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Using strengths when you work

written by Kathryn Britton 7 August 2007

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

What exactly does it mean to focus on using strengths when we work instead of trying to fix weaknesses? How does it change what we do every day? What’s the first step to take? In terms of positive psychology tenets, “Use your strengths, is a close second to Chris Peterson’s 3-word summary, “Other people matter.” It’s a wonderful concept, but it’s not so simple and obvious how to put it in practice.

Understanding Strengths and Weaknesses

I learned this from experience last year working with about 40 women in technical jobs who attended a series of workshops on using strengths at work. They took the Values-in-Action character strengths test and the StrengthsFinder talent themes test. Everybody found it very interesting to think about herself from these viewpoints, but the question still remained at the end. What do I do differently to base my job or my life on my strengths?

Go Put Your Strengths to Work


We came up with some interesting ideas that appear in my May column, Positive Core and Strengths. But they didn’t seem complete. So I’d had this question rattling around in my head for over a year when I started studying Marcus Buckingham’s new book, Go, Put Your Strengths to Work, and listening to his telephone lecture series. See also The Marcus Buckingham Company. Here are a few things I’ve taken away.

The results of a test like StrengthsFinder are not strengths. They are general talent themes that influence where you can develop strengths. Strengths come from talent combined with knowledge gained from study and skill gained from practice. So when StrengthsFinder says I have Strategy (creating alternative ways to proceed) and Individualization (being intrigued with the unique qualities of each individual) in my top 5 talent themes, that doesn’t really tell me yet how to use my strengths more, though it provides some clues.

You are the Best Judge

You are the best judge of what your strengths are because you experience yourself working. When you use strengths, you feel invigorated. When you use weaknesses, you feel drained. You look forward to activities that use your strengths and dread ones that use your weaknesses. You are more likely to be successful and to feel satisfied after using your strengths than after doing something that uses weaknesses. You find it a joy to learn new skills or information in service of your strengths, while you can’t seem to get any better in your areas of weakness.

While talent themes are general and life-long, strengths are context specific and change as your circumstances change. When I worked for a large corporation, I felt that mentoring more junior people, particularly eager and open-minded people, was a strength. Now that I’m a self-employed professional coach, the terms of that strength are different, even though the StrengthsFinder talent themes of Strategic and Individualization are still evident. As part of the Summer of Development class, I recently wrote a new strengths statement for myself, “I feel strong when I coach an individual who is at an interesting juncture in his/her life and who truly wants assistance finding his/her way. I love the way insights come about in the space between us.“

Strengths tend to be specific in terms of some or all of why, with whom, when, where, or what about. For example, I like to speak to groups, but I hate to argue or debate. So I have another Strengths Statement that reads, “I feel strong when I present on a topic that is important to me to an audience that is receptive to new ways of thinking. I love to tell stories that resonate.” But I also have a Weakness Statement that reads, “I feel weak when I have to sell an idea to a skeptical or recalcitrant audience.” I can do it, but I dread it.

Actions for Individuals

Given these points, what do you do specifically to increase the use of your strengths? It’s important to observe yourself to figure out what your strengths are in your current context. It makes sense to repeat your observation either annually or when the context changes. Buckingham describes a week-long self-observation process where you pause occasionally to jot down on an index card what you were doing, being specific in terms of when, where, why, with whom. He has green-rimmed index cards for describing activities you loved and red-rimmed ones for describing activities you loathed. At the end of the week, sort, select, play with the cards until you can come up with a few strength statements and a few weaknesses statements. Post those where you can see them frequently.

Once you have your strength and weakness statements, work to change your job or your life at home incrementally. Each week make plans to increase the time you spend doing activities that use your strengths and decrease the time spent on activities that use your weaknesses. Plan just a few changes to your schedule each week. Build on the changes you made last week. Swap tasks with another person if you can reach a better strengths alignment for both of you.

The last chapter of the book is titled, Build Strong Habits. This gets back to a message that has appeared in PPND numerous times – that is, build better behavior patterns through attention and practice, and eventually they become part of your life without requiring so much thought.

Actions for Groups

It is very important for members of groups to understand that different people have different strengths and weaknesses. That sounds simple, but many times, people allocating work think of some tasks as “good tasks” and others as “bad tasks”, usually based on their own strengths. They often try to allocate work to be fair with mixed results. It often turns out that one person loves doing things that others loathe.

Ask. Get people to think about their strengths and then share the information. Talk about differences in strengths and how to allocate work so that people spend more time on tasks that make them feel strong. Also talk about how best to work around strengths that no one in the group has, but you think you need. Is there a way to grow that strength by building on any of the existing strengths in the group? Do you need to pull someone else into the group? Is there a way to bypass needing that strength? The same kind of thinking can go on in other contexts. How are you dividing work at home?; Does it play to the strengths of all involved to the extent possible?

