Bacon, Jennifer L. M.S.
When you hear the word strength, you likely think of an exercise definition: the external force that can be generated by a specific muscle or muscle group (1). In much the same manner that focusing on physical strength improves your ability to create force, focusing on your professional strengths significantly improves your ability to be a high performer. Although this notion seems simple, historically, it was not the way that employees and managers focused their efforts on professional development.
HOW IT USED TO BE DONE
In the past, the most common practice to help employees develop was to conduct a performance review that highlighted strengths and weaknesses. The manager and employee would then work together to create an action plan to develop the weak areas before the next performance review. This was done by setting goals and buckling down to work extra hard. If you worked hard enough, by the time your next review rolled around, you might be a little less bad at your weaknesses. Does this sound familiar?
What we know now is that the second part of this plan missed the mark. The action plan should have included details on how to focus on and leverage strengths over the year ahead. Focusing on strengths has been proven not only to produce happier, more engaged employees but also to lead those employees toward more significant contributions to the company. Focusing on improving weak areas is like hanging from the monkey bars to try to get taller. Although you may put a lot of time and energy into it, your efforts are not likely to show a measurable result. However, focusing on improving and growing in areas where you already show natural talent is like giving a naturally gifted cross-country runner a solid training plan.
WHY FOCUS ON STRENGTHS?
We are born with a set of unique traits that hardwire us to succeed in specific areas. These are natural talents or strengths that can be refined and honed over time. As with all things in nature, the balance to being gifted in some areas is to lack gifts in other areas. There are things that we are just not equipped for or wired to succeed in doing. For example, a clinical exercise physiologist on our team, Delaney, is fantastic with patient care. She makes her patients feel comfortable and well cared for (her strength), but she struggles to keep up with paperwork, reporting, and organization in general (her weak areas). What will benefit my company and Delaney more? Continuing month after month and year after year to press Delaney to become more organized and diligent about filing? Or looking for ways to get Delaney to spend more time with patients while giving the organizational and administrative duties to someone else who may excel in and even enjoy those tasks? Delaney is wired to be a people person. We should leverage and apply that talent to increase her job satisfaction, along with benefitting the company and our patients. Not to mention that focusing on shortcomings results in a loss of confidence whereas focusing on strengths builds self-confidence for success!
To excel in your role, look for ways to put your strengths to work each and every day. Based on a 40-year study of human strengths, Gallup reported that employees who get to focus on and apply their strengths daily are 6 times as likely to be engaged in their job and 3 times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life than those who do not use their strengths daily (2).
HOW DO I UNCOVER MY STRENGTHS?
There are several commercially available tools to assist with honing in on and identifying strengths. The Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment is an excellent option that’s based on research conducted by psychologist David O. Clifton (2). However, using an external tool is not essential for exploring strengths. Use self-reflection to commit a list of what you feel are your natural talents to paper. As you create your list, it’s important to be honest with yourself and avoid using statements that sound cliché. Take the time to break down the cliché to what you really mean.
Marc often describes himself as a “numbers person.” What he really means by this statement is that he likes to think analytically and work with spreadsheets. He also is quite good at identifying and explaining financial trends.
Another way to hone in on your strengths is to think about a time when you were working on something and were so immersed in it that you lost all sense of time. When you are operating in an area of strength, you feel invigorated and often get lost in the moment. What were you doing the last time you got so caught up in thought or action that time seemingly stood still? Chances are you can learn a lot about your strengths by teasing out what you were doing at that moment when you were immersed entirely in your work.
Lastly, consider finding a mentor who can help you identify your strengths by discussing what you enjoy most in your career and thinking about what you want to do more of in the future. Don’t forget to ask your family members for their input too. Family and friends know you best, and strengths shine through in personal and work lives alike.
When Camille realized that her underlying desire to accomplish something each day by checking things off a list was a true driving force and a strength that she possessed, a lot of things started to make more sense. The fact that her husband did not share this strength explained why he could relax and recreate all day on Saturday while she was concerned with getting things done. Understanding how Camille and her husband were different because of their strengths helped them to have more empathy toward one another.
Once you have knowledge of your strengths, you can apply this knowledge to any role in any industry. Your strengths stand the test of time and follow you no matter what work you are doing (2). I started out as a personal trainer and am now a national director for a fitness company. Throughout my career path, I added skills, knowledge, and lots of practice, but my strengths remain a consistent force.
