As a consultant introducing positive psychology to organizations I have found that one of the easiest places to start is by using a strengths instrument such as the VIA or StrengthsFinder 2.0.
Over the past couple of years and especially more recently, organizations from international banking giants to small non-profits are examining the power of strengths focus. I offer day-long strengths workshops to employees and managers and subsequently meet with leaders to embed a strengths-focus.
After a comment I wrote last month for Jeremy McCarthy’s PositivePsychologyNews.com article, Putting Your Strengths to Work, I was asked by the PPND editors to offer some of the best practices I use to maximize the use of strengths instruments. I am very aware that many of you also have great ideas and I look forward to reading them in your comments. Here are some suggestions that I hope you find helpful as you debrief VIA or StrengthsFinder results. (Editor’s note: These could also be useful with results of the Realise2 assessment.)
- Start with the positive model of change. Most of you probably already do this. David Cooperrider’s theory that individuals and organizations move in the direction of that which they focus on is my launching pad for the workshop. Then, I contrast the positive model of change to the deficit model that causes people to focus on problems that need to be fixed. This moves employees toward strengths, but also sets up a later conversation I hold with the leaders about their organization.
- Use research selectively. I love research. When I first graduated from MAPP I loved telling everyone about all the research from positive psychology. I’ve learned a lesson. I use research selectively. Most employees don’t care about hearing all the research. A couple of well-chosen studies make the point.
I like to use the 1955 Nebraska school study that Donald Clifton cites to kick off the strengths discussion because it is such a shocker to most employees. It all depends on the group. I offer some studies and have more ready if I need them.
- Discuss weakness early. One of the challenges with the strengths instruments is that most people and organizations still focus on weakness. Ignoring weakness or simply commenting that it will go away if you focus on strengths doesn’t work. I like Marcus Buckingham’s concept that the only weaknesses a person should deal with are their “kryptonite.” Kryptonite is the weakness that can hinder someone’s life or career. Most of them accept that idea.
- Identify the difference between “what” and “how” strengths. Early this year some of the push-back I received over strengths, as identified by the instruments, was that they were not “real.” The strengths were not what individuals did each day. Yet after some discussion they realized that the instrument identified how they did things. I now have individuals first write down and discuss with their fellow employees “what” they do well; their strong tasks and abilities. I then differentiate “what” from “how” strengths, which, as Peterson and Seligman note, are how we do things and can be applied to multiple tasks. By identifying the difference I help employees rearrange their day both with the tasks they do well and how they do their tasks.
- Encourage full ownership of strengths. At this point the results from the instrument are still fairly academic. Since most employees in my sessions sit with their friends I have individuals share their results with their friends. Then I encourage the listeners to identify where they’ve seen the evidence of that employee’s strength. Individuals start really owning their strengths when they realize others have observed them.
- Acknowledge strengths envy. I’ve learned not to do a comparison of strengths in an organization because it creates “haves” and “have nots.” I used to create a matrix of who had what strengths, but employees inquired what strengths the top employees had and wondered how they could develop those strengths. I now acknowledge that some of them might be feeling strengths envy, but show them Tom Rath’s comparison of three CEOs who have totally different strengths and note that it is the use of their unique strengths that creates success.
- Use strengths. Employees want to know how to use their strengths every day. Using Buckingham’s concept I have them redesign their entire day as much as possible. They place their “what” strengths at optimal times during the day as energizers, or rewards for doing difficult tasks. Then I have them identify where their “how” strengths can make the day or tasks more efficient and more enjoyable.
Finally, they either work in dyads with another employee as a coach, or with their entire intact team, to see where they can leverage their strengths even more.
- Embed strengths. I believe in action plans. At the end of the day participants create a personal action plan that acknowledges specifically how they will develop their strengths; i.e., through study, practice, role-modeling, and so on, and how they will use their strengths. Sometimes leaders collect the action plans in closed envelopes and returned them to the employee later. Finally I have the entire group brainstorm how they will remind each other to focus on and use strengths.
Writing this article makes me aware of so many other best practices that make the strengths assessments come alive. No matter which best practices you use, by facilitating this session one-on-one or in a larger group setting you can set the stage for positive individual and organizational change.
Editor’s Note: We added references to Realise2, the strengths instrument described by Alex Linley, Janet Willars, and Robert Biswas-Diener, because the above approaches would be applicable with Realise2 as well as VIA and StrengthsFinder. The VIA assessment is available here, and StrengthsFinder 2.0 is available with several books by Tom Rath including the one listed in the references.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in part 2 of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life
Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.
Clifton, D. & Harter, J. (2003). Investing in Strengths. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 111-121. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. and Stavros,J. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2nd Edition (Book & CD) . Brunswick, OH: Crown Publishing, Inc.
Linley, P. A., Willars, J. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). The Strengths Book: Be Confident, Be Successful, and Enjoy Better Relationships by Realising the Best of You.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press.