Why should businesses worry about figuring out and exploiting the strengths of its members? People who can focus while at work and use their strengths tend to be vastly more productive than people who are discouraged, distracted, or struggling daily to overcome their weaknesses. They go home with a powerful sense of accomplishment that enables them to relax and come back the next day with renewed energy and optimism, both of which contribute to greater productivity. Maybe sometime in the future I can tell some stories along these lines.

I’d love to hear any of your stories about attempts to use strengths more and what you found worked best. I think this an area open for more discovery.


Britton, K. H. (2007). On Keeping a New Year’s Resolution. Positive Psychology News.

Britton, K. H. (2007). Positive Core and Strengths. Positive Psychology News.

Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.

Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

Maymin, S. (2007). Create New Habits: Self-Regulation. Positive Psychology News.

Maymin, S. (2007). Create New Habits: The Good Constraints. Positive Psychology News.

Maymin, S. (2007). Using you Strengths in a Job Search. Positive Psychology News.

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Nate Boe 7 August 2007 - 3:58 pm

I definitely agree on many of your points. Do you feel moods and strengths are so closely related that strengths fluctuate day to day? On a surface level I think it is good to have some kind of gauge or view of employee aptitude/strength when hiring or reviewing for a project. It seems like more and more companies are testing people before they take a job as a way of insuring against employing high failure rate candidates. While all this is good, my feelings are that many aptitude tests are based on junk science. Outside factors such as ones personal life, relationships, financial obligations and the like heavily influence mood and aptitude. A company that relies exclusively on a single test runs the risk of missing out on very qualified individuals.

I also notice many companies are investing in the overall health and wellness of their employees as a way to limit turnover. Things such as mid day naps were unheard of in the past and are now becoming commonplace. The fact that more companies are supporting a casual dress code and office environment leads me to believe that there is definitely a benefit to the “GOOGLEIZATION” of the office environment. These things are almost a requirement today’s high stress work climate. I hope more American companies can balance the need for productivity and lifestyle in a way that allows us to remain the global economic leader. God bless the American work ethic! Woe is the county who sleeps while enemies attack using economic warfare!

– Nate Boe

Kathryn Britton 7 August 2007 - 7:59 pm


Of course there are fluctuations in the way you feel day to day, but over the course of a week, some activities will ring strong and others won’t. Buckingham describes some ways to check your strength statements — but space doesn’t allow me to go further now.

I’ve seen cases where over time the same individual has been a top performer in some situations and a very mediocre performer in others. Sometimes this is caused by stresses coming from outside the job, but more often it comes from a poor fit between the person and the work. There are all sorts of work that need to be done. Companies that test the way you describe run much bigger risks. Take the case of Intel’s recent advertisement. Clearly they need somebody on the selection board with a different kind of common sense.

Today’s high stress work environment with little time for personal rest and rejuvenation can be a big mistake. It can lead to tired, dispirited people who work longer and longer hours and produce less and less and/or poorer and poorer results. I have a personal view that when people brag about the number of hours they work, the work environment is in trouble.

So I think we agree, but not completely.

Chris 7 August 2007 - 10:27 pm

One of the key elements of a strength, according to Gallup and Buckingham, is that it has to be *sustainable*. If someone has a sustainable talent that appears to continually fluctuate because of mood it’s possible that the talent is simply undeveloped (the person doesn’t have enough skill to execute the talent fully). Everyone has bad days and good days, of course. So, sure, mood will effect performance in slight degrees. But overall, a talent is unhindered by mood – or so the research shows.

Senia 8 August 2007 - 1:16 am

Nate, Kathryn, Chris –

This is a facinating discussion to me. I find this quote that Loryn Jenkins pulled from pp. 71-72 of Buckingham’s book and wrote on Penelope Trunk’s post to be very telling:

“As noted in ‘Now, Discover Your Strengths’, strengths such as these are made up of three separate ingredients: Talents … Skills … Knowledge … As an example, putting these three ingredients together — the talent of empathy, the skill of giving an injection safely, and the knowledge of the right dosage for the patient — creates the strength of ‘giving injections that seem painless to the patient.’”

I don’t agree with Buckingham however that a strength (read: “talent” as used above in this article) is unchangeable, that it remains the same throughout your life. I think your strengths too can change based on what you focus your activities on.

Thanks for the stimulating read,

Chris 8 August 2007 - 10:21 am

@Senia “I don’t agree with Buckingham however that a strength (read: “talent” as used above in this article) is unchangeable, that it remains the same throughout your life. I think your strengths too can change based on what you focus your activities on”

My first reaction would be to agree with you, but the data shows otherwise. I think what Buckingham would say is that while certain skills and knowledge can be taught (and thus change) a natural talent (such as the ability to recognize faces and names) is really difficult to learn in a sustainable way.

