CliftonStrengths: The 6 Most Common Mistakes People Make
Over 30 million people worldwide have taken the Gallup CliftonStrengths Assessment (formerly known as StrengthsFinder). Based on over 50 years of research, this test is a powerful tool that helps you identify your natural Talents.
Most people take it in hopes to improve at work or at school, but I’d say the majority never fully grasp the depth and insight that the CliftonStrengths results offer. I admit that understanding the power in the results is not trivial. It does require some commitment, reflection, and even experimentation, but the return on your effort and investment in yourself touches every part of your life - professional and personal. The power and reach of this tool are incredibly understated.
I encounter a lot of misconceptions and assumptions that people make about CliftonStrengths, but I want to set the record straight and I want you to get the most out of your results.
In this article, I share the 6 Most Common Mistakes I see people make that get in the way of discovering everything this tool has to offer. In some cases, it’s about making assumptions. In others, it’s about getting confused with vocabulary terms and formal concepts. But I encourage you to get past those early hurdles and open yourself up to what this tool has to offer you. This article will help clarify those misleading concepts, and simplify your CliftonStrengths journey.
I've also created a video of the content in this article. Whereas this written version goes a little more in depth on the explanations, here's the video version for those who prefer that format.
Time: 14:50 minutes
Mistake 1: People Believe their CliftonStrengths Results are their Strengths
With names like CliftonStrengths and StrengthsFinder, it’s easy to think that your test results are your Strengths. The truth is that your test results identify your predominant Talent Themes.
Remember, CliftonStrengths is based on decades of research. To collect, compile, and analyze all of that data, Gallup is very specific about its language and vocabulary. But don’t let this deter you. Here are a few definitions to help you get past this first hurdle.
- Talent: a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied
- Talent Theme: a category of Talents
- Strength: the ability to consistently produce a positive outcome through near-perfect performance in a specific task. To finish with a Strength, you start with Talent.
Your CliftonStrengths results (e.g. Top 5) are your leading Talent Themes (that is, your predominant categories of Talents). By exploring how you use those Talents, you can identify your Strengths. So whereas the assessment itself doesn’t identify your Strengths, it identifies your Talents which lead to your Strengths.
Here’s an analogy I often use to help explain the relationship between Talents and Strengths. If you think of each of your top CliftonStrengths Talent Themes as a cooking ingredient, your Strengths are what you consistently do well (e.g. recipes) using that ingredient or combination of ingredients.
For example, if you think of one of your Talent Themes as an egg, then your Strengths are everything you consistently do well using that egg - such as making hard boiled eggs, cookies, pasta, and mayonnaise.
Because this is such a common mistake, but so fundamental to the basics of CliftonStrengths, my first video on CliftonStrengths covered this very topic in detail - including examples of CliftonStrengths Talent Themes and resulting Strengths (not just analogies). I invite you to watch it here: Strengths vs. Talents Themes
Time: 12:25 minutes
Mistake 2: People Assume that their CliftonStrengths Results are what They Do Well
Now that the response on Mistake #1 clarified that your CliftonStrengths results are your Talent Themes (not your Strengths), let’s revisit and take a closer look at what Talents and Talent Themes are according to Gallup.
- Talent: a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied
- Talent Theme: a category of Talents
Your results identify your naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.
Because these patterns are so natural to you, they’re easy for you. You might even take them for granted - thinking that these ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are just as easy for everyone else. The truth is that it may take real effort for someone else to understand your way of thinking or to do the things you do so easily.
Now just because these patterns are natural doesn't mean that these are things you do well. Remember, these aren’t Strengths; they’re just Patterns.
But because they’re natural patterns that can be productively applied, they have the potential to become Strengths - you just need to put in some work to develop them. Similar to the ingredient (e.g. egg) and recipe analogy, you have to do something with the egg to get a result.
In CliftonStrengths, they have a formula: TALENT x INVESTMENT = STRENGTH
Gallup defines Investment as time spent practicing your skills, developing your talents, and building your knowledge base.
It’s not enough for the CliftonStrengths Assessment to identify your predominant Talents (or patterns). You have to put in the time and effort training, learning, practicing, and gaining experience to develop them into Strengths.
There’s a lot more to explore on the relationship between Talents, Strengths, and even how they relate to your Weaknesses. For a video exploring some this, I invite you to check out: Identifying Personal Strengths and Weaknesses
Time: 5:46 minutes
Mistake 3: People Assume what each Term Means (rather than understand Gallup’s Definition)
Again, CliftonStrengths is based on more than 50 years of research. To collect and compile all of that data consistently amongst everyone who has been part of the research over the decades required clearly defining terms - including the 34 Talent Themes.
So it’s tempting to see words like: Analytical, Achiever, Context, and Empathy and say: “Oh, I know what that means! I don’t need to read Gallup’s descriptions.” But that would be a big mistake.
Applying your perception of what a term means would be inconsistent. Everyone would have a nuanced variation of how they perceive what each Talent Theme means.