S is for Superman courtesy of Gareth Simpson
Four Seasons (Model for Change) courtesy of joiseyshowaa
Kryptonite courtesy of Resio
Morning (Reaching for the Ring) courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Just Do It courtesy of Jhong Dizon
What a great addition this is to PPND strengths articles. I particularly agree with this: “Use research selectively.” People need to know what will work for them. One’s own concrete experience is the most convincing research there is!!!
I have found that how a workshop is sequenced to maximize this has a pronounced effect on the learning (my education bias) and buy-in of the organization.Those two things will significantly affect implementation of any program.
Thanks for the focused and practical strengths information, Scott.
Thanks. Your comment about sequencing the workshop is spot on. Those of us with a bias toward Positive Psychology and strengths would do well to heed your insight. Gaining buy-in is essential both for the corporation and for the value of future dialogues about Positive Psychology. Thanks for your comment.
Very good article. I have been reading Positive Psychology News Daily for several months now and find that very few of the articles actually deal with abilities as strengths. I use the terms ‘can do’ and ‘will do.’ I ‘can’ type, but you would not want to hire me as a typist because I am slow and make a lot of errors. But some people are ‘driven’ to type and they are the ones who type 100+ words per minute with no errors. These people ‘will’ type whenever the opportunity presents itself. The same is true of planning, organizing, communicating, etc. These are abilities that most of us ‘can’ employ, but some of us are driven to employ them.
Are you are familiar with SIMA (System for Identifying Motivated Abilities)? It is an interview technique followed by a factor-analysis process which results in a ‘motivated abilities pattern.’ It was developed by Art Miller who worked for a pioneer in the field, Bernard Haldane. Haldane wrote about this in a book titled, “Success Factor Analysis.’ Miller refined his work. I am not a consultant but an HR practitioner who has used SIMA in several settings and can honestly say that it has changed the way I evaluate and identify talent.
Your nuance of “can do” versus “will do” is an important distinction in motivation and does affect strengths. Motivation is a key driver in success as Angela Duckworth identifies in her research on “grit” and Locke and Latham note in their research about the importance of intrinsic motivation. I have only a passing knowledge of SIMA but any instrument that focuses on strengths and “fitting” a person correctly into an organization is moving in the right direction. Continued success Rich.
Scott and Rich,
I think the “can do” and “will do” difference shows up in the Realise2 strengths model, where they talk about distinguishing between strengths and “Learned Behaviours” — things that you’ve learned to be good at and the other people expect you to do, but don’t really draw out your best energies. In fact, they call them de-energizing. People sometimes get typecast by their Learned behaviors in ways that make it hard for them to reach for their strengths.
I added the references to Realise2 to Scott’s article because I think there are some really interesting ideas there.
Scott, very helpful article, along with the comments so far. Like you, I find the VIA and to a lesser extent, StrengthsFinder, useful jumping off points in getting in the door and establishing credibility. For those of us who have graduated from MAPP the VIA is a very powerful tool in establishing credibility. I usually cite its academic bona fides (referencing studies a bit more than the consensus as expressed here), reference its utilization in the Army training, then note that we all trained under the persons who created the VIA. This is a pretty effective trifecta, in my experience. Of course some of you went to school with Tom Rath, so that is a great credibility enhancer for you as well, I imagine, when you are using StrengthsFinder.
Two observations from my experience – I tend to find the VIA resonates more with older, more liberally educated, senior executives, while StrengthsFinder makes sense to younger, MBA-types.
It seems pretty obvious to me (the language, the business focus of the latter, etc.) but I was wondering if others are finding this to be true.
Another issue I deal with a lot is working with individuals or small groups who are “assigned” to work with me by a boss, oftentimes when the “presenting issue” is their collection of signature strengths. I wonder if others have experience with “tough cases” like this?
Thanks for the great article and to the editors for “commissioning” it.
May I add another dimension to your article and the discussion?
I use strengths extensively in executive coaching, governance coaching and team building. Since the focus is usually on change (of the transformative variety particularly) I prefer to use the DTI Inspired Leadership profile – http://www.inspiredleadership.org.uk – in combination with other profiles and the OPQ Leadership report (SHL) especially. The Structure is entirely compatible and the practical applications are intuitive and highly visible.
It is also important, in my view, to emphasize the links to cognitive competencies for business executives since they have invested a great deal of time and effort in this area and will not want to let go of that they already trust and value – nor should they!
I differentiate strengths as Inherent and Acquired in origin rather than as ‘what’ and ‘how’ since I’ve found that most strengths can be applied in either aspect and distinctions in usage can be confusing.
I’d welcome comments.
Thanks for adding Realize2 to the article. The more strengths can be applied and understood, the more employees have opportunities to act on those strengths. Thanks.
Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for responding because I respect all the work you do. I’ve also encountered a difference between which clients want the VIA or StrengthsFinder (the two instruments I use). My financial service clients want to use StrengthsFinder or Strengths-Based Leadership almost exclusively. Many of the non-profits prefer the insights of VIA. It might be the languaging, or the price. Either way, it creates a great discussion of strengths.
As for the “assigned” coaching you refer to, I’d like to hear from others. I work with larger groups on these strengths tools so I haven’t experienced your challenge. Thannks Dan.
