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Playing to your strengths

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How many times have you heard the phrase ‘play to your strengths’? It sounds so simple and logical doesn’t it?

However, how often do we find that we focus on what are our weaknesses and what isn’t working and trying to rectify them? There is a growing evidence-base which is suggesting that having an awareness of strengths and applying them appropriately at work, is having a positive impact for employees and organisations. This leading to more and more interest from organisations about how to bring in a strengths-based approach to the workplace. 

What is a strength?

Before we go any further, it’s probably worth me defining what a strength is, because I often find that people think of a strength as something that we are good at. I’d say it’s a case of ‘yes, and…’, in that a strength is also present when we feel energised, perform optimally and it comes naturally when carrying out a task. I feel it is important to make this distinction into the definition of a strength, as we may perform well at something, but could also find it draining or boring, and so in the psychological definition this would not constitute a strength being at play. 

One of the leading researchers in the field of human strengths, Professor Alex Linley, defines a strength as:

“A strength is a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.”

Before I began my research into strengths and application of them, I can remember reassigning a team member who had been working flat out on a project to a more ‘serene’ project on his own and then being perplexed at how his productivity had dropped on the new project. Looking back now, the team member had the strengths of zest and teamwork, which the ‘serene’ project did not offer him.

Why a strengths approach?

Now that we’ve discussed what a strength is, it’s useful to explain why are they important in the workplace. An increasing amount of research is being undertaken by psychologists into the impact that a strengths-based approach is having on both employees and organisations, which are showing a positive effect and that there has been an increase in:  

•    Employee engagement
•    Job satisfaction
•    Wellbeing
•    Productivity
•    Achieving goals more effectively

These findings are crucial to cultivate organisations that are thriving, as well as having employees who are flourishing.

Another interesting finding is that employees who are able to apply their strengths more often at work have fewer sick days. In a climate where there is an increasing number of cases where employees have been signed off from work due to stress, anxiety or burnout, a strengths-approach can benefit the health of the employees and organisation as a whole.

Play to your strengths

A recent study by the VIA Institute and Michelle McQuaid found that employees who focus on their strengths are most likely (65%) to describe themselves as flourishing at work, which suggests to me that there is a compelling reason to introduce a strengths-approach into the workplace.

This isn’t to say that we can ignore weaknesses or the tasks, which we don’t enjoy or that don’t energise us, we can’t, however developing a weakness tends to result in competency. It is about finding ways to understand our strengths and to seek ways to apply them more frequently each day at work. Before understanding a strengths-approach, I fell into the trap that employees could be excellent at everything. I would appraise staff on what weaknesses needed improving and areas of lacking and looking back now, I was setting my staff up for competent performance rather than excellent performance.

I’m looking to change that now, by working with organisations to adopt a strengths-based approach to the workplace and helping employees to understand what their strengths are and how to apply them effectively. In a future series of articles, I will pick a strength, describe it and talk about how it may be applied effectively in the workplace. However, next time, I will introduce a language for strengths.

Dan Collinson

By Dan Collinson

Dan is a strengths and talent development consultant and coach, as well as being an associate lecturer and trainer of Positive Pscyhology

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