at everyone in the room from time to time and assessing their level of participation. So, having established that behavior …
  2. Then ask yourself, "How can I leverage the desire of one of my Top 5 strengths to emulate the behavior I've just described?"

I do that by leveraging my No. 1 strength, which is Input.

Here's how: I know that the mathematical chances of my meeting any individual in the room who has their Top 5 in the same order as anyone else is one in 33.39 million. That means that everyone in the room has something to teach me because of their unique strengths configuration. So I intentionally say to myself, "Stephen, make sure you pay attention to everyone in the room because each and every one of them has something to feed your Input strength." That motivates me.

And so, you may ask, "Well, what's the difference between doing that and just having the strength of Includer?" The difference is that someone with Includer doesn't have to be intentional about executing that behavior of paying attention to everyone. To them, that's falling-off-a-log easy. But when a strength is in your Bottom 5, you do have to be intentional about executing that strength's associated behaviors.

But having said all that, strengths enthusiasts should focus on the Bottom 5 only when its low thematic intensity gets in your way. Focus on your dominant strengths!

What some find even more surprising is that a strength itself can sometimes be a stumbling block on the path to accomplishment! In fact, any strength used in an unhealthy manner can sometimes be a weakness. Let me explain.

Each one of the CliftonStrengths themes has both balconies and basements. The balconies are the positive characteristics of a theme that we typically think about. A balcony for Adaptability, for example, is that it can rapidly change plans in the midst of new circumstances. The basements for a theme, however, are the potential vulnerabilities of a theme, when misapplied or managed in an unhealthy or disengaged manner. A basement for Adaptability can be the inability to stay the course due to being easily distracted by shifting circumstances that turn out to be inconsequential in light of the big picture. This then begs the question: How do we chase the balconies and flee the basements?

The solution, happily, is quite simple. To avoid the basement of one theme, lean into another theme! Let's say, for example, that Jason realizes that the basement of his Adaptability is having a negative effect on his productivity. Jason thinks, "I'm feeling distracted right now because pending legislation could have a very significant impact on the profit margins for the product my team is developing for our client. What I want to do is to take some time to research this legislation to see how negative of an effect it could have." The basement of Jason's Adaptability is kicking in here; he's wanting to over-adapt. For Jason, the solution is to lean into one of his other Top 5 strengths in order to bring the very best of his natural behavior.

Jason's Top 5 are Belief, Maximizer, Adaptability, Empathy and Achiever. One strength Jason can lean on is Maximizer. When Jason's in the middle of his Adaptability basement, the most important thing for him to do is to pause and think. And so, Jason leans on his Maximizer, "But why sweat something that may not even happen. Right now at this moment, the best use of my time is to continue preparing for Tuesday's meeting with the department head." Rather than living in the Adaptability basement, Jason is making the most of both themes. He can naturally adapt to a changing circumstance (Adaptability), while making the very best use of the opportunity at hand (Maximizer).

Awareness of our natural tendencies and a purposeful focus on the most important goal helps avoid the basement of one strength by deploying the balcony of another.

Awareness of our nontalents in an important discovery, but just as we encourage Jason to capitalize on the balconies of his themes, we also first consider the bountiful opportunities we have in our Top 5. After all, we get a lot further by focusing on what we do have rather than worrying about what is missing.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:


Stephen Shields' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Input, Maximizer, Individualization, Activator and Ideation.

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