Understanding Strengths for Work and Life

The tag line of My Zen Path is ‘Rethinking work and life’. When one thinks of regular work life, one is reminded of the constant developmental feedback that are part of every performance review discussion with your manager. The feedback for the most part is focused on pointing out weaknesses or improvement areas, sometimes with a genuine interest in developing the person, and many times to justify the salary increment or the performance rating you are forced to give to fit to the bell curve.

To the subset of managers that really want to develop their people, and individual contributors that really want to develop themselves, would it make sense more to leverage on your strengths or on fixing your weaknesses? Management gurus, since the times of Peter Drucker , have rethought this issue and here is what Drucker had to say:

“A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

If we go by this prescient wisdom, one should not let your weakness become your Achilles heel, but if you really want to drive performance, which seems a legitimate goal in a work setting, then its better to focus on your strengths. Manage your weaknesses, but focus on strengths. That is what Drucker had said more than 50 years ago and that is what Gallup has found over the years.

Gallup interviewed thousands of employees spread over different continents and organizations, and found a recurring theme – those who focused on their strengths were much more successful that the others. Research by Gallup and other organizations, has also clearly shown that your most impact growth happens in your areas of strengths and you cannot become like anyone else, but by focusing on your strengths you can become the best version of yourself. Because strengths are a natural, authentic expression of yourself, using your strengths and being in the strengths zone leads to more happiness and productivity.

Based on a study running for about 40 years, Gallup came up with a list of 34 strengths  or talent themes that are common to all the people, and also distinguish one person from the other, based on where in the rank order that strength or talent themes lies.  Your rank ordered report, provided by the Clifton Strengths assessment,  is as unique to you as your fingerprints.

So we have figured out the importance of strengths (by some Gallup measures, people focusing on strengths are six time more likely to be successful at their jobs than others) and are also aware of the best tool in the world to measure work related strengths (Its Gallup’s Clifton Strengths!), but what do we do we really mean by strengths or talent themes? Talent themes, in the Gallup context, are the feelings, behavior and thoughts that come naturally to you and at which you are good and can use them to your advantage. If you consistently use your talent themes for near-perfect and consistent outcomes, you are now deploying your strengths.

Here are some tips for deploying and leveraging your strengths once you have figured them out, say using a tool like Gallup’s CSF. To start with, pick up one strength at a time and work on it. Try to use it in novel situations or in new ways in familiar situations. Try to use it more intentionally and consciously. Create a strength habit or ritual at work. Use the cue, routine, reward framework to create a healthy strengths usage habit. Build complementary partnerships with others where you lack a particular strength. Be creative in how you use your strengths.

All fine and good you say, but what about life part in rethinking work and life? Does a focus on strengths in daily life, apart from work, also lead to some results? According to Gallup survey’s only people who focus on strengths have three times better quality of life than those who don’t.

But when it comes to life in general, I find the Gallup framework a little restrictive. For one, Gallup framework assume that talents are more or less innate and fixed, and I work a lot with kids and know how damaging that myth can be.  I firmly believe in growth mindset, and the importance of believing in malleability of your talents/strengths. Secondly, as per the Gallup framework Talent Themes are neutral they can be used for a good or bad end. There is nothing inherently good or novel about having a theme like Strategic. It is the end to which you put it that will make it worthwhile. I, on the other hand, believe strengths in and of themselves are important and worth having. Finally, Gallup framework, due to its historical roots and otherwise is more suited to the corporate or organizational world.

So what about rethinking ‘life’ in the context of strengths? Enter VIA. Values in Action is an alternative strengths paradigm. It took Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, and Christopher Peterson, the ‘other people matter’ guy,  more than 3 years and consultations with many prominent positive psychologists etc to come up with a list of 24 character strengths. These strengths are not value neutral but are moral in nature and not just a means to an end, but developing and living these strengths an end in itself. These 24 strengths are depicted in the picture below.

Via Character Strengths
VIA Character Strengths (Image: VIA Character)

Marty and Chris, looked at moral, philosophical and religious literature, among other things to come up with this framework. The basic VIA survey is available, free of cost, for both adults as well as youth. The strengths in VIA include strengths like Kindness, Grit, Love, Creativity and Spirituality.

Some folks like assessment tools like strengths to be descriptive and not prescriptive – VIA on the other hand is a prescriptive framework. The promise is that if you focus on developing a subset of strengths,  they are not only good to have as an end in themselves, they also lead to some good outcomes.

While the basic philosophy of focusing on your top 5 or signature strengths remains common to both VIA and Gallup, there are also differences in emphasis on whether you should focus on the strengths lower down the order.

In terms of the quantity of research too, VIA has a rich public domain research available that links different strengths to different outcomes.  For example, if you want to increase well-being, its best to focus on increasing hope, zest, gratitude, love and curiosity. If however you want better academic results, perhaps focusing on grit, fairness, gratitude, hope and perspective makes more sense.

There are also evidence based interventions focused around each character strength to increase that character strength. For example, if you want to increase optimism you can write and reflect about best possible future self. If you want to increase gratitude, you can count three good things daily and lift even severe depression. If you want to increase grit you can focus on inculcating a growth mindset.

Overall, if you want to live life more authentically and in tune with your values, focusing on your character strengths would be one way of doing that. Though I am a Gallup certified strengths coach , and use the Gallup framework in corporate settings, in my work with school kids I exclusively use the VIA framework and have found it very useful.

In the end, its my belief that though we spend most of our waking time in work settings, there is more to life than work, and we should all be cognizant of not just our Gallup strengths but also our VIA character strengths and try to leverage both sorts of strengths for making something good out of our life and work!

  • Thanks for this wonderful article Sandeep!

    You initial discussion about strengths and weaknesses reminded me of this HBR article: Stop Worrying about Your Weaknesses –

    “But how will John add the most value to his organization? He’s amazing with people, not spreadsheets. He’ll work hardest, derive the most pleasure, and contribute his maximum potential with the greatest result if he is able to focus as much time as possible in his area of strength.”

    https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-you-should-encourage-weakn.html