You have to adopt Gallup’s definition of terms to really gain the insight CliftonStrengths has to offer. For each Talent Theme, Gallup can describe characteristics about a person who has that dominant theme - including what they’re like, how they contribute, what they need, what they value, what they hate, and even the barrier labels of how they’re perceived.
Take a Talent Theme like Communication. You may assume that someone who’s a good communicator has the Communication Talent Theme. But you can be an effective communicator (even have a role in communications) with other themes and not have Communication in your Top 5, or even your Top 10.
What CliftonStrengths means by Communication is someone who is articulate, thinks out loud, is verbally influential, and a natural storyteller.
You may know someone like this and consider them outgoing or engaging. They may not be someone who you think of as a communicator, but by Gallup’s definition, they may have a predominant Communication Talent Theme. Chances are, they may have the natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that the Communication theme demonstrates and may not even know it.
Imagine the possibilities of someone having the words to describe their natural Talents, investing in those Talents, developing them into Strengths, and intentionally directing them in a constructive manner - maybe even a career. How would that person’s life transform?
Now consider a Talent Theme like Connectedness. I can’t tell you all the variations I’ve heard of what people think that means. Oftentimes, people tell me that: “Connectors build strong relationships” or that “Connectors have large networks and connect people”.
Connectedness is in the Relationship Building Domain, but its characteristics don't have anything to do with other people. Connectedness is what was called the Spirituality Talent Theme in StrengthsFinder 1.0. When Gallup released StrengthsFinder 2.0, the Spirituality Talent Theme was renamed Connectedness. I assume that renaming it had to do with people associating Spirituality with Religion and misunderstanding what the Talent Theme means, but I can’t say for sure.
Whatever the reason, it’s important to understand Gallup’s terms (including Talent Theme descriptions) as Gallup defines them. Once you do, you’ll gain insights about yourself and others that you’d never considered before. With their language, you can have a different perspective, make new discoveries, and gain language to better describe yourself (with more insight) to others.
Take advantage of it. Exploring your Talent Themes and how they impact your day-to-day life can reveal volumes to you.
Mistake 4: People think CliftonStrengths is just for Work or School
Chances are that you heard about CliftonStrengths at work or at school. And if not, you likely heard about it talking to friends or brushing up on some professional development topics - i.e. ways to improve yourself and your opportunities.
Combine that with the fact that Gallup touts that “More than 90% of Fortune 500 companies have used CliftonStrengths to bring the power of strengths-based development to their workplace culture.” It’s easy to believe that CliftonStrengths is solely a workplace or academic tool.
But let’s go back to basics. What is CliftonStrengths identifying within you? Your dominant patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This doesn’t start and stop at school or in the workplace. These are your natural patterns all day long - in your conversations, your relationships, your decision-making, your goal-setting, and more.
Rather than just apply what you’re learning about yourself through CliftonStrengths at work and at school, expand it to all aspects of your life.
For example, think about how your results are impacting your relationships with family and friends. Your natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are impacting your opinions, your perspectives, and thus why you think the way you do.
Could that explain why someone else with the same information sees things so differently than you do? They have a different Talent Theme combination (or different results) than you. They will process the same information differently and potentially reach different conclusions and different priorities than you do. And that’s just one example.
Imagine every decision you make, word you say, action you take every day in every aspect of your life. Your Talent Themes are unconsciously influencing you and your day-to-day autopilot responses and patterns.
By diving in and exploring your CliftonStrengths results (and really understanding what they mean), you have a chance to see what’s motivating you, get out of autopilot patterns (that may be getting you into trouble), and consciously make shifts to improve your life.
Furthermore, don’t just think about today. What you’re learning can benefit you tomorrow, in six months, and even 10 years from now. The reach of what CliftonStrengths can do for you is extensive. I encourage you to dive deep and make it part of your everyday tools - professionally and personally.
For more info on how CliftonStrengths impacts other areas of your life, I invite you to check out my video: How (and Where) to Use Gallup StrengthsFinder Results / CliftonStrengths Results
Time: 8:20 minutes
Mistake 5: People think just Reading their CliftonStrengths Results is Enough
Unlike other assessments where the outcome identifies you as 1-in-4, 1-in-16, or 1-in-32 possible results, CliftonStrengths identifies your Top 5 Talent Theme combination as 1-in-33.4 million!
I’ve encountered so many people over the years who have taken the assessment, read it, and then tossed their reports off to the side somewhere. And to be fair, the first two times I took the assessment, I did the same thing. I didn’t know what to do with the information.
It wasn’t until the third time (in 2016, and after I left my former career) when I dove deep and went through formal training that I understood the power in the results. I was surprised how much in my life was tied to my CliftonStrengths results that I never knew! PDF reports don’t convey or humanize the insight available to you. Don’t make the same mistake that I (and so many others have) made.
Being 1-in-33.4 million really distinguishes you, and your results help give you language to really understand and describe your individuality. There’s power in being so specific. But that level of granularity also requires some time, effort, and commitment from you to really understand it.
