Focusing on Strengths

Don Clifton. Good ole Don. Oh Don. Don’t you just love Don?

Just kidding. Until today, I had no idea who Don Clifton was. However, I’m pretty sure he changed my life and he might change yours, too.

Don Clifton was a psychologist who asked a groundbreaking question in his field:

“What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”

You see, Clifton was looking through all of these self-help books and psychological programs and he noticed that most of them focused on figuring out what was wrong with the patient. Clifton felt like that approach was counterintuitive to the objective of unleashing a patient’s positive potential. Instead, he wanted to focus on finding a person’s strengths.

So what does happen when you focus on what is right? Gallup, a polling company who now runs the StrengthsFinders assessment, did some digging. As it turns out, a lot happens when you focus on someone’s strengths.

For one, they become more engaged in their jobs. Overall people are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life when they nurture their strengths. On the job, employees are also more likely to be engaged if their leaders exercise a strengths-based approach to management.

Sounds great, right? Seriously, good ole Don Clifton was really onto something. But how do you create this awesome environment that makes people happy? Paul Allen, Global Strengths Evangelist at Gallup, explained the basics to creating a strengths-based environment in your office.

Determine the strengths of your employees.
You might think this is as easy as asking your personnel to tell them what their strengths are. In fact, Allen said that most people don’t know their true strengths. Because they are so naturally inclined to certain tasks and roles, many people assume that their strengths are universal or come just as easily to everyone else. That’s not the case, but it can be tough to show people why.

The easiest way to figure out what your team members’ strengths are is by taking the StrengthsFinder assessment. However, if you want to take a more fluid approach to understanding your employees, ask them what they are good at. In fact, ask them what they are great at. Ask them what roles and tasks make them happiest, and then delve into why that is. Their strengths will be what they enjoy doing well, even when it isn’t a core part of their job.

Feed those strengths.
Allen explained that strengths have needs. If those needs aren’t met, a strength can quickly become a weakness. For instance, someone whose primary strength is winning others over – called “woo” in the StrenghtsFinders world – will thrive on working with a diverse range of people. However, if a woo is stuck in the back office working in Excel all day, this strength could be his professional downfall. He will likely end up wandering the halls, avoiding his work in order to maintain or make new human contacts.

An employee’s top strengths should be an integral part of their role. If someone is an amazing empathizer, he should work with people so that he can leverage that strength. If someone is restorative, she needs to be given problems to solve.

As a manager, it’s your job to make sure that job descriptions are crafted to strengths rather than formal positions. Look for queues where that might not be happening. These will likely be underperforming or obviously disengaged employees. When you find them, don’t focus on what they’re doing wrong. Work to collaboratively determine what they can do well and how they can do that more.

As Allen concluded, “An average person is an astonishing person. They just haven’t discovered it yet.” As a manager or even just a colleague, it’s your job to help others discover what strengths make them truly astonishing.


From July 20th – 21st we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Dave Haygarth

Leave a Comment

One Comment

Leave a Reply