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Signature Strengths

A whole field of performance management and professional development plans has fed off this approach for decades, all with the aim of making a person ‘better’. Instead, the aim should be to help a person to ‘flourish’.

So how effective is the strengths-based approach?  

A compelling study by the Corporate Leadership Council looked at more than 19,000 staff members and found that a strengths-based approach to management resulted in a 36% increase in performance, as contrasted with a 27% decrease associated with a focus on weaknesses.  The differential between the two groups is staggering. 

I am not saying that we ignore weaknesses.  I am saying that the focus needs to be squarely on strengths and that weaknesses can be addressed through leveraging strengths. 

For example, if someone has a strength in project management but is poor in workplace relationships, then it would be unwise to put every inch of development effort into dealing with their lack of workplace relationship skills, Instead, a more worthwhile approach would be to help the person understand what makes them so good at project management and then to teach them how they can use this approach to improve relationships. 

Let’s take this idea one step further.  Think for a moment back to your school days.  Quite often, concerned parents hire a tutor to help their children in their weak subjects.  Typically the student’s marks improve, but rarely get above average.  Now imagine if your parents hired a tutor for the subject for which you received highest marks. Firstly, it would feel great doing more of what you enjoy and are good at.  Secondly, the sky is the limit in terms of where you would be today – perhaps not in your current job?

What do I mean by strengths? 

There are two main schools of thought surrounding strengths. 

The first is ‘Character or Signature Strengths’.  These are strengths that are core to our being, such as honesty and creativity.  We use these strengths across situations.  A new book called Flourish by Martin Seligman discusses this approach.  You can access a free survey (VIA survey) to capture this at  www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu. 

The second is ‘Strengths’.  These are more like our talents or things that we do well.  A book called From A to A+ by Alex Linley taps into this. 

Both are useful and complementary approaches.  The aim of both is to recognise where an individual’s source of excellence and potential lies. 

Strengths and resilience

It is not a great leap of faith to realise that people who use their strengths more are happier, more confident, have higher levels of self-esteem, experience less stress and are more resilient (Linley, 2010).  A fundamental reason is that doing what we are good at gives us positive energy and a buzz.  It is a way to restore our reservoir so as to bounce with adversity. 

Imagine what an exceptional team you would have if each individual team member utilised their strengths daily.

What managers can do

The clear place to start is by identifying, recognising and adjusting work to make the most of the strengths of your team members.  This is a great source of energy, motivation and potential.

1.  Allocate some time to consciously identify strengths.  Your team may need some help to bring these to the surface.  There are clues in what people do:

  • Energy:  What activities give him/her an energetic buzz when doing them? These activities are very likely calling on their strengths.
  • Ease: See what activities come naturally to him/her, and at which he/she excels – sometimes, it seems, without even trying. These will likely be their strengths.
  • Attention: See where he/she naturally pays attention. People are more likely to focus on things that are playing to their strengths.
  • Rapid learning: What are the things that he/she has picked up quickly, learning them almost effortlessly? Rapid learning often indicates an underlying strength.
  • Motivation: What motivates him/her? When one finds activities that you do simply for the love of doing them, they are likely to be working from strengths.
  • Voice: Monitor your tone of voice. When you notice a shift in passion, energy and engagement, he/she is probably talking about a strength.
  • ‘To do’ lists: Notice the things that never make it on to his/her ‘to do’ list. The things that always seem to get done often reveal an underlying strength that means he/she never needs to be asked twice.

2.  Make strengths part of your next performance review, formal or informal.  Discuss ways to use more of what your individual team members are good at.  Be creative and look outside of the mundane.  Afterwards, check in on how each individual is going with this.  This is a great way for fostering a positive work relationship.

3.  When discussing work goals and targets, give explicit attention to how the individual’s strengths can be used for improved likelihood of success.

4.  Think about your own strengths.  What do you do well and feel good after doing?  Actively decide what you can do more of this week for the benefit of yourself and your team.

Related research

A study within organisations found that when people put steps into place to develop their strengths, their reported levels of work engagement significantly increased.  This was the case for strengths that they were already using, as well as strengths that were unrealised (Minhas, 2010).  The message is that many important human resources issues can be addressed through the strengths approach.

This article is authored by workplace performance and resilience expert Lyndal Hughes, Associate Director at Third Horizon.

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