Research Paper By Līga Leimane
(Strengths & Career Coach, LATVIA)
Although competency assessment and training is vital for talent development and one’s professional career, many individuals and organizations have become disillusioned with the competency approach as they’re having the same performance conversations year after year and nothing is changing (Bibb, 2016), thus the good intention of developing talent by focusing on competency training does not seem to bring the expected results. In this research paper, I will explore two approaches to talent development: the competency and the strengths approach, and I will describe how the strengths approach, strengths coaching in particular, can benefit the talent development programs in organizations who are looking for new ways of bringing out the best in their people and improving their work overall performance.
Before moving on with the exploration of the competency and strengths approach, I would like to define the difference between a skill and competency, strengths, talent, and an interest. When it comes to talent development, people mainly focus on developing a certain skill which is a specific proficiency, such as, digital or writing skills, or a competency which is an important and necessary skill and knowledge for a certain job, e.g., managerial competency. Strengths might involve some skills as it is something one is good at, loves doing, and gets intrinsically energized by, e.g., empowering others or understanding how changes in the wider world could impact one’s plans. Talents are defined as inborn abilities such as musical ability and spatial reasoning. And lastly, interests are topics that one is passionate about, such as, arts and hiking.
Keeping the differences in mind, I’ll continue with the exploration of the competency approach. The competency approach to talent development is rooted in the idea that we become better and perform better by fixing our weaknesses. Yes, there is some truth to that as we do improve when we invest time and effort in learning and developing a skill we are eager to master. Yet, we must also admit that there are skills and competencies we don’t want to build upon or don’t care about. They might be nice-to-have or even essential to our roles and responsibilities, yet seeing them in our performance evaluations as development areas over and over again demotivates and, to be honest, feels annoying. Those development areas might not feel like ours or feel like they’re not part of who we are. Attending another training trying to become better at something that is not ours may feel like another try of becoming someone we’re not or someone others are expecting us to become. Often this creates confusion, dissatisfaction, and the feelings of not being true to oneself.
As a result, employees with great strengths who are considered top talents leave organizations without being aware of the real reasons for such a decision. When Marcus Buckingham, a well-known advocate for the strengths approach, asked about the reasons employees did not use their strengths at work, typical answers people gave were: “The world isn’t made for my happiness” or “There’s a reason they call it to work” or “Mine isn’t the kind of job where you can do that” (Buckingham, 2007). By focusing purely on competencies, knowledge, and skills, for both employees and employers it is easy to take someone’s strengths for granted or consider them insignificant (Niemiec&McGrath, 2019). Also, many people around the world don’t have the opportunities to do things at work that strengthen them (Cambell Hunter, 2017), let them be themselves, and most importantly to reach the goals and help the organizations succeed. For me as a professional using competency assessment and development such findings break my heart and urge me to keep exploring other approaches to talent development.
The traditional approach to one’s development focuses on developing weaknesses, but is that the only way to develop as a professional?! According to Peter Drucker, a well-known author, and father of management thinking, “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve first-rate performance to excellence” (Drucker, 2007 as in Bibb, 2016). Thus, investing time and energy in fixing weaknesses or what’s not working well enough can be very hard work and at times also very demotivating for many participants of talent development programs. Most of us may experience the 80-20 deficit bias when about 80 percent of the time we focus our time and energy on fixing what’s wrong and only 20 percent on how to grow and develop what is already working well (Cooperrider& Goldwin, 2011 as in McQuide). At the same time, research results reveal that
we live in a world our questions create because what we ask people determines what they discover and shapes their ability to imagine, plan, and create their future reality (Gergen, 1994; Cooperrider, Barrett &Srivastva, 1995; Orem, Binkert& Clancy, 2007 as in McQuide).
On the opposite to the traditional approach to development, the strengths approach assumes that every person has positive characteristics, natural, internal resources or strengths that can be built upon to enable one’s potential and places a firm focus on what people can already do well, how they can develop the existing strengths and not let the weaknesses undermine the overall performance (Bibb, 2016). The strengths approach recognizes the weaknesses, yet focuses on strengths fundamentally changes the nature of assessments, the interventions, as well as the questions coaches draw upon” (McQuide).
Strengths focus on performance management and development is much more engaging and empowers people to take responsibility for their development. Moreover, the latest research suggests that people who consistently take a strengths development approach to work and life:
- are happier and report higher levels of vitality,
- experience less stress and report higher levels of positivity,
- feel healthier and have more energy,
- feel more satisfied with their lives, are good problem solvers and show better work performance,
- are more confident and have higher levels of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-acceptance,
- experience faster growth and development,
- are more creative and agile at work, better adapt to change and work harder,
- feel more satisfied and experience more meaning in their work (McQuide, 2014; Bibb, 2016).
