Human Capital – Strengths, Behavior, Culture Bridging

The biggest human temptation is not to ambition too much but to settle for too little. – Thomas Merton

There is an ever-increasing demand for higher productivity, for greater employment of minority youth, and for reduction of the underemployment that is prevalent in the economy. And it is hoped that many of these demands can be met without inflationary effects. In this article some ways to accomplish this are first illustrated by examples and then explained.

Let's start with a conflict-ridden high school class. The teacher asks if students would like to know how to be more effective in solving whatever problems they have in life. He involves them in a small group process that enables them to perceive their own and each other's beginning strengths. Then the teacher helps them to recognize how it is possible to relate to the strengths of others so as to be more effective in solving or coping with problems. When this has been accomplished, each student knows that the others are aware of his or her strengths and what is behind those strengths. The need to prove oneself to others and to establish one's identity has been largely met. The one-upmanship that has prevailed until then becomes unnecessary, and the energy formerly given to conflict is largely transferred to improving strengths through learning and studying. That scenario has occurred.

Now move to four groups of men and women on welfare, all of them over age 45. They are depressed and believe they are unwanted and have no future. They are in the “dead” files (never to be offered jobs) of a state employment office. Their speech is filled with “hopeless” terminology. The language of employed people tends to be self-confident and hopeful; that of those in the welfare society is characterized by hopelessness and a lack of confidence.

The next example involves Southeast Asians - Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians - who fled that troubled region to come to the United States. In those cultures college graduates almost automatically get government jobs or work with family businesses. The other 95 percent grovel for “patrons” (potential employers), accept whatever is offered at whatever price, and usually live where they're told to live. They may not ask for raises or promotions, because asking reflects on the intelligence and generosity of the patron - something that could upset his highly-prized sense of harmony.


A system far different from ours! A strength identification process was used for Asians to translate their experiences at home into American skills. Then the Asians were involved in a two-jobs process that helped them bridge the gap between their traditional semi-slavery and our concept of job freedom and upward mobility. Their counselors were taught how to use the procedures and ideas.

What these examples show is the unlocking of potential in men, women, and youth. People rarely use more than 10 percent of their potential. Psychologists in general are agreed that less than 20 percent of people's potential is used. Just suppose that in the example of minority high school dropouts the figure really is 10 percent; it then becomes reasonable to assume that a portion of the 90 percent that remains unused could be found and used. If that amount were only 5 percent, it would mean a 45 percent rise in productivity! (Five percent of 90 percent is 4.5 percent. A 4.5 percent rise over a basic figure of 10 percent is a 45 percent increase in productivity.) Both employability and behavior would thus change.

With the general population, 5 percent of the 80 percent of unused capacity would be four points; which adds up to one fifth that might be added to the norm of 20 percent of potential productivity that is actually used. It is certain that new concepts, products, and businesses, as well as greater employment, would derive from a 20 percent rise in the number of geniuses and entrepreneurs!

Training and education usually enable people to do what they were trained and educated for. When prison psychologists approve the training of convicts to be barbers, that's what they know. But that form of barbering is obsolete: cutting hair is out; “styling” is in. Thus, training and education do not necessarily increase employability. Throughout the country, PhDs in the humanities know this all too well.

But human capital philosophers (such as economists Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker, who theorized that education, income, and jobs increase together) succeeded in having their ideas transformed into national policy. One very constructive outcome of their ideas - and there are many - is the community-college movement. Community colleges have indeed enlarged opportunities for millions.

The traditional view - “better educated workers are more productive” - is often not true. Demand for specifically educated people can be increased through marketing techniques, thus increasing their probable salaries. In every instance, the critical determinants of performance are not increased educational achievement but other personality characteristics and environmental conditions.

The unlocking of human potential requires knowing what we know, and that is difficult. Computers are helping to make a difference in many areas, but they've barely touched the unused potential in people. Knowing what we know, certainly knowing what we can do best, calls for setting priorities on the data in our minds, much of which is not easily recalled. The following example is an illustration of this.