USING A STRENGTHS FOCUS FOR PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT
Simply said, to succeed in your career, you need to focus on and do more of what you already do well. Write down your strengths and reflect on the list often. When taking on a new responsibility or even considering a new job, consider how frequently you will be able to leverage your strengths in the role or on the project. Take roles that allow you to apply your strengths and avoid taking a role simply for the sake of advancement.
Even though you may have a good grasp on your strengths, you still need to create an action plan to increase your knowledge and skills around your areas of strength. One way to increase your knowledge and skills is to get involved in special projects or join a task force or committee. Share with others the types of projects you want to get involved in and explain how you could contribute.
After having discussed that Sandy enjoyed meeting new people and developing meaningful relationships with them, Sandy’s manager asked her to be a mentor to new hires in their department. Sandy found great satisfaction and enjoyment in this role, and the company benefitted by providing a positive experience for their new hires.
DEVELOPING A STRENGTHS-BASED LEADERSHIP STYLE
For better or worse, managers possess the ability to have a significant impact on employee engagement and retention. According to Gallup’s research, if my manager ignores me, there is a 40% chance I will be disengaged. If my manager focuses on my weaknesses, there is a 22% chance I will be disengaged. However, if my manager focuses on my strengths, there is only a 1% chance of disengagement (2); the super engaged zone! By helping employees to focus on and cultivate their strengths, we can have happier, more productive employees. How can you begin to turn the tide toward strengths within your team or organization?
First, look inward. To be a good leader, you have to be aware of your own talents and blind spots (2). Emulating other leaders will not work because other leaders have different strengths than those that you possess. There is no definitive list of strengths for good leaders; rather good leaders know what they are good at and seek to surround themselves with people who have strengths that complement their own (3).
Second, take more time to focus on what is right with your team and to understand what each person does well. Thoughtfully place them in roles where their natural talents are applied daily. Sometimes the best salesperson becomes sales manager, the best trainer becomes fitness manager. Highly skilled or knowledgeable technicians are often promoted to management when they may have little talent in managing people. Think about what your employees are good at and promote them to a role where they can do more of it.
Lastly, build purposeful teams. When creating a new team, it’s natural to select people who work similarly or have similar abilities to your own, but this does not result in the most effective team. When teams of people have varied strengths, the teams are stronger and accomplish more. Look to build a team that has balance and a mixture of talents. The group will be stronger and more resilient like a cross-trained athlete.
Get started on a more strength-centric leadership style with these action steps:
* Adjust your approach with performance reviews. Talk with your team members about how to mitigate their weaknesses and how to give them more work in their areas of strength (AKA super engaged zone).
* Lead open honest departmental discussions about what each individual’s strengths are and what that means to the team.
* When hiring people for open positions or pulling together a team to work on a project, think about the talents that will be needed to succeed instead of just looking at titles or job duties.
BUT REALLY…WHAT ABOUT THE WEAKNESSES?
Obviously, it’s not OK to completely ignore or fail in your areas of weakness. We all have minimum requirements that we need to meet in our jobs and not even the most perfectly suited job will allow you to always work within your strengths. We still have to do well enough to get by in our weaker areas.
What can you do when you need to work in a weak area or low-talent zone? Try partnering with a teammate. Patrick was put in the role of project manager for the rollout of a new program at his club. He is good at managing details but is not comfortable taking charge of communication with the team. He found a coworker who facilitated their team meetings while he assumed the role of powering the team by creating a plan of action, developing strong agendas for meetings, and following up to ensure teammates were doing their part.
You also can look to external resources for help such as tools and technology; there’s an app for that! Technology can be highly valuable when trying to manage a weakness. Ask friends and coworkers how they leverage technology and ask around for helpful tips, tricks, and apps.
In summary, ensure that your weaknesses are managed enough so as not to be detrimental to your overall performance but don’t allow them to be the focus of your development plan.
As the saying goes, you won’t be great at anything if you try to be good at everything (3). Find out what it is that you are good at and let that knowledge lead you to your next step. You will feel happier, healthier, and truly fulfilled.
© 2014 American College of Sports Medicine.