Thanks for following up on the comments on my article with this great article of your own. I knew you would have valuable insight to add here and I wasn’t wrong.
In response to Dan’s comment about being assigned to present on this: I saw an interesting statistic posted on Twitter yesterday. They said CNN had reported that 84% of people plan to look for a new job in 2011. If that number is true (and it’s shockingly high) then it seems everyone would be interested in learning how to do more of what they love either to improve their current job or to help them find a job that suits them better. So I would think workshops around strengths, if presented as a solution to some of the current malaise, would have mass appeal right now.
Thanks for adding another dimension to the discussion. Having taken the Inspired Leadership Profile I see it’s applicability to leaders because it speaks in their language. I also found it interesting that the instrument identifies four distinct areas of focus for a leader into which the various attributes fall. Tom Rath also identifies four areas in Strengths-Based Leadership. However I found DTI’s insistence that leaders have to be capable in ALL areas of leadership a bit at odds with their “strengths” focus. However, it’s a robust report and the tool is valuable because it focuses on what leaders do well. Thanks for sharing it.
Thanks for your article that started all of this. Strengths-focus is a powerful tool and the stats you quoted on people looking for jobs means that as practitioners need to be up to speed on utilizing all the tools at our disposal. That is a lot of people who will need good coaching.
Scott, strengths is very much a theory yet to be supported.
For example in a business sense where is the data showing the ROI from aligning people with strengths. I know you’ll quote Gallup, but their data is really dubious – no controls for
example – all probably the Hawthorne effect.
And then there is the interesting research suggest that working on weaknesses is as beneficial as working on strengths.
I prefer to use a personality profile such as MBTI – it gives you much more to work with than the VIA or strengths finder.
Interesting perspective. I’m not a researcher, but a practitioner. As stated in the article, I suggest that those who use a strengths tool also talk about weakness because I’ve found there can be value in that. My experience has been that most organizations give little or no feedback on strengths and don’t account for them when assigning roles and responsibilities. A balanced view of utilizing strengths while minimizing weaknesses is key. As for the MBTI, I use it also and find it a valuable tool, though there are questions about it’s validity. Yet the value it offers in terms of dialogue and enhancing understanding and communication is very powerful to intact work teams. The ROI from all of these concepts comes from how they are positioned and acted on. Thanks for your feedback, it helps expand all our thinking.
As a Graduate of Martin Seligman’s Authentic happiness Coaching program, I have used the concepts of Strengths ever since. As a Life Coach much of my work is working with Addictions and Recovery.All my clients take the VIA assessment at the very beginning as the resulting strengths and concomitant values are the basis for my already existing programs and any new programs I develop. While I do believe that much research and practical application of strengths will enhance and deepen the use of these concepts, as a Gestalt Therapist and Life Coach I find them extremely beneficial adding my own experience as guide lines and modifications as needed. The best evidence of the usefulness in using strengths and values is evidenced by the success rate and absence of resistance.
I am forever grateful for having taken this course. Thank you!
Scott – agreed – its all about dialogue. The instrument is irrelevant.
Thank you for you comment and continued success with your work.
It is about the dialogue, and the instrument adds to the dialogue. I’ve seen some really bad instruments out there. They encourage dialogue, but not the right kind. The better ones like VIA or StrengthsFinder help individuals and organizations dialogue about how they maximize success and that can be very valuable.
Very helpful article, Scott! Love how practical it is, love your Kryptonite analogy, love your distinction between what and how strengths, love your explanation of strength envy! So real and useful. Thanks for this contribution!
Thank you. I enjoyed writing this and thinking about applications. There are so many more that we need to explore. I’m reading the new research about applications of strengths and should have an article soon. Hope you are doing well.
Here is my viewpoint on the above article:
It would be good idea to focus 70% of the time on individual strengths and 30% of the time evaluating whether there is any improvement to overcome one’s weaknesses. If only strengths become stronger and weaknesses remain as is, then this approach may hinder overall personality growth.
Please share your thoughts.
Forgive my delay in replying, I was overseas and couldn’t access the site. I agree with your idea that there needs to be a balance in focusing on strengths vs weaknesses, but I’m not sure I would lock it into any certain percentage. I’ve found that depending on where individuals are in their development they need certain feedback. For example when people first start a discipline, a job, a vocation or an art, they need encouragement more than criticism. They need to know what they are doing right. This is where the strengths focus is important. However I’ve found that when people get to a certain point of expertise they prefer a focus on their weakness to move to the next level. They know what they are doing right, but they want to refine their ability, hone it and craft it along the whetstone of criticism.
At the First Canadian Positive Psychology Conference Dr. Greg Wells spoke of his work with world-class athletes. He emphasized that once they reach the world-class level, they focus only on 1% growth. I am currently re-reading his book, Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, and I see how that focus is on where their weaknesses are.
So Anant I’m learning that the key to strengths theory (as with most psychological theories) is that the application has to be personal and crafted to where the person is in her/his journey to mastery. I hope that helps.