The other day, my daughter, who is applying for an internship, asked me for tips on how best to answer a question often posed by her interviewers: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” I remember scratching my head to come up with an adequate answer when I was in her situation years ago.
While this classic interview question appears to give equal weight to strengths and weaknesses, it is now abundantly documented that building employees’ strengths produces better outcomes than trying to improve weaknesses. The Gallup organization has been studying strengths at work for decades. They found that people who use their strengths every day are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, six times more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive, and 15% less likely to quit their jobs (Gallup, 2007).
Interestingly, some research suggests that we take our strengths for granted but are fixated on our weaknesses, especially at work. A study found that less than one-third of individuals declare having a clear understanding of their strengths (Linley, 2008). Subsequent research indicates that only 37% of employees considered that their supervisor focuses on their strengths (Gallup, 2009). There is clearly room for improvement and, given the alarming state of employee engagement, the time to shift the focus toward strengths is now.
So what exactly are strengths, how do they impact performance, are all strengths created equal, and where does that leave weaknesses?
This article contains:
Strengths: What is Best in Us
The study of human strengths has been a focus of positive psychology for the past twenty years. Strengths can be defined 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).
Playing to your strengths is energizing and engaging because you are doing what you are naturally good at. Think of the activities you pursue on your own time. Whether it is reading, playing golf, or mountain climbing, our hobbies are intrinsically fulfilling when they engage our natural strengths in ways that are rewarding and challenging.
In 2004, positive psychology pioneers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman lead a 3-year project involving 55 distinguished scientists who identified twenty-four character strengths, such as self-control, perspective, or leadership as elements of character that are valued in and of themselves.
The word “character” refers to those qualities that are distinctive to each individual. The authors argued that each character strength is a trait that can be built upon, and improved to some degree. We each possess myriad strengths and use each one differently and to varying degrees according to the context.
Strengths Use Predicts Performance at Work
A wealth of evidence highlights the potential gains of a strengths-based approach both for the individual and the organization. Research in workplace settings revealed that identifying and strengthening one’s character strengths, and using them more and in new ways, can lead to various desirable outcomes, such as positive and supportive social networks, lower stress levels, improved work performance, and increased subjective well-being (Niemiec, 2013; Seligman, 2011; VIA, 2015).
Gallup (2007) research found that organizations that focused on maximizing the natural talents of their employees increased engagement levels by an average of 33% per year. An analysis of multiple studies reveals that managers whose talents are aligned with their job demands achieve, on average, 15% more in sales and 20% more in profit, have 24% fewer unscheduled absences, and deal with 13% lower employee turnover than the average (Gallup, 2007).
Employees who focused on their top strengths did more of what they like to do and do best, thereby improving their sense of achievement and mastery (Hodges & Clifton, 2004).
Facebook offers a compelling case study of a strengths-based organization. The social network giant goes to great lengths to match employees with jobs that allow them to apply their strengths. For instance, their selection process for new hires is aimed at finding out what a candidate is really passionate about and what their innate interests and strengths are. The company consistently ranks as one of the most desirable employers in America (Facebook, 2016).
Some Strengths are More Equal than Others in Driving Professional Success
Why do some people achieve remarkable success? Is it because of their innate intellectual talent? Decades of psychological studies suggest that cognitive ability alone is poorly associated with accomplishment at school, at work, or in life. It turns out that certain positive qualities, or strengths, may be as essential as IQ in predicting success.
In a series of breakthrough studies, researcher Angela Duckworth has suggested that grit, defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, may be as essential as talent for high achievement (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). A study on highly successful people showed that the strengths of zest, persistence, hope, and curiosity seemed to play a key role in predicting various positive outcomes, such as work engagement and job satisfaction (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2012).
There is also strong evidence that optimal work performance requires the individual to use more of the following strengths than what is natural for them: perseverance, love of learning, leadership, curiosity, self-control, and prudence (Money, Hillenbrand, & Camara, 2008).
Simply put, it’s not only about aptitude (IQ); it’s really about attitude (character).
Even Superheroes Have a Weakness
Simply because people can grow the most in their areas of strength does not mean they should ignore weaknesses. If a person possesses one or several “kryptonite weaknesses” that get in the way of their performing optimally, they would be wise to correct them without delay. Burying your head in the sand about serious deficiencies rarely works as well as finding a way around them.
For all the benefits of a strengths-based approach, strengths can also be overused. Instead, creating a balanced strategy to using one’s strengths will reap the greatest benefits.
It brings to mind Aristotle’s concept of the Golden Mean, i.e. the ideal position between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. And that is what the strength of practical wisdom is all about.
The Bottom Line
Less than 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs while roughly 8 out of 10 employees say they don’t use their strengths (Gallup, 2015). These results seem to indicate that most organizations fail to engage their employees by not emphasizing a strengths-approach. It does not have to be this way.
Work can also be a great place if people get to do what they do best. For most organizations, focusing on weakness is a dead end while building on strengths seems like a low hanging fruit strategy. Developing people’s qualities, such as grit, curiosity, gratitude, zest, and hope is essential for high accomplishment. While IQ alone might not predict business success, getting smart about strengths usually does.
I would love to hear your comments on your experiences, or continue the discussion individually, if you would like.
About the Author
Robert Rosales, MAPP ’15, is dedicated to working with organizations to develop the positive leadership skills that are required to address the needs of our time. He is the founder of LEAD ACADEMY, a business consultancy that advises clients on evidence-based positive workplace practices that support performance and people in organizations. Leveraging a passion for adult education with over twenty years of senior management experience at leading financial institutions and extensive education in positive psychology, he also works with the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and with Universidad Tecmilenio in Monterrey, Mexico.
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- Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press. VIA. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.viacharacter.org/www/