Research shows that in order for people and organisations to improve performance you should play on strengths. This makes sense – working on already strong areas is likely to lead to excellence, but trying to develop areas of weakness is likely to only take you to satisfactory or maybe good at best. However, managers may tend to focus on people’s weaknesses in the belief that this is what is needed.
Jim Collins’ Good to Great outlines research by Gallup speaking to over one million employees and 80,000 managers about how this applies to companies, and emphasises the importance of having the right people in the right roles, getting recruitment right at the beginning and dealing with problems promptly. Marcus Buckingham in First, Break All The Rules discusses it in relation to what enables employees to do their best, with one of the top twelve factors being, “The opportunity to do what I do best everyday”.
For organisations that doesn’t mean don’t provide any support for people to improve to undertake essential parts of their role, but if you are having to do a significant amount of work on people’s weaknesses, it’s probably not the job for them, especially if what you are trying to change is something that is not learnable knowledge and skills but more a talent or aspect of their personality.
Finding your strengths
If you are not sure what your strengths are, there are a number of ways you could approach finding out. Asking other people, colleagues, friends or family could be one way, thinking about what you enjoy could be another – it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be good at the things you enjoy but it’s a clue. Think about when you experience “flow” – a concept identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that describes a state of complete involvement in and focus on an activity where time passes by unnoticed and you are completely absorbed in the present.
Tools that can help you to identify strengths this include the free Values in Action Institute Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) available from the questionnaire centre at the Authentic Happiness website of the University of Pennsylvania. This contains 24 strengths and a questionnaire enables you to identify your top five “signature strengths”, for example judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness or humour and playfulness.
Marcus Buckingham’s book Now Discover Your Strengths: How to Develop Your Talents and Those of the People You Manage, used research with two million people to identify thirty four strengths, amongst them analytical, empathy or maximiser. This is a book that, unusually, I wouldn’t recommend buying second hand, as it has a one-off passcode in it for you to access StrengthsFinder to identify your strengths. Other tests that you might have come across include Myers Briggs sixteen personality types and Belbin team roles.
One word of caution, many methods use self-reporting, which measure your perception of your behaviour rather than your actual behaviour. Once you have identified your strengths yourself, it might be worth checking them out with people close to you to see if they think they are a good reflection.
Using your strengths
So how can your strengths or those of your employees be used once you have identified them? In Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham outlines how to manage people differently according to their different strengths, for example, who might need time to think things through, who is more concerned with the here and now than planning for the future, who can stir a team into action.
You can also analyse your team to identify which strengths are present and lacking. Think about who is best for which task and what gaps you have in the team, bringing in new people or if this isn’t possible being aware of how strengths and gaps might affect the dynamics of the team. Talk to your team individually and collectively – you can undertake the strength finding exercises together.
For yourself, does your work or other activities allow you to use your strengths everyday? If not, are there things you can change to allow you to use your strengths more? For any goals you have identified or projects you are involved in, work through each of your strengths and think specifically about how that strength could be useful in helping you to achieve them.
To broaden your enquiries, the field of positive psychology emphasises working with strengths for positive change and also offers many ways for people to improve their emotional and mental wellbeing. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting The Life You Want outlines the evidence about how to increase happiness, and Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project outlines one woman’s journey over a year of taking actions, one month at a time, to improve her happiness. Doing what you enjoy, at work or outside, is important. In the UK, organisations such as Action for Happiness and Life Squared provide advice and resources.