Research has shown us that the best managers—and by extension, the best-performing teams and individuals—focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.
Building on strengths-based psychology and social work, the Gallup® research organization surveyed millions of people worldwide between 2007 and 2017 regarding employee engagement. Sadly, they found that only one-third of employees responded “strongly agree” with this statement:
“At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”
As a matter of fact, they pointed out that, “In stark contrast, our studies indicate that people who do 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.”
Why Don’t We Play to Our Strengths?
The short answer is, we focus on deficit thinking. We put far more emphasis on improving what we don’t do well than what talents come naturally to us.
Can you relate?
If you tend to think more in terms of shortcomings and gaps, you’re not alone. It’s part of the fabric of societies worldwide.
And yet, in which situation are you more likely to grow and shine: when you’re being urged to “fix” a weakness, or when you’re encouraged to use a strength—say, your analytical mind—to solve a problem or come up with a new idea? When you need to rise above a challenge, do you first think about weaknesses you need to overcome or strengths you can tap into? If you’re a manager, do you tend to want to “fill the gaps” when developing your team’s potential, or do you look first to leveraging what’s already there?
Listen to Marcus Buckingham, management consultant and former Gallup researcher, talk about the business impact of deficit- vs. strengths-based thinking and managing in this 7-minute video. (In it, he also introduces a tool called StandOut® Strengths Assessment, which you can take for free here.)
Source: Marcus Buckingham TV, Business Case for Strengths, via YouTube
Where Do You Start?
“When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing
our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists.”
StrengthsFinder 2.0, Gallup Press, 2017
Moving away from deficit thinking and toward strengths-based awareness and action starts with each of us—and the learning systems we create.
Here are four steps you can take to make the transformation . . .
1. Change Your Mindset, Spark Your Potential
We all know that changing the way we think doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s often not easy.
But, it’s so worth it.
Lana Jelenjev of Dream See Do, an interactive online learning platform and design lab, explains that
“Mindsets are deeply held beliefs and assumptions that we create about who we are, how we are meant to relate with others, and what skills and strategies we should learn in life. Shifting mindsets is an integral process in learning and development. It allows for opportunities to critically question our assumptions and beliefs and provides new opportunities to act on newfound beliefs. When we focus on shifting mindsets, we enable deep transformation.”
Here’s a real-life example we see all of the time in our presentations-skills and communication workshops. An engineer or a scientist, who likely thinks her data should speak for itself, will say something like, “I’m not outgoing or charismatic, so I’m never going to be an entertaining presenter.”
Can you see what this technical professional just did? She totally discounted her potential to become a better presenter by focusing on what she’s not rather than what she is.
A little bit more coaching might tease out that she is totally fascinated with finding patterns in data. As a matter of fact, she lights up when she talks about it. We’d encourage her to lean into that passionate interest. After all, finding patterns equates to finding meaning; if she focuses on communicating what the data means to her audience, they’ll be more engaged and appreciative. Plus, her obvious passion for the topic will be far more moving than if she tries to be “entertaining.”
Because we subscribe to strengths-based psychology in designing our programs and in providing one-on-one coaching, we often help people make mindset u-turns like this.
The first step, then, is to become aware that you probably need to make some mind shifts about who you are, what erroneous beliefs you’re holding onto when it comes to your potential, and what your greatest strengths are.
"When your best self shows up, what shows up?"
2. Know Your Strengths
It may surprise you to hear it, but many of us aren’t clear about what our innate, natural talents and strengths are. It’s important to stress that we’re not talking about knowledge or skills here. If you use a tool like Gallup’s CliftonStrengths® or StandOut® strengths-based assessment, it doesn’t measure or rank the knowledge or skills you’ve acquired. Simply put, it reveals to you what your happy place is through a series of questions.
Are you in your element when you’re creating or when you’re analyzing? Do you prefer to be organized and disciplined, or freewheeling and spontaneous? When given a choice, do you prefer to work with people or information?
