Strengths have been a trending topic for a few years now, and I'm pleased to see the attention they are receiving. However, I do have reservations about how they are being used and the superficial and subjective nature of their mainstream usage. In this blog post, that spun off a conversation with our coach and leaped to a conversation with other departments, let's take a quick dive into strengths, exploring what they are, their history, and the benefits they offer. It's important to have a solid understanding of the terminology when discussing this subject.
As far as I'm aware, and a Google search confirms, the usage of the term "strengths" in the workplace and personal growth stems directly from the field of positive psychology and its strength-based approach to therapy. Strengths are rooted in self-determination and encompass positive attributes, skills, and competencies. The idea behind strengths is to build upon an individual's existing resourcefulness and enhance their resilience, particularly in challenging circumstances. Early findings resulted in a client-centered approach that empowers individuals to drive change within themselves. In its essence, it is a humanistic approach that focuses on using existing strengths.
At an intuitive level, this approach makes sense. However, it is prone to extreme subjectivity and requires some guidelines to provide a shared language for discussion. This means having consistent definitions for these strengths. Fortunately, efforts have been made to establish such guidelines, such as the Clifton StrengthsFinder and the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS). While these tools are primarily aimed at clinical and counseling contexts, many people and practitioners also use them outside of such settings due to their adaptability (especially in the workforce). In my opinion, the choice of classification system matters less than the ability to define terms and work with them productively. Personally, I tend to favor Alex Linley's perspective on this topic while borrowing inspiration from Seligman and Clifton's ideas. For those interested, I will provide a brief summary of the three prevailing schools of thought on strengths in the next paragraph.
The oldest school of thought, originating from the Gallup Institute in the early 2000s, defines strengths as "a constant near-perfect performance in an activity" (Buckingham and Clifton, 2001)
This definition further breaks down strengths into three components: talent, knowledge, and skills. Talent, being the most open to interpretation, is defined by (Clifton and Harter 2003) as a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior. Asplund from the Gallup Organization clarified that strengths develop when individuals identify their talents and refine them through active steps (skills) and knowledge expansion.
Peterson and Seligman were inspired by the work of the Gallup Institute and developed their own school of thought, leading to the publication of "Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification" in 2004. In their handbook, they define character strengths as the fundamental psychological components that define moral virtues. To facilitate classification, they outlined ten criteria that define a strength. This work culminated in the development of the VIA-IS, which is still available for free on their website at the time of writing (https://www.viacharacter.org/)
The third school of thought to contribute to this positive approach was the Center of Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP). Their approach defines strengths as "a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development, and performance" (Linley, 2008). Naturally, this definition is further broken down into five underlying principles that provide a framework for this approach.
So, what are the benefits of strengths beyond resilience and resource expansion? When focusing on non-clinical examples, such as the workplace, strengths offer a range of positive outcomes for both employees and employers. These outcomes include increased job satisfaction, enhanced performance, boosted confidence, and personal growth*. Rather than being mere lip service, strengths should receive more attention. Working with strengths not only prevents burnout but also leads to increased job satisfaction and performance (Miglianico, 2020).
This translates to financial gains and a loyal workforce, something that bosses and leaders should prioritize. Allowing employees to focus on developing and utilizing their strengths is a small change that can yield significant results (Linley, 2008; Miglianico, 2020).
Reduced sick leave and employee turnover are widely regarded as signs of a well-cared-for company and its employees. From an employee's perspective, who wouldn't want to work with their existing strengths and refine their skills to excel? Since we spend most of our waking hours at work, it's important to enjoy that time rather than dreading it. While challenging experiences can build character, wouldn't you prefer to excel and develop yourself rather than settling for mediocrity?
To sum up, strengths have a short, but rich history, and their benefits extend beyond resilience and personal resource expansion. It is essential to explore strengths in-depth, and numerous resources are available on the internet. For a reliable source on their origins, I recommend checking out (positivepsychology.com).
As for my stance on strengths and how they should be used, I advocate for pragmatism and relying on objective data for decision-making. Personally, I am a fan of the Big Five personality traits theory because it consistently delivers results in the real world, particularly in the workplace. Aligning strengths, competencies, and motivations with the Big Five model appeals to me. It provides a pragmatic approach based on objectively reliable data that also aligns with personal intuitions. Working with strengths in one's job and career yields undeniable benefits that shouldn't be overlooked by either employees or employers. It is frustrating to witness bosses and leaders running their teams sub-optimally and struggling to get the best out of their employees when solutions are readily available. Engaging with the services of a qualified coach to help unpack strengths at an individual or team level can unlock the full potential of one's work (or personal life) and set them on a positive upward spiral.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me or our coaches, especially if you are ready to optimize your performance and fully leverage your strengths. For further reading, especially regarding strengths in an organizational context, I recommend the literature review by Miglianico and colleagues (2020) (https://hal.univ-lorraine.fr/hal-02932138/document) which provides valuable insights from the history of strengths up to the present day. Additionally, you can check out the links I have included for more information on the sources I referenced in this opinionated piece about strengths.
Customer Success Manager, Mazhr Oy