People have been trying to fix me for my whole career, not because I was broken, but because traditional thinking was focused on finding weaknesses and then fixing them as the pathway to higher levels of performance, but the science suggests that a focus on developing strengths is a much more effective way. In the words of Peter Drucker “…one cannot build on weaknesses. To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths…. these strengths are the true opportunities. To make strengths productive is the unique purpose of organisations”. So, how do you address the imbalance, what are the advantages and how do you approach strengths based development?

Addressing the imbalance

As discussed in my previous article our negativity bias and ‘fight or flight’ instinct has us perpetually on the lookout for negativity in our environment and critically assessing the people within it, so it’s no surprise that we feel the need to focus so much effort on finding and fixing weaknesses. So should we just ignore weaknesses? Absolutely not, understanding and dealing with ‘show stopping’ weaknesses is an essential part of building resilience and capability, but that focus alone can only take you so far. Albert Einstein summed up the problem beautifully, “Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.  What is clear is that if you effectively address the imbalance there are significant advantages both competitively and from a people perspective.

A competitive advantage

Two large studies stand out as to why addressing the imbalance is worth the effort for organisations. Firstly, a study of 19,187 employees from 34 organisations across seven industries and 29 countries, by the Corporate Leadership Council found that when managers focused on weakness development it led to a 26.8% decline in performance, whereas when they focused on strengths development performance increased by 36.4%. Secondly, a recent study by Gallup that included 49,495 business units with 1.2 million employees across 22 organisations in seven industries and 45 countries, found that 90% of workgroups that received a strengths intervention performed significantly better than control groups. The results included a 10-19% increase in sales, a 14-29% increase in profits and a 9-15% increase in employee engagement. Now that I have your attention, what are the advantages for people?

A people advantage

Several studies also show a significant advantage in terms of a strengths based approach to the development and growth of individuals. These advantages include higher levels of subjective well-being (i.e. happiness), increased team member engagement, improved confidence, higher energy levels, increased resilience, greater chance of goal achievement, improved self-esteem and reduced stress. A substantial list of benefits that also help create an environment charged with positive emotion, creativity and a sense of meaning and purpose for the team. So the evidence is compelling for both individuals and organisations, getting the opportunity to do what you do best each day, that is, using your strengths, is a core predictor of workplace engagement, which in turn is a core predictor of a range of business outcomes (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002).

A strengths based approach

Here are some tips to for a strengths based approach to development:

  1. Align strengths to objectives and values– strengths should be seen as tools that are leveraged most effectively when they are aligned to clearly defined objectives and congruent with the values of the individual. So, defining objectives and values are an essential early step in the process.
  2. Address the imbalance – focus effort on developing strengths (what is right), rather than weaknesses (what is wrong). Only work on weaknesses that create significant risk to your personal brand, well-being or objectives. If they do, (and assuming you have traditional methods covered) then minimise their use, delegate them, use strengths to compensate or build a strengths based team that can make weaknesses irrelevant.
  3. Build understanding and awareness – knowing and understanding your strengths is an important step and there are several tools available. Alex Linley’s Strengths Spotting tips or the Values in Action (VIA) Inventory are great ways to get started. If want a more detailed understanding of your strengths and how to use them more effectively there are also tools like the R2 Strength Profiler from the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology or StrengthsFinder2.0 developed by Gallup.
  4. Use existing strengths effectively – once you know what your strengths are, you should align them to your goals and dial them up and down, based on the needs of the situation. There is in effect a strengths ‘sweet spot’ where you can combine strengths or play to them perfectly to power performance and optimise your effectiveness.
  5. Unlock latent strengths – most assessments identify strengths that you should use more often or that you aren’t using at all. The R2 Strength Profiler, as an example, specifically identifies these latent strengths, so that you can use these essentially untapped resources to step change performance.
  6. Use a coach – using a coach, mentor or someone that can work with you on clarifying your objectives, defining your values and interpreting and leveraging your strengths effectively can add enormous value to the overall outcome.

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