Many self-assessment tools are available, but you can also get a clearer picture of your strengths by giving yourself some quality time to reflect. What are you doing when you feel most alive, most “in the zone”? Another way to get a new perspective is to ask friends and coworkers, “What do you see as my top talents and strengths?”
Our workshop Master Facilitators have their own ways of helping people see the natural strengths that will help them become better communicators.
“I like to ask, ‘What’s your passion?’ and ‘Where do you shine?’ when I’m coaching someone,” says Stephanie Moore. It’s a great launching point because you don’t realize your full potential by starting from your weaknesses.”
Master Facilitator David Binder agrees and says that especially for people who struggle to identify their strengths or are extremely nervous, he asks questions like, “What are you good at?” “What have other people said you’re good at?” and “When your best self shows up, what shows up?”
3. Capitalize on Your Strengths
So, you’ve become more aware of what mindsets are holding you back. You’ve made time for introspection about what your talents and passions are. You’ve even done more research by employing strengths-based tools and asking other people for insights.
Now it’s time to start capitalizing on where you naturally shine.
How? Action, pure and simple. Whatever it is you’re preparing for—a career choice or change, taking on new responsibilities, pitching an innovative idea to management—use your greatest strengths to help you achieve your goal.
David gives an example in the realm of building communication skills:
“Imagine you need to update your team on achieving a project milestone. You've been given feedback throughout your career that you are good at building relationships and listening closely to other perspectives.
To achieve the project milestone, you met with a variety of stakeholders and gained their support and buy-in for your group's ideas. In your presentation, you want to make sure your relationship-building strength shines through, so you highlight several examples from your stakeholder meetings as evidence of how you were able to move things forward.”
He gives another example:
“Let’s say you’re a manager, and one of your employees needs to prepare for a presentation to executives and has asked for your advice,” David says. “He needs to ask for money for a new piece of pricey equipment in the research lab. You know that one of this employee’s top strengths is that he’s great at collecting and analyzing information. He’s done a lot of comparative research and has collected data on the equipment's features, and more importantly, on how it has been used successfully.
So, your best approach would be to encourage him to use that strength by making clear during his presentation that: he DID the research; has collected and documented it; and wants to share the most compelling pieces of data or customer stories to help persuade the executives to invest.”
But, you might ask, what about situations where your strengths aren’t enough to win the day?
Then, it’s time to reach out to someone whose strengths balance yours.
4. Find a Complementary Partner
I have a great example of this strategy from my own professional experience. I once worked with a gifted leader (I’ll call him John) whose genius was in engaging and influencing people. He was a force to behold as he articulated a vision so vividly and with so much passion, you couldn’t help but follow him.
The problem was, John wasn’t detail-oriented. He couldn’t see a typo or misused word in a presentation if his life depended on it.
I was coaching him once as he prepared to present to the senior leadership team. Looking at his slides and seeing many glaring mistakes, I think I gasped and said, “You can’t present this!” Once it was pointed out to him, he felt embarrassed and anxious, but I quickly steered him in another direction.
“John, don’t stifle that brilliant, visionary mind of yours by thinking you have to become an expert proofreader,” I said. “Run this presentation by Jane. She has an eagle eye.” In that situation, Jane, another member of our team, was a perfect complementary partner for John.
“Far too many people spend a lifetime headed in the wrong direction,” says Gallup and management consultant Tom Rath in their 2017 book, StrengthsFinder 2.0: Discover Your CliftonStrengths. “They go not only from the cradle to the cubicle but then to the casket, without uncovering their greatest talents and potential. This is why it’s essential not only to discover and develop your strengths as early as possible, but also to help the people around you build on their natural talents.”
Whether your top strength is in being an analyzer, teacher, influencer, pioneer, creator, or something else, honor and look to that strength for all of your life’s pursuits. It will serve you well. I promise.
p.s. Are you planning to make a presentation any time soon to senior executives?
Take your strengths and our proven tips to win them over...