The Power of Strengths
Sitting around the dinner table is a 10-year-old primary school kid, a 13-year-old high schooler, a 43-year-old business owner, and a 44-year-old Project Director. They have finished eating and each has a piece of paper in front of them with a list of 24 strengths they are critically analysing. The goal is to choose the five strengths demonstrated most often by the 10-year-old.
It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can correctly name his top 5 strengths first.
Forgiveness and kindness are picked early – they show up in so many of his interactions with others; his need to follow the rules and make sure everyone else does too, his gentle nature and ability to notice when someone needs some comfort or support. A debate ensues about the other top three strengths. Teamwork? He’s always playing sports with teams and is a reliable team member. Curiosity? He’s the one always in the back of the car who comes up with a random question unrelated to anything that’s currently happening.
But no, when the results of the VIA Survey of Character Strengths are revealed, it’s uncovered that his number one strength is in fact humour (the constant giggling starts to make some sense), number two is love of learning (ooh, that’s where the questions come in and the constant YouTube research to understand how things work), and the fourth is bravery. For a moment they’re all a little stumped, and then the stories are shared of when he started mountain bike riding and chose some of the more difficult runs right off the bat, and his need to stand up for what’s right, and point out when someone may have shirked the rules….
The energy in the room is charged with excitement as stories are shared demonstrating each of these strengths. Laughing ensues. And then the 13-year-old decides she also needs to understand her strengths. So, while she runs off to get her laptop to do the survey, the other three go back to their lists to try and determine her top 5….
This story may have taken place at a family dinner table, my family dinner table to be exact, but the same interactions also happen in team meetings. This is called strengths spotting. Noticing, voicing and sharing the strengths you see in those around you is a powerful way to create energy, boost confidence, provide motivation, build trust, respect and connections.
I spent the majority of my career in HR, supporting performance processes that help to identify where people can improve. Later in my corporate career, while studying my Master of Coaching Psychology, I came across the field of strengths in positive psychology – and realised that we’d had it wrong all along. Yes, it’s important to understand what you can improve, but if you spend most of your time in this area, working on things that you’re not intrinsically motivated to do, you’ll run out of energy very quickly.
One of my favourite research findings to share with my coaching clients is a study done by the Corporate Leadership Council. They found that when managers focus on weaknesses during performance reviews, generally performance decreases after this conversation by 26%. However, when a manager focuses on strengths during a performance conversation, afterwards performance increases by approximately 36%. That’s a 62% differential in performance depending on the focus of the conversation. Think about that. As a leader, you play a HUGE role in the ongoing performance of your team, simply based on your choice of focus for individual conversations.
Research shows that people who understand and can leverage their strengths at work:
- Are more confident and less stressed
- Up to six times more engaged
- Experience more meaning and satisfaction
- Are happier and have more energy
- And teams who use their strengths have higher productivity, happier customers and lower turnover.
- So how do we leverage strengths more to tap into some of these benefits?
Identify your strengths.
What are my top 5 strengths?
There are quite a number of evidence-based tools you can use to uncover your strengths, and they are quick and inexpensive to use. The first is VIA Character Strengths which you can take online for free. Character strengths focus on your intrinsic motivators and values; ‘how’ you like to work and the values that drive your behaviour and decision making.
Another inventory that’s helpful is Strengths Finder 2.0 from Gallup, which focusses on your extrinsic motivators and talents, or ‘what’ you like to do. In combination these two inventories can be really powerful in understanding what gives you energy.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear says “The key is to direct your effort towards areas that excite you and match your natural skills, to align your ambition with your ability.” He talks about learning to play a game where the odds are in your favour; this maintains motivation and helps us feel successful. We are more likely to enjoy the things that come easily to us. If it’s easy we want to do it, we become more competent at it, we get praised for it, and this propels us to do it again.
Get to know your strengths and how they’ve helped you.
How have each of these strengths helped me in my career to date?