For example, I have a friend who is really good at recognizing faces – she can pick out celebrities or recognize people she hasn’t seen in years. It’s a natural talent. Now I could attempt to learn this ability, perhaps use a system of some kind, but it would take a lot of work – and if I stopped using the training for a period of time my ability would probably be lost. For me it would be unsustainable. For her it’s effortless. For me it would be a skill that I learned, but for her it is a natural talent which can be honed into a strength.

Make sense?

Jeff Dustin 8 August 2007 - 6:50 pm


Practically speaking, from a hiring manager’s perspective, how do you select for talent? You cannot easily distinguish a talent from a superior set of skills. Let’s say you have someone with perfect vocal pitch, here I’m thinking of Seligman’s Authentic Happiness chapter on strengths and talents. Sure Mariah Carey has the talent and was most likely born with this innate talent, but say you have someone who has trained for thirty years at developing to automaticity the ability to comprehend and simulate certain vocal ranges, I don’t know, like a person with great passion for singing and lots of free time on her hands. How precisely would you judge that Mariah Carey has the talent while the other has the illusion of a talent?

Other than looking at the histories of the two, I’d imagine that would be a tough call. Don’t genes express themselves uniquely to their environmental triggers? Could training to automaticity fool others into believing there was a talent? What then is the acid test for talent?

Doug 9 August 2007 - 7:21 am

Kathryn – Thanks for a great article. I have been facilitating a strengths workshop for years using the Discover Your Strengths book and assessment. It has always been well-received and I feel that much of that can be attributed to some of the activities we used that creating a great deal of positive affect for the participants (and the facilitator!). But, while there were those that did actually get some practical ideas for working in their strengths more often, I felt that the workshop fell just a bit short. I can’t wait to incorporate some of your ideas above to make the experience more worthwhile.

One assessment/activity that I would like to mention is Michigan’s Reflected Best-Self exercise. I am beginning to think that this exercise is more practical for two reasons. First, it offers the participant plain language that does not need to be interpreted. Second, it gives the participant real examples of how they have used a strength in the past which can be very powerful.

Alvaro 9 August 2007 - 11:35 am

Kathryn, great article.

I agree that we should identify and build on our strengths. And that an organization would do well to ensure the best fit between challenges and “talent”.

Now, that is only part of the story. We also need to identify and deal with bottlenecks, or weaknesses that prevent us from growing and performing to our potential.

For example, let’s say you wanted to start a new career as a blogger in China. Would you simply keep doing more of the same, or also identify and improve new needed skills (Chinese language, networking there…).

Same happens from a productivity point of view. If a manager gets freaked out every time he has to do public speaking, what will help him is stress management, not just being a content expert.

Chris: I agree with Senia that we can train more things than we typically take for granted. Especially if we view life as a process of lifelong learning and neuroplasticity, instead of deciding to get “stuck” at any given point. For example, talking about recognizing faces, you may be interested in Paul Ekman’s work on helping people learn how to recognize emotions in other’s faces-which most of us would have thought as an “instinct”

Senia 9 August 2007 - 11:40 am


There’s a ton of research that says the opposite – that says that if you train in something enough (here and here), it can become a major strength for you.

The best example – and I wholeheartedly recommend this entire book – is Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

In answer to what you write, Chris, it may just be that if you train in face-recognition enough, that it will actually physically change your brain – or at least the neural pathways, and that it will become easier for you to do so. People have taught themselves perfect pitch – which used to be thought that you were born with or not.

Thanks, My best,

p.s. One of my two favorite things about this site is the debate that we have in the comments to the articles! So I love it that you’re bringing up a point of view different from mine, Chris! (And my other favorite thing is just the amazing quality and content in the articles from the authors – so varied, so interesting).

Kathryn Britton 9 August 2007 - 1:18 pm


With respect to change, I think the point is not whether or not you CAN change. It’s how much energy and effort does it take to change.

Then if you think of the time and energy you have available to work on changes as a limited resource, where is it best to invest it?

So if you think of talent themes as patterns based on stronger neurological connections, yes, the brain is somewhat plastic. But it can take a tremendous amount of energy to make the change.

Take language, for example. There are windows of development opportunity for learning language. In extreme cases, children deprived of hearing language into puberty never do learn to speak correctly. In less extreme cases, there’s a reason for the joke: “If you call a person who speaks two languages bilingual, what do you call a person who speaks one language? An American.” In the United States, we tend to be exposed to second languages late — except of course children lucky enought to be in multi-language families.

