Research Paper By Olga Valadon
(Leadership Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
There have been a lot of changes in the performance management approach in recent years.
When I started my career in the corporate world, in the mid-90s, the focus in feedback conversations and appraisals was on the “areas for development” (a term often used as a positive alternative to “weaknesses”, to soften the blow and avoid causing upset). In the last decade, though, there has been a significant shift in the feedback process with more and more companies emphasizing the strengths that the employees bring in the workplace and creating the ideal conditions to cultivate those strengths to achieve the highest level of performance.
This paper will discuss the reasons for the shift in the performance management approach and how coaching can help maximize the impact of strengths for the benefit of individuals, their teams, and organizations. Key psychometric tools for measuring strengths will also be explored.
What is strength?
CliftonStrengths, which is one of the most popular assessments in this field and is thought to have changed the landscape of human development, defines strength as the outcome of the following equation (Rath, 2007):
Talent X Investment = Strength
where Talent is a natural way of thinking, feeling or behaving;
Investment is the time spent practicing, developing skills and knowledge; and
Strength is the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance.
Alex Linley (2008), leading expert on positive psychology, defines strength 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.”
Then, there is the concept of character strengths which according to Martin Seligman (2002), founder of the positive psychology, are “the wellsprings or mansions of the good life – a life well-lived”. Character strengths are described by Ryan Niemiec, a leading figure in this field of study, as the “positive traits/capacities that are personally fulfilling, do not diminish others, they are ubiquitous and valued across cultures, and are aligned with numerous positive outcomes for oneself and others”.The character strengths serve as the foundation upon which talents, abilities, and skills are built.
While these definitions are different in some respect, there is a common theme. Strengths are linked to high levels of performance and positive outcomes. Research over the last two decades has proven that effective use of strengths can boost happiness, improve well-being and resilience as well as improve engagement, performance, and satisfaction at work. People who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general (Rath, 2007).
The case for the significance of strengths is clear yet its effect is not felt consistently. Everyone has strengths but not everyone achieves optimal functioning, near-perfect performance, and positive outcomes. Some individuals flourish and others don’t. So, what distinguishes the two groups? For a start, it is the awareness (or lack of it) of one’s strengths. You can only build on your strengths if you know which ones you possess and as it turns out a significant number of people, two-thirds to be exact, are not aware of their strengths (Linley, 2008). The next section will explore two of the most popular assessments that are currently available to help individuals with the identification of their strengths.
Strengths-based psychometric tests
Strengths awareness can be created through feedback from others, self-assessment activities, or validated measures such as psychometric tools. There are several assessments available (Wingfinder, Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI), Strengthscope to name but a few). Some of them are tailored to specific situations, such as the Situational Strengths test which is used in recruitment and employee management procedures, and others are tailored to specific groups, such as the Life Skills Questionnaire for Adolescents (source: www.PositivePsychology.com).
The two, most widely used, tests in this field are:
- The Clifton StrengthsFinder; and
- The Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths survey
The Clifton StrengthsFinder
Despite its name (“StrengthsFinder”), this assessment doesn’t identify strengths. Instead, it identifies and focuses on the individual’s talents in the workplace, which, if cultivated, can develop to true strengths. There are 34 talent themes in the survey, split into 4 domains.
(Figure 1: “What Makes a Great Leadership Team”: article by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, 2009)
The test can be taken online (www.strengthsfinder.com) and it is simple to complete. At the end of it, you receive your “Signature Themes Report” which shows your five most dominant themes with suggestions and ideas for further development.
Many people may have the same talents, however, their strengths are not expressed in the same way. Every individual is unique. Knowing your talents brings focus and subsequent development efforts are targeted in terms of the amount of time and energy you invest. In mathematical terms, if you replace talent with 0 in the equation, the outcome will be 0 no matter how much investment you put. For themes of little or no talent, you may decide that it is best to get someone else to support you (source: www.gallup.com).
The VIA Character Strengths survey
The VIA survey (www.viacharacter.org) is the only free, psychometrically valid, an online test measuring 24-character strengths which are categorized under six virtues that are found universally in human beings across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence). The survey can be used across all domains of life (Niemiec, 2018).
(Figure 2: VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues.
©Copyright 2018, VIA Institute on Character. All Rights Reserved. www.viacharacter.org)
Every individual possesses all 24-character strengths but in different degrees, hence everyone’s profile is unique. The report at the end of the test provides the ranking of the user’s strengths distinguishing between signature, middle and lesser strengths. A separate, shorter, version of the survey exists for youth between the ages of 10 and 17.
As mentioned earlier, awareness of your strengths is the starting point towards high performance and happier life. The next step is knowing how to implement those strengths effectively in your daily life. The following sections will look at the reasons behind the gradual shift of focus in workplace performance management systems – from fixing weaknesses to amplifying strengths – and the role that coaching can play.
