At a glance
By Ben Power
About 22 years ago, psychology professor Lea Waters began her academic career. She was, she says, on track for a typical academic life until seven years in, when she discovered positive psychology – the study of emotions and wellbeing. It inspired her to focus on building on her personal strengths, including innovation and trailblazing.
A former researcher of organisational psychology with the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne, Waters has since launched the university’s Centre for Positive Psychology, which has more than 80 employees, and authored an internationally acclaimed book, Strength Switch, which outlines how parents can boost children’s self-esteem and energy by focusing on the children’s strengths.
“It completely redefined my career and shot it forward,” she says.
Humans are hardwired to dwell on weaknesses, she says, but if managers want to maximise success and happiness for themselves, their colleagues and their organisations, they should be pouring time into developing their strengths.
To use your strengths effectively, you need to develop the self-awareness to know when to dial them up, and to recognise when they become overused and toxic. You also need the self-awareness to know when to shift your focus away from your strengths and begin to address weaknesses.
The benefits of focusing on one's strengths
Management thinkers have long advocated a focus on strengths, but the benefit of strengths really gathered momentum with the emergence of positive psychology, pioneered by famed psychologist Martin Seligman in the US in the late 1990s.
This psychological approach recognised the potential of building on human strengths, rather than the traditional approach of healing damage.
There is mounting evidence that a focus on strength not only improves organisational performance – particularly employee engagement – but also personal happiness. Research by the UK’s Corporate Leadership Council found that when managers focus on the weaknesses of an an employee, the person’s performance declines by 27 per cent. When a manager focuses on the strengths of an employee, the person’s performance improves by 36 per cent.
Performance management consultancy group Gallup, in its 2015 Strengths Meta-Analysis which gathered research covering 1.2 million people and 49,495 business/work units, found that a strength focus boosted performance in everything from customer engagement (3.4–6.9 per cent increase), profit (14.4–29.4 per cent increase) and work safety (22–59 per cent decrease in workplace incidents).
Gallup’s research also found significant personal benefits. The more hours each day people used their strengths, the less stress, anger and physical pain they felt; they also felt they had ample energy, were well-rested, happy, learned more and felt they were being treated with respect. They also laughed and smiled more.
How to identify your work strengths
Confusingly, a strength isn’t necessarily just something you’re good at. According to Waters, three factors are needed for a true strength:
- You do it well – you’re skilled and talented; a higher performer
- You want to use it a lot – you’re motivated to use it as much as you can
- It energises you – you feel alive and vital; you feel your best self when you are using it.
“It’s a sweet spot,” Waters says. “It gives you internal rewards and the sense you’re truly being yourself at work.”
If you’re good at something, but doing it drains you, it’s not a strength but a learned behaviour. Waters says one of her learned behaviours is chairing meetings – she is good at it, but it doesn’t energise her.
There are several effective ways to identify your strengths, including online surveys such as Seligman’s VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), Strengths Profile, self-reflection, and feedback from bosses, colleagues and family.
Deploying your leadership strengths
The key to building on strengths is to first find small ways to use your strengths each day, says Megan Dalla-Camina, a 2017 CPA Congress speaker and co-founder of women’s leadership development enterprise, Lead Like A Woman.
“A 10-minute habit is enough to get started and make a difference,” she says. If one of your strengths is a love of learning, you might dedicate 10 minutes to learning something new in your field.
To broaden this strength approach to others in an organisation, Dalla-Camina suggests getting an entire team to do the VIA survey, then have strengths-based discussions on how the team members can use them more.
Many people will find that once they have identified their strengths, they realise those abilities have been underused and they need to find ways to use them more.
Sue Langley, CEO of the Langley Group, and a leading adviser on the workplace applications of emotional intelligence and positive psychology, says one of the biggest unused Strength Profile strengths is time optimiser. With so many people complaining of being overloaded and not having enough hours in the day, being able to effectively manage your time is a potent skill.
She adds that it can be hard to identify and build on strengths by yourself. If you find yourself struggling, an accredited leadership coach could help you shape your ideas around strengths into concrete actions.
Another way to build on strengths is to increase positive feedback to employees. Many leaders and bosses have an innate bias towards giving negative feedback, according to Jack Zenger, of leadership consulting firm Zenger Folkman. The firm’s research found that more leaders (37 per cent) avoid giving praise than those who avoided giving negative feedback (21 per cent).
“They [leaders] vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement,” Zenger wrote in a Forbes article. “Conversely, they greatly overestimate the value and benefit of negative or corrective feedback.”
Managers and leaders need to become significantly more aware of the need to give praise, in addition to critiques, he says.
Finding the right balance of strengths
As with many things in life, the trick to making the most of your strengths lies in getting the balance right; you don’t need to overdo things. If you do, that strength may become a flaw: conscientiousness can turn into obsessiveness; helpfulness and kindness can be taken too far, and people then expect you to do everything.
How do you know when you are using your strengths in a balanced way? Waters says you will enter “the zone”: you’ll feel more engaged in your tasks, more energised and more in control of your working life.
“You get into a slipstream and have a strong sense of self; that’s when you know you have that balance right,” she says.
How to find your strengths
1. Check your mood
Lea Waters, the founding director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, says that we can identify our true strengths by simply becoming aware of what sort of tasks energise us and what leaves us feeling drained.
2. Ask people
The Reflected Best Self Exercise (RBSE) involves getting feedback from significant people in your life to identify your strengths and talents. Ask friends, family and colleagues what they think your strengths are, and for examples of when you’ve used them. Then look for patterns, and ask yourself if you’re using your strengths in the way you want.
3. Online surveys
You can use a self-directed online survey to identify your personal strengths. The free VIA Inventory of Strengths survey identifies 24 character strengths, while Gallup has the CliftonStrengths assessment that identifies 34 talent themes.
For emerging leaders, Sue Langley of the Langley Group recommends the Strengths Profile, which has a career focus and identifies up to 60 strengths, dividing them into four sectors: realised strengths; learned behaviours; unrealised strengths; and weaknesses.