Instant Replay: Complicating the Conversation on Strengths

Does your campus use Strengths-based programming? On April 18, the Leadership and Service Education Community of Practice sponsored a webinar presented by Nicholas Tapia-Fuselier on the relationships between identity and Strengths. If you missed the live program, it has been archived and is available in the On Demand section of the ACUI Library.

Nicholas Tapia-Fuselier is a student affairs professional and current doctoral student in the Higher Education program at the University of North Texas. His primary research interests are education policy and its impact on marginalized students, community college research, and student affairs practitioners’ professional development. As a leadership educator, Tapia-Fuselier has utilized the StrengthsQuest™ assessment as a tool for first-year student success as well as within the context of leadership programs with diverse populations of students. His top five strengths are futuristic, ideation, achiever, self-assurance, and input.

CliftonStrengths is a tool designed to help students identify and understand their top five signature themes of talent out of 34 different themes. It begins with the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, which has been taken by more than 9 million people around the world. It is grounded in the theoretical perspective of positive psychology. Developed by Gallup more than 30 years ago for businesses who wanted to get the most out of their employees, Gallup conducted millions of psychological interviews to identify the 34 themes of talent.logo

Unfortunately, there are some research credibility concerns. Gallup is for-profit. We have to trust their accuracy to trust the results. Reliability of the assessment is weak. For example, Dugan (2017) writes the reliability score for the instrument addressing the theme Activator with regard to people of color was low enough that it should not be used for this demographic.

Privilege and Oppression
Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of marginalized groups. Oppression is the combination of prejudice and institutional power which creates a system that discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups. These systems enable dominant groups to exert control over target groups by limiting their rights, freedom, and access to basic resources such as health care, education, employment, and housing. Some examples of these systems are racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. There are multiple dimensions of oppression. There is conscious and unconscious oppression, oppression tied to our attitudes, and oppression tied to our behaviors. Also, oppression can be individual, institutional, or societal.

In the Research Paradigm Continuum, we start with positivism. This focuses more on quantitative research around facts and finding Truth. Then, we move through interpretive research to critical research. This is more associated with qualitative research. It situates all the findings through the lens of power. Critical research is skeptical of facts or Truth. Rather, objectivity is argued not to exist. The person collecting the data, analyzing the data, and conducting the research becomes part of the research. Each person has identities that cannot be turned off when conducting research. This can enhance the research if the researcher maintains an awareness of their positionality. By recognizing our identities and biases included in our positionality, we can also enhance our exploration of Strengths. Think about the different parts of your positionality as it relates to your work. This can include race, gender, political position, social status, religious background, birth order, etc.

To explore this further, the presenter gave a few examples from his positionality and how that relates to his Strengths. With regard to the Achiever theme, messages that come from this may include having stamina, working hard, and achieving satisfaction from being productive. He is also white, which means he may have internalized the myth of meritocracy (if anyone works hard enough, they can get whatever they want). Through a critical lens, we know that issues of power prevent some people from getting what they want, regardless of their effort. With regard to the Self-Assurance theme, messages include confidence in the ability to manage one’s own life and an inner compass providing confidence that decisions are right. Because he is also a white male, this can show up in spaces as arrogance or uninformed confidence. Despite intention, this can have a hurtful or damaging impact on others. Another theme is Input, connected to a craving to know more, to collect and archive lots of information. Because he comes from an educated, middle-class background, he has access to spaces where his desire to learn more is seen, affirmed, and cultivated.

Consider these takeaways when considering this material. All leadership theory is up for critique, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Positionality matters as student affairs professionals and leadership educators. Our social identities, experiences, beliefs, and values are always with us, as they should be. Nothing is identity-neutral, including Strengths. If you are a StrengthsFinder educator, continue your self-exploration and self-reflection by conducting positionality reflections before and after trainings, and include space to engage in dialogue with other StrengthsFinder coaches. If you are planning StrengthsFinder training sessions, include identity exploration activities, such as a social identity or personality wheel, or conversations on power, privilege, and oppression. Encourage dialogue about how identity intersects or interacts with Strengths in both positive and challenging ways. If you would like to learn more, check out the On Demand version of this program. You can also contact the presenter and/or connect with the Leadership and Service Education Community of Practice.

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