I can use the language issue in another way. I studied languages a lot back in my college days. I had years and years of French and German, as well as exposure to Italian. I really worked at it, and I did learn to read well and write — well, OK. But I’ve never been the least bit fluent. I have a brother and a friend who became more fluent with a fraction of the effort. They just listen and start experimenting immediately — and with gusto. Perhaps I could rewire my brain to be better with practice, but I’m sure it’s not the best way for me to invest my energy.


Kathryn Britton 9 August 2007 - 2:15 pm


In a way, the Reflected Best Self exercise is like the Loved it/Loathed it exercise, only done from outside. I think it would be interesting to explore whether people got more insight from observing themselves at work or from hearing the observations of others. It might depend on how good the person is at introspection.

Some groups I’ve observed seem to have trouble warming to the Reflected Best Self exercise. This doesn’t seem to be a matter of money — at $6 a piece, the instrument is very reasonable. It’s more a matter of the time required seeming dauntingly large — and perhaps past negative experiences with 360 tools.

Here’s a link to the Reflected Best Self exercise:



Senia 9 August 2007 - 3:39 pm


I wasn’t attempting to debate where you should and shouldn’t invest your energies. That’s a personal call to each person, and I totally agree with you that there are places that are easier to invest your energies.

I’m simply restating this: “I don’t agree with Buckingham however that a strength (read: “talent” as used above in this article) is unchangeable, that it remains the same throughout your life. I think your strengths too can change based on what you focus your activities on.”

Have you taken the VIA Signature Strengths survey twice? Did all five top strengths remain the same for you?

That’s all that I’m arguing. I don’t believe they would remain exactly the same. And it makes sense to me that they wouldn’t. We had examples in our MAPP class of people who had taken the VIA earlier and then taken it at the start of MAPP (a master’s course), and “love of learning” had popped up into their top five unexpectedly. I think that’s absolutely normal.

It has to do with what your mind is focused on, and it has to do with what’s going on in your life. Plus, it’s a self-report assessment so you’re going to respond based on what’s foremost in your mind.

I know people who have taken the Myers Briggs five times and have been gradually drifting from a P to a J, and from a T to an F. What you do in your life can change your underlying preferences, and that’s all cool.

And – for many people – three of the top five VIA strengths may remain the same over five times of taking the assessment, or their Myers Briggs may turn out to be consistent. I’m just saying both are possible – consistently in results, and inconsistency. Not-change and change over time are both possible.


Kathryn Britton 9 August 2007 - 3:59 pm


I don’t think VIA strengths are innate and changeless. Chris Peterson made the interesting point once that there appears to be a strong correlation between happiness and having a relatively small distance between your top and bottom VIA strength scores. He suggested there is value in paying attention to our bottom VIA strengths to reduce the distance.

(Of course, we can’t see our own VIA scores and there aren’t any published tables that show what’s a small difference and what’s a large distance. So this is actually moot.)

Also, the Clifton/Buckingham discussion about talent themes being relatively unchanging concerns Strengthsfinder themes, not VIA strengths.

The purpose of StrengthsFinder is to give people a language for understanding and communicating about strengths. The language itself is limited, and the tests are imperfect. So the fact that people have different results on different administrations doesn’t really answer the question one way or the other.


Senia 10 August 2007 - 1:24 am

Kathryn, I think we’re on the same page. S.

p.s. Much thanks for the Reflective Best Self link!

Chris 10 August 2007 - 2:37 pm

Ha! I’m late to respond, but here goes anyhow.
How to practically hire for talent instead of, or along with, skills? It’s such a big question I’d have a hard time answering it. But, outside the candidate /honestly/ telling you what their strengths/talents are, it’s up to the hiring manager to use a developed line of questioning to extract clues that might provide insight into strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know if there’s a scientific solution, but getting to the personal side here is probably the leverage needed. Buckingham suggests his SIGN method as the basis.

I wasn’t suggesting that people don’t change or /can’t/ use training to offset natural ability. I’m just not sure how efficient or sustainable it is to do so, especially if you have the option of focussing your effort on what’s more natural. And *time* is a critical factor when strengths are put into the context of a work environment. But I recognize that there are different elements that can effect neural connections, such as what you’ve suggested, as well as things like trauma, etc. You’re well out of my league on those points.

As to the test results changing, with strengthsfinder 2.0 Tom Rath says that in test/re-test over six months there is a lot of stability (correlations of .6 to .8), but they recognize that big life events do cause change. To help people think about their relationships to investment, they have a nice, very simple equation that works individually: Talent * Investment = strength. If you assign a scale of 1-5 for talent and investment the individual can get a good sense of how each impacts the other.

Great dialogue!

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