So whereas the Internet is full of quizzes and personality tests, none of that means anything unless you use what you’re learning about yourself. Nowadays, anyone can look up an answer. What differentiates you is whether you can dig under the surface and really understand and apply your knowledge. In this case, the knowledge is about you, your potential, and how you can be most successful. Isn’t that worth it?
Now to be fair, reading your reports isn’t enough. And the CliftonStrengths-based books just discuss the concepts intellectually. For me, I needed more.
My Talent Themes lie in the Relationship Building and Executing Domains. I needed an interactive environment to have these concepts sink in. I needed to go through training and workshops to appreciate my results, what they mean, and how they impact me.
Luckily, it’s been over 20 years since CliftonStrengths (originally StrengthsFinder) was introduced. Gallup has moved beyond just research and writing, and has certified thousands of Gallup Certified Strengths Coaches worldwide. And they all have their own Talent Theme combinations too, so you’re likely to find one who resonates with you.
Rather than just read PDF reports, go ahead and watch videos, read up, take a workshop or class, work with a coach. Explore your results. Don’t just read your reports and think that’s enough.
You need to experience what you’re learning about yourself. Soak it in. By living it, it’ll unfold more questions and inspire more possibilities for you. You, your life, and your future opportunities are worth the effort.
By now, you likely know the basics of CliftonStrengths and what it means to be 1-in-33.4 million. But just in case you don’t, I invite you to check out my video on: What is Gallup StrengthsFinder? / What is CliftonStrengths?
Time: 6:54 minutes
Mistake 6: People Believe CliftonStrengths can determine what They Can or Can’t Do
Your CliftonStrengths results describe your natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Getting clear on those patterns within you puts you leaps ahead of the majority of people around you. It gives you the chance to stop trying to be what you’re not (or who you’re not), and helps you focus on developing the qualities about you that would grow the most with the least amount of effort.
That being said, your natural patterns don’t define What you can and can’t do. They only help describe How you might approach it. Your results don’t define your interests, your desires, your experiences, or even your beliefs. Based on your results alone, no one can predict whether you’re going to be a baker or a musician.
It’s possible that someone can describe what qualities you’d bring to what you do. For example: whether you use stories to engage people, whether you’re constantly coming up with new ideas, whether you bring people together, or whether the work you do exudes your personal beliefs. You may get an idea of How you might do something, but the What is completely personal.
I’ve had people tell me that they want to know what career would be best for them based on their results. I find the request incomplete and a bit disempowering. Instead, I suggest using CliftonStrengths to help you learn about yourself and what would be a Right Fit for you - not to define what you can or can’t do.
CliftonStrengths can help you describe your personal criteria for what would be a Right Fit for you - mostly based on clarifying your Talents (which also impact your needs and values).
Consider variables and examples like:
- How are your contributions measured? Examples: Based on achievement, competition, innovation, collaboration, quality, reach.
- What’s the structure of your day? Examples: Highly-structured and planned, more autonomous, highly accountable with daily reports, competitive, collaborative.
- What environments might be right for you? Examples: indoor, outdoor, focused and solo, open space, quiet, travel, or a variety.
- Who do you work with? Examples: solo contributor, partnered with one person, close team interaction, collaborate with strangers, in-person, remote interaction, or a variety.
Again, these variables help describe what may be Right Fit opportunities for you to thrive in, but there’s no official list of what roles map to specific CliftonStrengths results.
Besides, the world is changing so much that new options and opportunities are created everyday. In fact, your unique Talent Theme combination may just be different enough to be a disruptor in a traditional role. Challenge expectations and break what’s considered the norms. There is no one way to do or be anything, and your approach may be the new method your environment needs.
There are a lot of points and angles to dispute this particular common mistake. For this article, I only really explored one. The short of it is that CliftonStrengths is a tool. It’s designed to identify your potential and highlight your individuality constructively. It can describe certain aspects of who you are based on when you took the assessment, but in no way can it define you.
For more info on CliftonStrengths and understanding how your results further contribute to your individuality, I invite you to watch: Theme Dynamics: What Talents REALLY Look Like
Time: 7:52 minutes
CliftonStrengths isn’t an easy tool. It’s comprehensive, and therein lies its power and value to you. With one tool, CliftonStrengths gives you language and insight to describe your individuality and identify your potential - independent of your past experiences or your current circumstances.
So if you were deterred by any of the mistakes described in this article, this is your opportunity to give yourself and your results another chance. I know I needed to revisit the assessment more than once. It took me 15 years and 3 times taking CliftonStrengths to learn the power and depth that my results actually had to offer me. Let me save you the time, effort, and my mistakes.
Reading your PDF reports is not enough. It’s not enough to superficially know your results. Live your results. Take advantage of the lessons in this article and the resources (i.e. books, videos, courses, people) you have available to you to make the most out of your Talents.
Get yourself out of your day-to-day autopilot patterns. Understand what they are and how to constructively change them. Once you get going on your CliftonStrengths journey, you’ll know just how you can best (and most easily) do that.