A man with two degrees in history studied computer technology to get a job. He was employed for six years as a programmer. He hated it, but continued with it because it supported his lifestyle. Then, in despair, he paid a substantial fee for a strength identification process counseling. The activities he felt he enjoyed and did best went back 12 years to his military experience in Vietnam, where he was trained initially as a hospital orderly and ended up as the equivalent of a field hospital manager. His earliest achievement was splinting a dog's broken leg, and it healed. He told many stories of how he improved efficiency and saved lives by reinterpreting regulations, training volunteer hospital aides, organizing supply procedures, and - with the advice of doctors - changing schedules. He had no real authority to do these things, but he was accepted as acting “manager” because of his ideas and his effectiveness.

After counseling, he was accepted by a large group-health organization as manager of paramedic activities, and suddenly a childhood dream came true. There is no place for “unauthorized activities you did well” on job application forms. Through his reanalysis of his own history (not because of added education), his potential changed radically.

Human capital theory needs reorientation to take into account the certainty that some of the hidden resources in people can be released and made available. When that happens, behavior changes as well as productivity.

What happens when, as revealed by the examples of the paramedic manager, the vermin exterminator, and the greeting card artist, a person becomes aware of the viability of skills or talents previously believed to be economically worthless? Who gains? Obviously, the individual does, and certainly employers do, as well as the communities they reach and serve - and Uncle Sam collects more taxes.

But there is a management bias that needs to be appreciated. It is a very normal thing: in essence, “I like people like myself.” The trouble comes when the manager needs someone who is not like himself. First, let us say, since the manager is a college graduate, he would like his assistant to be a college graduate, too. When that is put into a job description, the term “college graduate” nearly always rules out non-graduates. When the person's major is added to the criteria, more people are ruled out. That makes it easier for the initial screener - usually the personnel department - but it has nothing to do with ruling in the person who has competence to offer but not the college or letters. So, the manager looking for competence tends to lose, at the same time as the risks for first screeners are reduced. Clearly the manager loses when what I call “the Edison factor” is not considered. (Incidentally, young people who have IQs of 130 or higher drop out of school at more than three times the rate of less gifted students!)

Improved productivity and interpersonal relations are among the outcomes when people are selected on the basis of their likely future performance. How can the likelihood of an employee's performance and dependability be determined with reasonable certitude, particularly when change itself is so constant? It takes a bit of explaining, but it can be done.

Let's start with an article in Mademoiselle (August 1980 issue), which tells young women that college freshmen cannot be expected to decide on a major or a career. There is not enough evidence available, nor are sufficient clues possible at that time, the article says. A clear pattern of motivated skills (although in their early stages, to be sure) can be found in the great majority of people by age 18. Because wisdom usually hasn't been developed by then, young people can get hooked into making wrong decisions - by friends, well-meaning relatives, and some understandable fear of moving too fast from the culture of academe to that of the working world.

Most employers will lose half of their new college recruits in one to five years, which indicates some poor hiring decisions, some employee disappointments on the job, some erroneous career decisions, and a variety of other personal factors.

Add to that the increasing executive and middle-management float from one employer to another in search of greener or more satisfying pastures. Then there is the obsolescence factor, in which developed skills become out of date faster and faster because of changing technology and scientific progress. What banker could have been prepared ten years ago for the rate of inflation that prevailed in 1979 and 1980? What engineer in the early 1970s could have been prepared for the manufacturing robots which will be commonplace in the 1980s? Doctors are now using laser beams for the newest and most delicate operations. What secretary of ten years ago could have been aware of the impact of electronic, error-free, automatic-correction typing? What 1970 salesman could have anticipated multi-location televised conferences and direct video confrontations with the marketing vice-president?

Of course there has been a tremendous increase in seminars and formal education to help management and professional people take advantage of advances in communication and technology. But many people who get that training are not aided by it. Yet it is possible to describe how a manager will benefit when he or she can trace the developing dependable skills and talents - the dependable strengths - of a person.

