Is spotlighting strengths the way to success?

Not just another fad… taking a strengths-based approach and reframing failure to positively influence outcomes.  

‘Pessimistic labels lead to passivity, whereas optimistic ones lead to attempts to change’ (Seligman, 2007). 

For many of us, pinpointing weaknesses or areas for development comes a lot easier than identifying our strengths. But as calls grow for organisations to concentrate on developing employees’ strengths to improve performance, should weaknesses and ‘failure’ be brushed under the carpet, or should we learn to embrace our flaws? 

Why focus on strengths? 

Psychologist Martin Seligman, seen as a pioneer in the field of positive psychology for his work around positive human functioning and strengths, called for the need to focus on strengths as opposed to just people’s weaknesses. The influence of positive psychology shifted some traditional management practices towards ways of working that embrace strengths and positive workplace behaviours.  

Along these lines, management professor Fred Luthans proposed positive organisational behaviour (POB), which has a distinct focus on building individuals’ strengths in the workplace, rather than just managing their weaknesses, based on measurable psychological states. ‘Positive psychological capital’ or PsyCap, is a state construct that can be developed and invested in for performance impact. PsyCap is essentially characterised by four key aspects; self-efficacy (having confidence to take on and tackle challenging tasks), optimism (having a positive outlook towards succeeding), hope (being able to persevere towards a set goal) and resilience (being able to face adversity and bounce back to sustain a path to success).  

According to research, strengths-based approaches and POB are linked to improvements on several work-related measures, such as increased sales and profits, job performance and individual outcomes (including stress management and job satisfaction). Investigation by the CIPD also showed that interventions promoting strengths-based performance conversations can have a measurable impact on what conversations take place between managers and their staff, and on the usefulness of one-to-one meetings for employees’ learning and development and performance. 

Further, with employees attributing management style as the second top cause of stress at work, there is a case for reviewing management models to focus on the positive. Is a strengths-based style of management the solution? 

Some caveats 

On the flipside, some critics say the strengths-based approach can over-emphasise or over-play the importance of strengths (or at least what we perceive our strengths to be), leading people to have a false sense of security and competence. Others argue that ignoring our weaknesses entirely is not proven to have more favourable performance outcomes than the alternative. If an organisation is considering the transition to a strengths-based approach, there are some key factors to keep in mind: 

  • Do your research. Defining strengths can be time-consuming and it’s important to use valid and reliable strengths assessment tools which are also relevant to the context that you are applying them in (for example, workplace settings or leaders). There are also personal (non-work related) strengths tools for example, VIA strengths (which works to identify your strengths against 24 character strengths). If you’re keen to try something which considers both strengths and weaknesses a simple SWOT analysis could be a useful starting point.  

  • Ask why there is a need to use a strengths-based approach. To change management practices? To improve team and individual performance outcomes? For personal development? It’s important to have a clear understanding of the outcomes or goals the organisation is trying to achieve by implementing a strengths-based approach.  

  • There is a danger of using this approach to sift: developing the employees with strengths most related or aligned to the business’s key performance outcomes. This would leave behind the employees whose skills are less aligned, or perceived as less valuable, to the business. Apart from the obvious ethical implications, this approach also ignores the importance of having a diverse pool of workforce talent, which is especially important in times of turbulent change where a more agile workforce is required.  

  • Leaders and managers need to be familiar and comfortable with developing their teams using a strengths-based approach. In Gallup’s global study on the return-on-investment for strengths-based development, companies that achieved positive performance outcomes from using this approach tended to foster a strengths culture using seven strategies – two of which related to leadership and manager alignment.  

Reframing failure 

What should be the approach when an individual’s strengths aren’t aligned to their role or outputs or even their organisation’s goals? Surely, at some point weaknesses must be acknowledged and if improvement is required to raise performance, then these are certainly relevant. But on top of all this, how we view success and achievements and importantly, how we persevere when the outcome is much less favourable, is an important ingredient to add to the mix.  

Perhaps the solution is not just about relying on developing strengths, but also about reframing thinking around high performance and success. How we view ‘failure’ and making mistakes within organisations could be stunting growth at both an individual and organisational level.  

Matthew Syed, a thought leader on black box thinking (BBT), talks about BBT as a dynamic mindset which helps us to embrace failure and learn from it. Having a growth mindset instead of a fixed one means having a culture which enables individuals to grow and take responsibility for their learning by applying it to future scenarios. Those who have heard Matthew talk about this concept (or read his book Black Box Thinking) will be familiar with the comparison he makes of the aviation and healthcare industries — the differences in how they approach learning from mistakes and the huge variance in culture around ‘failing’. The aviation industry embraces failure by recognising the opportunity to learn from mistakes, apply that learning to future situations to avoid repeated negative outcomes. In contrast, the healthcare industry is known for burying mistakes and facilitating a blame culture that limits learning or understanding of how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. These approaches have had opposing impacts on performance. 

Matthew delivers two key messages: first, a blaming and unsupportive culture can absolutely stifle innovation and is fundamentally toxic for progression of any kind: ‘When a culture is unfair and opaque, it creates multiple perverse incentives. When a culture is fair and transparent, on the other hand, it bolsters the adaptive process’ (Syed, 2015). Second, being able to embrace failure is a powerful tool to frame the way to success – suppressing it stunts growth and learning. But this can only be done if the culture within organisations supports this viewpoint of growth. 

Taking a balanced approach 

Being aware of both strengths and development areas (especially those which are needed for high performance) helps an individual to be self-aware and reflect on how to embed some realistic and pragmatic goals to achieve desired performance outcomes. Bringing this into a regular discussion also means line managers can provide accurate feedback and this feedback loop seems fundamentally important to personal growth. If organisations can both ‘embrace failure’ and focus on employees’ strengths and talents, the workforce (and in turn the organisation) has the potential to thrive. 

Rebecca Peters

Rebecca Peters

Rebecca is a Research Advisor at CIPD. Her interests include health and well-being at work, using positive psychology to help people thrive and the application of evidence into practice. In her spare time Rebecca enjoys travelling and experiencing new places, cultures and food. Being a foodie, she also enjoys cooking and trying out different recipes.