When I’m coaching clients through a strengths debrief, I ask them to describe how the strength has helped them in their career to date. Let’s take ‘responsibility’ as an example (because it’s one of my top five!) I take responsibility really seriously; constantly having lists of tasks (both at home and work) that I need to complete. I agree to help others with projects and tasks because I feel this constant sense of responsibility. Once I agree to something, I will work myself to the ground to ensure that I meet the commitment. Tasks are very rarely incomplete or late, because if I said I will do something, then it will get done. This strength may have helped me demonstrate reliability, initiative, being driven to deliver outcomes and manage projects.
With each of your top five strengths, it’s important to not just read the report, but to uncover how you’ve used them. Talk it through, share the examples, understand the impact. This can be really hard to start with, as our strengths are such an intrinsic part of who we are that we sometimes don’t have the language to articulate them.
Learn how to use your strengths wisely.
This often means understanding how they can hinder you.
What has happened in the past when I’ve overused these strengths? What has been the impact to myself and others? What emotions do I feel when this is happening?
What has happened in the past when I’ve underused these strengths? What has been the impact to myself and others? What emotions do I feel when this is happening?
When overused, our strengths can often be our biggest weakness. This happens when we lean into them too much. I ask my clients what the impact is to them, and others, when they have overused this strength in the past. Let’s continue with the theme of responsibility. Feedback I’ve received in the past when I’m using this too much is that I’m like a ‘dog with a bone’ – I just won’t give up. If something should have been returned to me or completed, I’ll just keep chasing others to make it happen. My level of expectation of how responsible others should be is very high – and a lot of the time others don’t meet this standard. The impact is being constantly disappointed by others, which can put a strain on relationships. Additionally, I can take on more responsibility without first determining if I have capacity – this can lead to exhaustion, and in time, burnout.
So, in coaching we explore what the client notices when they are overusing the strength – what are the tell-tale signs, what emotions do they feel? For me it’s a huge amount of frustration, this is when I know I need to take the pedal off the metal (so to speak) and think about dialling up one of my other strengths to help tackle things in a different way.
Using your strengths everyday.
How can I dial up a key strength to help me with one of my tasks today?
While working with a client who was transitioning careers, we completed a strengths debrief to help identify the type of environment, culture and role that would support him to use his strengths every day. The next time we met he told me a story about how he’d noticed his strengths when he’d done some contract labour work to help pay the bills between jobs.
A group of labourers were asked to load construction materials into a skip bin. A steady stream of workers walked out of the building and threw large pieces of rubbish into the bin, and it quickly filled up. My client jumped into the bin and started rearranging all the rubbish so that they could fit more into each of the skip bins. When he walked back inside the foreman told him his job for the day was to supervise the skip bins and continue to rearrange the materials. He reflected back to me that he really enjoyed the day because he was getting to do what he was good at – rather than this being a mindless experience, he realised that he could use his strength of strategic (which we’d talked about in our last session) to help simplify the process, create alternate ways to proceed, and improve the performance of the team. He felt valued when the foreman also noticed this strength, he worked harder during the day because of it and felt he like he’d accomplished more at the end of the day. This is a great example of putting your strengths into action.
The power in understanding and leveraging your key strengths.
I can’t tell you the number of coaching clients who find spending time immersed in understanding their strengths to be transformative. I’ve had clients realise that they are working in a team, a culture or an organisation that doesn’t value their strengths. I’ve had others appreciate they’ve been leaning too forcefully on one strength, to the detriment of tapping into the others. And the biggest ah-huh of all, is usually understanding that each of these strengths has a dial, and they can CHOOSE when to dial these up and down. This changes their engagement with their work, how they interact with others around them, motivation levels and performance.
Personally, my favourite part of this strengths journey has been having my family engaged in understanding their own strengths. We have a family list of our top 5 strengths on the fridge now. I’ll often look at it when there’s a bit of tension in the air to see what the strengths conflict might be (is my strength of honesty rubbing up against their strength of forgiveness?) Or I’ll use it to encourage my son or daughter to appreciate a particular strength they have when they may be beating themselves up about something they feel they aren’t too good at. Leaning into these creates a whole new level of conversation and connection.
Give it a go, you might just tap into a power you didn’t know existed.