First, a little self-verifying theory: suppose a person is involved in ten activities; if he drops two of them, the other eight can get more attention. “Can” is the important word. “Motivation” determines if the other eight will actually get the attention.

Now transfer this bit of theory to a person's history of achievement. The experiences that brought him achievement include skills and talents that prove to be motivated because they are used to make many of those achievements happen and have been developed through those experiences. These repeated, motivated skills and talents are dependable strengths that are likely to be involved in making later achievements happen.

More than that, they are related to low-stress activities that give pleasure and enjoyment. The “pleasure-pain” principle, in which we seek more of what gives us pleasure and try to avoid what gives us pain or high stress, also is at work on the job.

The manager who knows how to help a person recognize his or her pattern of motivated skills is also able to be clear about the kinds of experience, training, or education which will most benefit both that person and the organization for which he works. This becomes clearer when a manager recognizes the job freedom it gives both the person and the manager. The person becomes more free to request that unmotivated skill activities be taken out of his job, and perhaps that ones which use motivated skills be added. When unmotivated skill activities or duties are taken out of a job description, the energies associated with those activities are set free to flow into duties that are better fulfilled, more enjoyable, and less stressful to the person, and at the same time more useful to the employer - and at a lower unit cost. Of course the manager is free not to change the job content or to change it very little or very much. The wise manager will, as soon as possible, make changes in the light of self-benefit, organization benefit, and employee benefit.

Such changes reduce costs associated with replacement hiring, with stress-related health problems, and with the “most” productive work of the employee rather than “average” productivity. The person who knows his or her best self does not become a center of conflict; rather, he becomes a center for good relationships. And all because the manager is concerned with enabling the people on his staff to know their individual dependable strengths in such a way as to make more of those strengths available.

Culture Bridging

Managers know the effects of culture change, but are rarely concerned with culture bridging. A culture bridge is necessary, for example, when a factory worker is promoted to foreman. What usually happens then is that his former friends tend to drop away - he is not invited to their homes and parties, because he has become a “boss.” He has to learn a new language, that of management; he has to supervise, and perhaps correct, some of his former associates. These are big changes, and they cause stress. When they can be seen as a movement from one culture to another, the need for culture bridging becomes evident.


We are accustomed to think of culture change as being associated with movement from one country, with its own language and customs, to another. But one very deep culture change takes place when the “brightest” young people in a high school class go to college. There, they quickly find equally bright people from other schools, and also find that the brightest generally have their own “languages” and unique ways of working, and that they compete in different ways. These are among the marks of a different culture.

Again, specialists who become generalists have to learn new terminology (languages), relate to other generalists in new ways, and frequently adopt changed work habits. People on welfare for a long time have culture-change problems that are different from those of high school students who start work for the first time.

Culture bridging is a movement from one culture to another - learning the new practices and speech without losing the best of what has gone before. It is a bicultural approach that helps to assure understanding and acceptance and also maintains and strengthens one's identity. People who fear losing their identity resist change, even when it's for the better.

My concern with culture bridging centers on the loss of productivity, human values, and progress which result from resistance to change. Change itself is almost always resisted: it threatens to bring the unknown into the present, and who wants that? The person who can see that no matter how many ways his strengths are applied, and no matter what they are called, they are all of a piece and continue to grow, such a person builds his own bridge into whatever culture he may enter. Knowledge of what those dependable strengths are and how they are ordered anchors a person's self-confidence and sense of identity. It enables him or her to be relatively unshaken by whatever changes come about, and usually to act responsibly when change does occur. He is able to accept guidance and correction and be relatively unhurt but responsive to criticism. At the same time, because of his stability in sometimes tough situations, he is likely to be a center of influence for calm effectiveness.