The strength-based culture at the workplace
The strength-based practice started in the social work field. Its philosophy is that the individual is resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity when using their strengths. The “Strengths model”, published in 1997 by C. Rapp, focused on “amplifying the well part” of people with a psychiatric disability. Since then, this approach has been adapted and applied in many contexts, including the workplace.
Donald Clifton, who is now recognized as the “father of strengths-based psychology”, spent years studying talent in his quest to explore a different perspective: “what will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”. His online assessment tool CliftonStrengthsFinder (now known as CliftonStrengths) promotes the importance of strengths in enabling high performance at the workplace and has been taken so far by 24m people across the globe while more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies have used this tool to bring the power of strengths-based development to the workplace.
So, what is the driver behind this increased interest in the use of strengths in the workplace? Studies have demonstrated a link between developing employee strengths and business performance. Gallup’s 2015 strengths meta-analysis highlighted that organizations that invest in strengths-based development achieve as much as:
- 29% increase in profit;
- 7% increase in customer engagement;
- 15% increase in employee engagement.
A focus on employee strengths can increase workplace performance by up to 36.4% (The Corporate Leadership Council, 2002). It can also increase happiness. Employees who use four or more of their signature strengths at work have more positive work experiences and report that their work is a calling in their life (www.viacharacter.org).
The numbers are clear, the use of strengths in the workplace contributes positively to performance and engagement. Consequently, a strength-based culture is crucial and can make a difference in an organization’s prospects for survival and growth, especially when we take into consideration the continuous pace of change that is experienced in the last decade. Coaching can support organizations to create a more empowering and innovative culture so that they develop business agility and remain competitive and relevant in the marketplace.
Strength-based coaching conversations in the workplace
Through active listening, observations, and powerful questioning coaching can bring awareness of the employee’s strengths (or increase it, if the client has taken any of the assessment tools discussed earlier in the paper) and understanding how to use them intentionally and strategically to achieve the desired goals.
This awareness often brings the revelation that many individuals do not appreciate their strengths but rather see them as ordinary. They come to them naturally, so they assume they are not special and everyone is as good or even better than them. This is one form of strength blindness which is known as “strengths underuse”(Niemiec, 2018). Coaching can help the client to build self-esteem and confidence through acknowledgment and appreciation of their strengths.
Another form of strength blindness, mentioned by Niemiec, is the “strengths overuse”. In this case, your strengths come across strongly in your behavior and interactions with others and effectively become weaknesses having the opposite effect to what was intended. Coaching can help the client be more mindful of these situations by exploring different perspectives to determine the optimal strengths use.
Coaching can also help make connections between strengths and the past, present, and future. Strengths used in the past to overcome challenges or difficulties can act as a reminder of what is possible, empowering the client to find ways to deploy them and address issues of the present. They can also provide the basis for achieving future objectives. The following are examples of reflection questions that can be used in a coaching conversation (Niemiec, 2018):
- What strengths have you previously used to get you where you are today?
- What strengths might be most helpful to address your current challenge?
- How might you use your strengths in new ways to support you in the future?
- When you imagine the best possible future for yourself, what strengths will you need to bring forth to get there?
Strength-based coaching conversations can also bring awareness at the team level. Having a clearer understanding of all strengths in the team facilitates greater appreciation of each other, builds trust, and increases collaboration. It also highlights where there may be gaps (e.g. strengths that are important for the success of the team but are currently missing), which can be addressed with targeted recruitment. A successful team is ultimately one where its members have strengths that complement each other.
Too often in the workplace, the client’s focus is on the deficits and what the client is not good at. It is human nature, after all, our brains are wired to look out for the negative. A significant and extensive amount of research in the last two decades has demonstrated the value that a strengths approach can bring for individuals and organizations alike. Incorporating strengths language into coaching conversations can support and empower corporate leaders and their teams to shift perspectives from negative to positive, from problem to solution, from pause to action and ultimately enhance well-being, build resilience and achieve success (personal and organizational).
Corporate Leadership Council. (2002) Building a high-performance workforce. Washington, D.C.: Corporate Executive Board.
Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP Press.
Niemiec, R.M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners. Hogrefe Publishing.
Rapp, C. (1997). The Strengths Model: Case Management with People Suffering from Severe and Persistent Mental Illness, 1st Ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rath, Tom (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0, from Gallup
Rath, Tom, and Conchie, Barry (2009). Article: What Makes a Great Leadership Team? <https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237026/makes-great-leadership-team.aspx>
Seligman, M.E.P (2002). Authentic happiness. New York, NY: Free Press.
Strengths Assessment Tool: VIA Institute on Character
Strengths Assessment Tool: Gallup, CliftonStrengths
Talent x Investment = Strength