Companies are investing heavily on building strengths, including recruitment, management, and even outplacement. So, how are strengths defined? When someone asks about our strengths, we usually think about those things we do well. While that may be true for a conventional definition of our strengths, being good at something isn’t enough to make it a strength from a positive psychology standpoint. The Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) defines strengths as “our pre-existing patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that are authentic, energizing, and which lead to our best performance.” You need not only to be good at something for it to be a strength; you need to find energy and enjoyment in it.
While the benefits of a strengths focus may seem obvious, we have often been taught to focus on our weaknesses instead. Recognizing personal deficits and overcoming weaknesses are what most self-help seminars and books are about. Some reasons we don’t focus on strengths include:
- Our evolutionary tendency is to be vigilant about looking for problems.
- Problems often feel pressing.
- Social norms dictate that we retain some humility.
- We are not always aware of our strengths.
- We often believe that it is our weaknesses, rather than our strengths, that are our greatest areas for growth.
In discussing strengths, some may jump to the conclusion that it means ignoring weaknesses. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is critical to focus on strengths and weaknesses but for different reasons. The metaphor of a sailboat helps illustrate the differences. Imagine for a moment being a sailboat with a leak. The leak represents a weakness. If we have any common sense at all, we will not ignore that weakness because it means we will sink. It is critical to attend to our leaks because in the real world, our weaknesses can derail us unless we take care of them. If we stop the leak, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean we will get anywhere. It is our sails, which represent our strengths, that give us forward momentum. Focusing only on strengths or only on weaknesses is not sufficient; both are necessary.
So, how is leveraging strengths linked to increased employee engagement? First, let’s define employee engagement. Gallup defines engaged employees as “Those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” Engaged employees are “fully absorbed in and enthusiastic about their work” so they take positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests. In Marcus Buckingham’s Strengths-Based Leadership, he shares the following statistic around employee engagement and strengths: In organizations that do not focus on strengths, the level of employee engagement is about 9 percent. In organizations that focus on strengths—meaning employees do what they enjoy and do well—the level of employee engagement skyrockets to 73 percent. Imagine working in a place where most people are involved in and enthusiastic about their work. Imagine a place where people want to come to work more often, where there is better safety and improved quality, where there are boosts in customer satisfaction, productivity, and profit.
Strengths-based managers recognize the power of leveraging strengths in the workplace. They are aware of their strengths and limitations, value identifying and developing strengths in those they work with, and have the ability to do so. Managers can start with small changes such as noticing and sharing feedback on employee strengths. As aspiring strengths-based managers become better at noticing and identifying strengths, they often become more at ease with the approach and are better able to notice and develop their own strengths.
So how can managers spot someone’s strengths? When we are using our strengths or when we talk about a situation in which we used our strengths, we tend to come alive, becoming increasingly animated, physically communicative, and more alert and excited. Energy is a hallmark feature of strengths and fundamental to identifying them. Energy can be seen in rising inflection, rapid speech, better posture, wide eyes and raised eyebrows, smiling and laughing, increased hand gestures, increased use of metaphors and more fluent speech.
Managers can introduce the topic of strengths to employees by asking them share a story about a time when they were at their best or to describe something they are extremely proud of having done in the workplace. In thinking of a particular moment or decision within that proud event, people take stock of moments that are the direct result of their strengths at play rather than resulting from overcoming a weakness. Our proudest moments are related to us being at our best.
In teaching a leadership class a few years ago, participants introduced themselves by telling a story about when they were at their best. As one person shared, “It brings the person’s soul into the room and you can really see who they are and what is important to them in the stories they share.” I invite aspiring strengths-based managers to use the technique of asking people to share their “personal workplace best” stories as a way to connect with, get to know, and engage your employees.