For instance, a fortune teller who couldn't speak English, although he had learned to read and write English and Vietnamese before he was five and had picked up two more Asian languages in kitchens and markets before he was ten. In the market he often helped people speaking different languages to understand each other. Again as an infant he loved the garden, smelling and tasting all kinds of vegetables, grains, flowers, and herbs. He came to know where things would grow best and what growing things were likely to be close to other growing things. These skills enabled him and his group to forage and survive well during their hazardous hike from the interior to the coast of Vietnam. They also strengthened his power to observe reactions and helped develop his perceptiveness and his ability to notice what went on in many places at once. In the market as a youngster he was known as “the ambassador” because of his mediating and language skills. Later on, these combined with other abilities to enable him to be an effective fortune teller. A strength identification process was used to help him become aware of these developed skills. Knowing they went back deeply into his life in Southeast Asia helped him build and cross his own culture bridge to selling work in the United States. That knowledge stimulated him to learn to speak English so he could use his rediscovered and renamed talents.

The professional or management person who gets to know his strengths is modest about what he or she can do, and doesn't need to boast or brag. A modest man is busy in quiet pursuit of his excellence. The person who knows his dependable strengths tends to build culture bridges when they are required.

Behavior Changes

Like other creative children, Henry Ford got into trouble when his skills were not being used constructively. The dam design he drew at age 14 was implemented by a group of children he organized into a work crew. It flooded a lot of acreage - for which his parents were fined. For adults, the mischief often is suppressed and comes out as stress. The outgoing fortune teller became a fearful and withdrawn man in a new country where his trade or profession is not listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. He had virtually lost his identity, and he was depressed. Learning how he could translate the skills he had used as a fortune teller into strengths that could be used in finding a job in America turned his life around. His old enthusiasm and confidence returned. He reached out to people again, as he had always done.


The story of the assistant sales executive who was a good contributor, but changed his attitude when he felt that his boss had stopped valuing his suggestions. He stopped contributing ideas. When he learned in a strength identification seminar that his self-suppression might be contributing to his holding-back attitude and his own feeling of burnout, and when he became fully aware that his ability to contribute ideas had always been one of his dependable strengths demanding expression, he realized the need to release that strength in a constructive way. He immediately began to give his boss suggestions that proved practical.

Behaviors change - voluntarily and not by manipulation - when people have freedom through knowledge to concentrate on using their strengths constructively in ways that continue to develop them. The behavior change can be compared to using a hose on the lawn: the more you focus, the more power and the greater reach you will have. When people acquire this knowledge, their behavior becomes more open to change, progress, and cooperative effort.

For example, a very high percentage of students in high schools believe that teachers think they are there to be stuffed with information, and the students resist being stuffed. Resistance symptoms include the abuse of alcohol and drugs. It is well known that lack of self-esteem frequently leads to addiction and to other undisciplined activities. When a teacher introduced students to a team system that identified their strengths, they gained in self- and mutual respect. Like the fortune teller, they became eager to use their strengths constructively and to learn how those strengths could be developed further. Communication replaced the “standard” practice of one-upmanship, and they began a continuing process of cooperation with their teachers and with the learning process.

Similarly, management needs staff and workers who cooperate with and contribute to ongoing work and change. Wherever there is resistance because of personal stresses and frustrations of different kinds, there is a high probability that the person is not aware of his or her dependable strengths, and therefore is unlikely to be quietly self-confident. The behavior of self-confident people is different from that of people who lack self-esteem – and so is their productivity.

Of course, in a large organization it is not possible to get everyone all at once to appreciate his or her strengths. Even computers were introduced gradually, starting with the Navy in 1944. But it need not take 37 years to move effectively toward human resource development activities that bring out the best in all people by enabling them to appreciate and use their dependable strengths.

The highest responsibility of management is to identify and use the best in people. That worked before, but times have changed. Each person is now more concerned with his or her individuality and with the pattern of his dependable strengths. With that, knowledge is needed of how each person's strengths can be related partly to work and partly to recreation and leisure activities. In the work area, it is management's responsibility to coordinate the different strengths of people. The old-time tradition of compensating for weaknesses and of trading off strengths against weaknesses is just that very much out of tune with the times.

We are in an era when the assessment and management of dependable strengths is essential for the maintenance of living standards, the control of costs and inflation, and the reduction of stress and its resulting ailments. Whether it is called the human resource development phase of “reindustrialization” or something else, we should move into it with alacrity and wisdom.

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