The CliftonStrengths assessment (CS) has brought to the world a much needed "language of strengths" and like any other language, fluency comes through a process of learning and usage. I have noticed that CS users can get stuck at what I call the "vocabulary level" of this strengths language. These users know all of the 34 themes of talent and the definitions for each of those themes, but they continue to see these themes as being isolated and independent constructs that have little to do with one another. You might hear someone at this vocabulary level say something like "I am a Woo," or "He is an Achiever," or "You are a Learner." While these statements are not false, they are oversimplifications, and such oversimplifications can lead to unfair and unhelpful stereotyping and labeling.
It is not surprising that strengths practitioners get stuck at the vocabulary level of this strengths language. It reminds me of my first year German class in Junior High where we spent the first few weeks learning the vocabulary: "auf Wiedersehen" was "goodbye"; "Danke" was "thanks"; I especially liked the fact that "wasser" was the word for "water." This memorization was really quite simple and fun. But things got more difficult after week two as we transitioned from pure word memorization to word integration; that is, figuring out how to fit words together to create meaningful sentences.
Just like knowing a list of German vocabulary words does not make one fluent in German; knowing 34 CS themes does not make one fluent in the language of strengths. Theme identification is the beginning of the strengths development process, but when we stop there and fail to explore and understand how multiple themes interact with one another, we miss out on the unique chemistry of themes that contribute to the development of human strength. Theme identification must be followed by theme integration. By theme Integration, I mean the fitting together/blending of CS themes in order to form more complete and effective individuals, partnerships, teams, and organizations.
I am certainly not suggesting that the theme identification phase is not important. Knowing that my Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Responsibility, Relator, Maximizer, Learner, and Analytical is helpful. These internal and invisible patterns within me now have positive names. Giving something a positive name gives it tangible value. No longer is it something that must remain vague and elusive; it is now observable and real -- something I can own, manage, and develop.
It is much easier to talk about each of our themes individually and that is why we are often tempted to do just that. The problem is that whenever we attempt to describe another person with one word, we end up doing them a disservice. Typically, when we use one word to describe another human being, like "Mary is old," or "Greg is a Gen X," or "Bill is a man," we have simplified a person to the point of stereotyping them. No human being is ever just one thing -- be it a gender, an age, a race, or a CS theme. It is interesting to note that within a person's 5 signature themes, there are actually 10 unique theme pairs (theme 1 + theme 2, 1+3, 1+4, 1+5, 2+3, 2+4, 2+5, 3+4, 3+5, 4+5) and when considering a person's Top 10 themes, there are actually 45 possible theme combinations. Paying more attention to theme pairs means you can move from simply identifying theme vocabulary to theme integration, which may actually help you to begin to tell a person's strengths story.
To be perfectly honest, I think some people might be attracted to the CS and other psychometric tools because they are looking for shortcuts. They want a psychological shorthand that can help them to quickly assess and understand human nature. I fear that when the CS is used as a developmental shortcut or as psychological shorthand, it may often short-circuit the very developmental process it was created to enhance. In our attempt to clarify and classify human nature we must resist the temptation to oversimplify it. Used correctly, the CS can help us to understand, appreciate, and develop the diversity, complexity, and versatility of humanity.