At a European Positive Psychology conference I attended many years back (likely in Copenhagen around 2010), I recall Dr Alex Linley creator of Strengths Profile and CEO of Cappfinity , declaring in his keynote presentation, “Everyone is talent!”, suggesting it was only a matter of knowing and aligning people’s strengths to their roles, jobs, or careers. This perspective has resonated with me for over a decade, despite ongoing reference to “talent management,” “high potentials,” and the “war for talent.” Recently, a client suggested to me that perhaps there is talent with a capital “T” and talent with a lowercase “t,” depending on how one defines talent and that certainly may be something to consider.

However, in a war for talent, doesn’t it make sense for everyone to uncover and, more importantly, use their strengths? While I acknowledge that not everyone may have this privilege, imagine the ripple effect if organisations encouraged and supported individuals to “play to their strengths” both from a performance and wellbeing perspective? These individuals could create more opportunities for others to do the same, amplifying the benefits across the organisation.

Character Strengths versus Performance Strengths

Firstly, I want to clarify the difference between “character strengths” and “performance strengths.” The VIA Institute on Character VIA Character Strengths Assessment (take the free assessment here – evaluates “character strengths”—strengths that are morally valued, cross-cultural, and relate to “who” we are. Whilst the assessment identifies your “signature strengths” (your top 5), there’s 24 in total and I believe they’re all important if we’re aiming to be our best selves!  While they can certainly enhance performance, the true power of character strengths for me is in helping us cultivate virtues to become better human beings, and virtuous organisational citizens. Character strengths support our personal growth and help us build positive relationships with others.

In contrast, “performance strengths”, as the term implies, focus on enhancing performance in “how” we do things. It’s not necessary to develop all identified strengths, such as the 34 talent themes in the Gallup CliftonStrengths or the 60 strengths in the Strengths Profile. Instead, the key is to “play to your strengths.” Leveraging “realised” or “unrealised strengths” (in the language of Strengths Profile), helps individuals to significantly improve confidence, energy, performance and wellbeing + a host of other positive outcomes. For organisations, positive outcomes include increased engagement, lower employee sickness and turnover, improved working relationships, higher team productivity and improved organisational performance.

Strengths, Success + Safety

So whilst we’re pretty clear on the business case for strengths use when it comes to success, more recently with the emergence of new workplace health and safety legislation in Australia, I’ve begun to consider their role from a safety perspective.  I recently presented on behalf of Cappfinity on the role of strengths for both success and safety.  In doing so, I utilised the “Integrated Approach to Workplace Mental Health” framework by LaMontagne (2014)—see image below. While a strengths-based approach seems obvious in promoting flourishing, I propose there’s also important application to be made in managing illness and preventing harm.

Firstly, in managing illness, I’ve had professional experience that tells me it works, with supporting research. I began using strengths-based coaching approaches early in my career as a Clinical Psychologist working with clients on worker’s compensation for both psychological and physical injury. I quickly realised the power of these approaches, as did my clients. Unfortunately, even today, many psychologists are neither trained in nor apply strengths-based or solution-focused approaches.

Secondly, when it comes to preventing harm, there are a myriad of ways strengths-based approaches can reduce psychosocial risk including:

  • Increasing role clarity by explicitly connecting tasks to strengths
  • Enhancing job control and autonomy if leadership supports a strengths-based approach to tasks
  • Reducing fatigue and increasing vitality, motivation, and productivity through the use of strengths
  • Leveraging strengths through job-crafting opportunities, leading to improved person-job fit
  • Increasing reward and recognition with leaders regularly acknowledging strengths
  • Reducing interpersonal relationship issues, such as poor relationships, aggression, conflict, bullying, and harassment

Developing a Strengths Strategy

Having worked with strengths for nearly 18 years, I am continually surprised by the ad hoc approach to strengths application at individual, team, and organisational levels. While the concept of “playing to your strengths” sounds simple, it can be quite challenging in practice. For individuals, it requires a significant amount of mindfulness to be consciously aware of opportunities to utilise strengths and to spot strengths in others.  This is where strengths based coaching can be a powerful intervention.

In organisations, I’m aware of few who have a strengths strategy in place. Instead, an ad hoc approach prevails, with multiple, often non-evidence-based strengths assessments being used. In large organisations, different departments and teams may use varied approaches. While this is not entirely problematic, I recommend that if you are serious about strengths, take your time, do your due diligence, and develop a more strategic and sustainable approach to strengths within your organisation.

If you’re looking for inspiration, consider this.  At another early positive psychology conference I attended in the United Kingdom (in 2009 I believe), there were presentations by Aviva Insurance and Ernst & Young, both of which had consulted with Dr Alex Linley and Cappfinity at the time. They had adopted a strategic approach to strengths in their organisations, across the employee lifecycle, covering recruitment, onboarding, development, and outplacement. In my experience, these strategic implementations are rare today in most organisations and schools.  In saying that though, I’m aware that both Cappfinity and Gallup take a strategic approach with the organisations that engage their services, which do tend to be larger organisations.  However, that doesn’t mean if you’re a smaller organisation that you can’t think and act strategically when it comes to strengths.

Next steps?

  1. Audit what you’re already doing well when it comes to strengths based approaches either as an individual/leader, team or organisation?;
  2. For organisations, build a business case for senior leadership and highlight examples of other organisations who have been successful in their approach;
  3. Utilise the integrated approach to workplace mental health to consider the role of strengths based approaches to address PH&S;
  4. Create a strengths strategy across the employee lifecycle.
  5. Consult with experts in strengths based interventions.

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