Also, team managers who focus on developing their team’s strengths experience higher team performance, productivity, and greater success, lower levels of staff turnover, and more satisfied customers (McQuide, 2014). The good news is that the latest research suggests that strengths can be developed (Niemiec&McGrath, 2019). Now it’s time to find out how.
Researchers recommend starting with an individual strengths assessment and continuing work with a strengths coach who can guide through strengths discovering questions which may include but should not be limited to the following:
- What are the things you are good at, you love doing and get energized by?
- When you remember the times when you were successful, what exactly were you doing and what strengths were you using?
- What are the situations when you feel authentic?
- What your best possible self looks and feels like?
- What activities are you looking forward to in the future? (McQuide& Lawn, 2014, Niemec, 2018).
Although strengths in discovering questions may be a good start for creating awareness and switching perspectives from working on weaknesses to growing strengths, taking a well-researched measurement tool can be very helpful as it will give a clear framework of how to talk about strengths. The most popular strengths assessment tools include CliftonStrengths, StrengthsProfile, and the VIA Survey, although there are others available as well (Strengthscope, StandOut, etc.). It’s up to each organization and strengths practitioner to decide which tool is most convenient for the particular situation.
Discovering one’s strengths using one of the methodologies mentioned above and being more aware of one’s true self feels motivating and empowers people to build on their performance and reach higher goals. But it’s not enough just to discover one’s strengths, it’s essential to start building upon them and continuously work on them. According to Mike Roarty and Kathy Toogood, the authors of the book “The Strengths-Focused Guide to Leadership”, “it is a very good idea to incorporate (your) ideas for developing (these) strengths into (your) overall development plan” (Roarty& Toogood, 2014) and talent development programs in a form of strengths coaching.
In situations when the organization has adopted a strengths-focused approach to the employee-related processes (e.g., recruitment, onboarding, assessment, development, etc.), there might be internal support available, e.g., a manager who can offer strengths developing support in a form of strengths coaching. Yet, Roarty and Toogood suggest that looking for a strengths coach outside the organization and engaging in a coaching relationship for a period of up to six months may create much more value as the external coach may ensure a range of coaching approaches and be able to provide the necessary support (Roarty& Toogood, 2014) and confidentiality.
The literature offers various ways and models that can be used in strengths coaching, yet two well-researched models include Aware-Explore-Apply Model (AEA) developed by Ryan Niemiec (Niemec, 2018) and the Appreciate Inquiry (AI) change framework Discover-Dream-Design-Deliver or 4D framework (McQuide). Shorty about each of the models.
According to Ryan Niemiec, the Aware-Explore-Apply Model (AEA) is useful for helping clients to become aware of their strengths, co-explore their strengths, and help design meaningful action steps. The first step in the Aware-Explore-Apply Model (AEA) is to be aware of one’s strengths for which Ryan Niemiec recommends taking a strengths assessment. In the Explore phase, the coach supports the client to connect their strengths to their past successes, achievements, the happiest, and most challenging times. The last Apply phase involves action planning or developing goals around strengths or coming up with strategies on what strengths to build upon to become one’s true self and reach the best possible results (Niemec, 2018).
According to Michelle McQuide, the Appreciate Inquiry (AI) change framework is “one of the most effective, engaging, and enjoyable ways … clients … benefit from strengths coaching” (McQuide). By using this framework strengths coaches help clients create lasting change. The goal of the Discover phase is to find out how clients are already using strengths, so coaches ask questions about situations and life moments when clients have felt authentic, engaged, and energized. The goal of the Dream phase is to come up with ideas of what might be the possibilities if everything went according to the plan and they were developing their strengths. In the next stage, Design coaches help clients to create pathways that are rooted in their strengths to move them forward closer to their goals. The last stage Deliver involves taking small steps that would develop their strengths and help them turn hopes into reality (McQuide).
Although there are many benefits of the strengths coaching and strengths approach to talent development, research suggests that focusing on developing one’s strengths is not enough. It’s also important to manage the potential overuse of one’s strengths, develop unrealized strengths or things we are good at but for some reason don’t see as a strength or don’t have the opportunities to use. It also includes leveraging learned behaviors (things we are good at but we feel de-energized by) and weaknesses (things we’re neither good at, nor they give us energy) (Linley & Bateman, 2018). Moreover, Doug Mackie in his book “Strengths-Based Leadership Coaching in Organizations” suggests “pairing strengths with similar competencies and aligning strengths with the broader business goals and with intrinsic interests” (MacKie, 2016), thus empowering employees to perform at their best.
As we know, one of the main goals of talent management is to support employee development to increase their performance, thus drive the success of the organization. For a long time competency development has been the main focus of talent development. Yet, the newest research findings suggest that the strengths approach and strengths coaching, in particular, has many benefits organizations may desire for greater success. Thus, combining the competency and strengths approach in talent development may be the best possible way of bringing out the best in people and improving their overall performance.
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