Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, is co-author of Profit from the Positive. After a 15-year career in corporate HR, she founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio.
Identifying, understanding, and applying your strengths are cornerstone concepts for living a productive and meaningful life. We know from positive psychology research that if you can apply your strengths everyday – at work, at home, in life – you will be more productive, fulfilled, and successful. In the last eighteen months since Positive Psychology News Daily was founded, over sixty articles related to strengths have been published (just type “strengths” in the Search Box located in the upper right hand corner of this page or click here).
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you are already familiar with your own strengths, and now wish to introduce others to this empowering concept. Perhaps you are a coach working with corporate or individual clients, perhaps you are a manager working with a team of employees, or perhaps you are a parent of a teenager or recent college graduate. In every role, you will likely find the Strengths Card Sort a practical tool to help others understand, own, and apply their strengths.
I adapted this exercise from Dr. Karen Reivich, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Karen first introduced me to the Strengths Card Sort as part of the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program. Over the last two years, I have used this exercise dozens of times with both corporate clients and family members. Here’s how:
BEFORE THE STRENGTHS DISCUSSION
- Take a strengths assessment – Ask clients to take either the Values in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths Questionnaire (available at no charge at www.authentichappiness.com) or the on-line assessment described in Tom Rath’s book StrengthsFinders 2.0.
- Make up index cards – Ask clients to make up index cards – one for each strength. If I am having the strengths discussion over the phone, I ask the client to send me his top five strengths and I, too, put his strengths on index cards.
DURING THE STRENGTHS DISCUSSION
- Introduce the concept of strengths – Start by asking the person what it was like for him to complete the assessment. Explain that the purpose of this exercise is to deepen his understanding of strengths and how they interact or fit together.
- Identify a core strength – Ask the person to pick one strength card that is absolutely core or central to who he is – a strength that really resonates with him. Ask how he has applied that strength in the last day; last week; at home; at work; in his community.
- Choose another strength – Ask the person to choose another strength card and reflect on how it relates to the first strength. Deepen the person’s understanding by asking for examples of how this strength plays out in real life.
- Repeat for the remaining three strengths – Continue asking probing questions on how he uses these strengths and how they relate to one another.
- Create a graphic with the cards – Ask how he would arrange the five cards to visually depict how his strengths relate or combine. The possibilities are limitless. Encourage people to use their imagination. I have seen cards sorted in such as way that they appear to be arrows, molecules, airplanes, and body parts to name a few.
- Co-create an application assignment – Ask the person to think of a goal or something important that he would like to achieve (e.g. – finding a new career, starting or finishing a challenging assignment, improving a relationship). Then ask how he could apply these strengths to make it happen. Another option is to ask the person to choose one strength that he would like to amplify even more over the next week or so. Gain commitment on what specifically he will do to apply one or more strengths.
AFTER THE INITIAL STRENGTHS DISCUSSION
- Follow-up on the application assignment – Ask for specific examples on how he applied one or more strengths. What did he notice?
- Continue to expand understanding – Again, the possibilities are limitless. “I use the cards in many, many ways,” says Dr. Reivich. For example, you can ask clients to name an adversity or problem. Then deal the strengths cards and ask how he does or could use his strengths in this situation. You can also explore lesser strengths.
The Strengths Card Sort is a simple, interactive way to deepen understanding of strengths. I have found it to be an effective tool in both face-to-face meetings as well as over the phone, and can be completed in 30-60 minutes. Have fun with it! I welcome you to share your own experiences and adaptations to this exercise.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Image: Dr. Karen Reivich