Strengths-based leadership is about focusing on strengths, rather than weaknesses. Research shows the strong benefits in terms of well-being and employee retention that come from playing to your strengths.
What is strengths-based leadership?
Strengths are the backbone of positive psychology.
- Traditional psychology identifies your problems and helps you work through them.
- Positive psychology identifies your strengths and values and beliefs and builds on them
It’s similar in the workplace. Traditionally, when we focus on development in the workplace we list the things we’re good at, and the things that we’re not so good at. Then we work on developing the things that we’re not so good at.
But if you’ve ever had to do this, you may have found you really struggled. That’s because we all have things we just don’t enjoy. Maybe they’re things that don’t come naturally to you, or they’re just not your cup of tea. So if we’re forced to develop these things, we don’t find it fun. And if something’s not fun, then we don’t want to do it, we procrastinate and put it off.
‘if something’s not fun, then we don’t want to do it, we procrastinate and put it off.’
This is why it’s often better to develop your strengths. There’s a lot of research into the benefits of this, and it also means that you’re working on something you like, that energises you, so of course, you’re more likely to want to develop it.
Should you ever focus on your weaknesses?
Yes, there are times when you should focus on your weaknesses. If you have a weakness, or something that you’re not so good at, and it is actually holding you back, you may need to work on it. The same is true if your weakness is hurting yourself or hurting others.
When I talk about strengths with leaders and in workshops with employees, I get people to look at their weaknesses, or the strengths that aren’t as high up on the scale, and ask:
- is there any reason why that particular thing is holding you back right now?
- is it stopping you from getting that promotion?
- is it stopping you from being happy in your personal life?
- has someone else said that you are really holding them back?
If the answer is ‘no’ to all of the above, then we can just move on and focus on our strengths.
How do you identify your strengths?
There are paid services to help you identify your strengths, but there are free options as well. The VIA Institute on Character offers free surveys developed by psychologists, including Martin Seligman, who is seen as the father of strengths-based work in positive psychology.
Other options include the Clifton Strengths Finder and the Strengths Profile. At AmplifyHR we either use VIA or the Strengths Profile. Each one conducts a short survey and presents you with a report. You might want to work through it with a facilitator or get a paid assessment. The VIA report also offers some tips and tricks on how you can use the report.
You can also identify your strengths because they’re the things that are natural to you. When you use your strengths it’s energising, it doesn’t sap your energy. It’s uplifting and exciting, and it makes you happy. Another way to think about ‘signature strengths’ (which is the terminology used with the VIA character strengths for our top strengths), is to think about how it would feel if you took them away.
One of my character strengths is the love of learning. So if I was unable to learn anything new for a month, how would that make me feel? For example, if I couldn’t listen to a podcast, or watch any TV shows, or read a newspaper, or a journal article, or talk to any new people. I can tell you, it makes me feel pretty miserable to think about a month like that, which tells me that the love of learning is probably one of my higher strengths.
What’s the research on developing your strengths?
The Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions study was first conducted in 2005 and has since been replicated around the world. It was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study with randomization groups. If you’re not a psychologist or a scientist, all you need to understand about that sentence is that it was basically the gold standard of research studies.
Several hundred people were placed into one of six groups. One group was asked to down ‘three good things in life’ – things that went well each day and why – every night for a week. They were also asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing.
Another group were focused on signature strengths. Your signature strengths are the strengths that energise you, that feel really true to you, and that other people also identify as your strengths. Participants were asked to take the Character Strengths online survey, and get feedback about their top-five strengths to identify their signature strengths. They were then asked to use those signature strengths in a new and different way, every day, for one week.
The study found that those who worked with their strengths experienced greater happiness and less depression. They only had to list three good things in life or use their strengths in a new way for one week, and it gave them higher happiness and less depression for up to six months.
‘The study found that those who worked with their strengths experienced greater happiness and less depression, and this lasted for up to six months.’
How do strengths relate to leadership?
You may be wondering, well, how does this relate to the workplace? Gallup research has indicated that two important predictors of employee retention and satisfaction were:
- reporting that they use their top strengths at work
- reporting that their immediate supervisor recognises their top strengths
This sounds great, however, they also found that only about 20% of employees think their supervisor knows their strengths. That’s why it’s so important to talk about strengths in the workplace, and to get people to assess their strengths.
The research shows that we need to know what our strengths are, and we need to know the strengths of our team members too. This not only helps with the overall happiness and wellbeing of employees, it can also help retain them in the business for longer, because they’re more satisfied with their work.
For example, I once had a team of two people – an employee and a manager. The employee used the Strengths Profile to identify they had a weakness in the area of ‘spotlight’. This is about standing up in front of others and holding people’s interest and focus – people with a ‘spotlight’ strength don’t mind the spotlight being on them. The manager, however, identified ‘spotlight’ as an unrealised strength, which means that the manager found the spotlight energised them and they performed this well, but they weren’t using this strength very often.
After that it was quite simple – whenever we had to use spotlight in the workplace, such as running workshops, or training courses, or going out and meeting new stakeholders, we knew the manager, rather than the employee, was the best person to do it. You don’t often get quite a perfect match like that, but it’s a good example of an opportunity to look for things that might de-energise one person and energise another person.
‘look for things that might de-energise one person and energise another person.’
As a leader, it’s also really useful to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, including the things that de-energise you or that you don’t do very well. Then you can ask yourself:
- do I let other people know these things are really not my cup of tea?
- do I delegate them to someone else?
- can we change my role?
- do I need to develop these areas?
As they say, you don’t become a better swimmer through weightlifting. If you need to improve your swimming, you need to do more swim training. It’s the same in the workplace. First, identify your strengths, then share them with others in your team, and then start to develop them.
How do you develop strengths?
Strengths can feel like they’re innate, and they can be. But there’s plenty of research showing how to develop strengths in different ways. Here are some examples.
If you see curiosity as a strength, you might decide to develop it. You could:
- do some research every day into curiosity
- meet some new people
- ask curious questions
- consider each day what you’ve learned
As a leader, legacy also may be something that’s a strength of yours, which means you find it energising and you perform it well. But you may not be using this strength as often as you could. You might decide to:
- identify your passions and inspirations
- think about how you can share that with your team
- express to your team how the business is making a difference
- consider tasks or roles to ensure that the business leaves a positive impact for the future
Resilience is another strength that often comes up in a workplace context. You might decide to:
- think about the last time you needed to use resilience, when you needed to pick yourself up when something didn’t go well
- think about how you support others when it’s really tough
- find ways to support others to become more resilient
If we do these things as leaders, we’re not only going to increase our own happiness and wellbeing, but those of others as well. We’ll help our team to feel fulfilled and engaged, and retain them longer in the workplace.