Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Ming with her first article on PPND.
Do strengths translate well to workplaces in China? I run positive leadership workshops in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and recently came across an experience in which the strengths-approach was challenged.
“This assessment doesn’t tell me my weaknesses, it only contains strengths. I don’t get it! What’s the point of an assessment that doesn’t tell you your weaknesses? How can I improve if I don’t know my weaknesses?” Chen shouted from the back of the room. Chen (changed from his real name) and his colleagues, all highly educated senior managers of a Scandinavian shipping firm, attended my positive leadership workshop in Shanghai two months ago. His colleagues were just as puzzled by the absence of weaknesses in their VIA report.
Chen’s top five strengths are: Fairness, Authenticity, Kindness, Love, and Humility. He is confused. There is a dissonance between his reported strengths and his real-life persona. He is known to have a quick temper and regularly fights with his customers. He knows his biggest weakness is the inability to control his temper.
In coaching, the power of the VIA character strengths is not in the identification of strengths but in the integration and the shift that come afterwards. Often a good debrief is required before the individuals can fully make sense of what to do with his or her strengths. Marcus Buckingham’s Go Put Your Strengths To Work is a great resource on applying strengths at the practical level. You can read a great summary of this book at Using Strengths When You Work by Kathryn Britton. I used the following questions to debrief Chen.
Ming Tan: How much do you own these strengths (Fairness, Authenticity, Kindness, Love, and Humility)?
Chen: Definitely fairness, authenticity and humility. But I don’t think I am kind, especially not loving.
Ming: This is interesting. The survey results come from your answers. Let’s explore this a bit. In what situations do you display kindness and care? To whom might you show your kindness? We play different roles in life, and we can behave differently in different roles. Perhaps you show more kindness in one role and less in another role?
Chen: That’s true. I am kind to my wife and my daughter. I am also like this with my friends. But I am not kind at work. How can I be kind and caring at work? We need to fight for our business. When my client is being unreasonable, unlike my colleagues who are passive, I will fight back.
Ming: I can see the strength of fairness and authenticity coming into the picture now. When you sense something is unfair, that is where you might get into arguments with other people. Let’s try this. How do you behave when you are being kind?
Chen: I’m tolerant, willing to listen to other people, considerate, just like when I am with my daughter. I am patient, willing to listen to her, a lot of give and take.
Ming: Great. So let’s take another step. Take the case of your tendency to argue with your client. If you were to tap into your top five strengths, how could these strengths be applied in such a situation?
Chen: Fairness will ensure that I can always balance the needs of my client and our company position. Yes, I see it now. Instead of getting into arguments which damage the relationship, I can apply my kindness and empathy here. I can be more patient and be willing to listen to my clients. Even if they were wrong, I can show some humility too. In the past, when I sense injustice or unreasonableness, I immediately blow up.
Ming: Seems like you’re found a way to tap into your strengths to deal with a real life situation. Let me know how it works out for you when you are back at work.
Chen emailed me three days later. He had almost started an argument with a client. He remembered to apply his kindness and empathy just before he lost his cool. Because he was able to switch to listening and appreciating his client’s perspective, the issue was resolved quickly. He received a big “thank you” from the client afterwards.
Chen had been aware of his temper problem, but the traditional deficit-approach had only exacerbated his frustration. He had tried many ways to no avail: learn to be patient, learn to see things from other people’s perspective, suppress his temper, use calming techniques etc. He finally succeeded by tapping into his strengths, and did so with minimal effort or exertion of self-control.
According to Clifton and Harter (2003), people can change on the changeables but most efficiently through who they are to begin with. In Chen’s case, his development echoes the strengths approach described by Clifton and Harter: identification of talent, integration into one’s view of self, and changed behavior.
As a footnote, I caught up with Chen yesterday. His integration of strengths has helped him turn his former business contacts into friendly relationships. His clients and he are on the same team – not on opposite teams – making his work more fun and meaningful. I asked him to share his insights on strengths approach and he said, “Might as well use them if you’ve got them!”
Editor’s note: This article appears in part 2 on applications of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.
Clifton, D.O., & Harter, J.K. (2003). Investing in Strengths. In A. K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & C. R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 111-121). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Images: Strengths, Ripple Cards.
Thank you, this is a wonderful casestudy. And it is so much fun to find innovative solutions to something that has been plaguing us!
Agreed with Jo: so nice to see something once frustrating fade away! Thank you – it’s always so helpful as a coach to see other coaching in progress.
Hi Jo and Senia
Thank you for your comments and encouragement. After MAPP I was sold on VIA as a tool but not on it’s application in the workplace. However, after one year of experimenting in individual and group settings, I’m convinced that it has its place in corporate workplace. I get new inspirations and new application every time I use it. Though I never knew which direction the conversation might go. Each case is different. Here’s another case if you’re interested. http://tanyeeming.com/blog/2008/05/28/via-strengths-survey-in-coaching/
It is so interesting to see what is happening with strengths in China.
Since you are interested in Marcus Buckingham’s work, I thought you might also be interested in the work of Jenifer Fox. While it may not touch your professional practice, it may have personal resonance.
Jenifer wrote Your Child’s Strengths, (Viking 2008) with an introduction by Marcus Buckingham. The book was just recently translated into Chinese and is available there now. She traveled with Marcus on his Go Put Your Strengths to Work Tour in 2007 to show the results a strengths approach can yield in a high school setting. Then she wrote her own book. I think the book is worth mentioning to others because it helps parent and teachers help kids discover their strengths before they get into the workplace and find themselves in jobs they hate.
Since publication, Jenifer has been traveling the US and spreading her message to schools businesses and various organizations interested in strengths. I am reaching out to you because most adults interested in developing their own strengths know children who are also interested.
Thanks and good luck with your work.
I was fascinated by the dialogue you had with your coachee. I am convinced that “long term” executive coaching is a way to change the habitual behavior in people. In the most basic form, coach is someone who help people cultivate a new habit that utilizes their strengths. New habits will need time and many practices to acquire. This is why “long term” coaching is important.
Other than the cultural difference, a more immediate challenge we have in Taiwan or Greater China region is that we have limited vocabulary in defining the significant meaning of a positive emotion. For example, how can you translate “strength” in Chinese? Can you share with us how would you differentiate strength, character, talent and gifted in Chinese? We usually interchange these terms freely in our daily conversation. ( Chinese language is a beautiful but not so precise “archaic” language. This is why truth is difficult to come out in the debate, law is difficult to enforce with ambiguous code, miscommunication is easily made. ) This is why it is so important for people like you ( competent both in English and Chinese ) to develop, redefine and even recreate the Chinese words in the APP. By the way, it would be even better if Mr. Chen can become a coach to his team. Mr. Chen, then, will own his self transformation-new strength based habit.
I agree with you about the lack of appropriate (or consistent) terms in Chinese in this topic. I have been in discussion with the Chinese editor of PPND Timothy So about getting together to work on the 24 strengths for VIA as a start.