The logic of "build on your strengths" comes from outstanding work by Martin Seligman, who with his colleagues defined and shaped the field of positive psychology. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with individuals, they emphasize what is right. Instead of overcoming depression, they offer clients ways to find authentic happiness. Instead of diagnosing pathologies and overcoming them, they want to identify strengths and build on them. In Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a 2004 book written with Christopher Peterson, Seligman and colleagues identified 24 generic strengths that individuals might possess in six domains:
Wisdom and knowledge: the ability to acquire and use knowledge (creativity, curiosity, love of learning)
Courage: the ability to accomplish goals in the face of opposition (persistence, vitality, integrity, bravery)
Humanity: the ability to tend to and befriend others (kindness, social intelligence)
Justice: the ability to experience a healthy community life (fairness, teamwork, social responsibility)
Temperance: the ability to protect against excess (forgiveness, humility, self-control)
Transcendence: the ability to connect to a larger universe and provide meaning (gratitude, hope, playfulness)
A simple definition of a strength is that it’s something that we find easy, energizing and enjoyable. The authors’ premise is that when you do well in what you identify as a strength and capitalize on it—rather than trying to shore up your weaknesses—you will have more success and more positive experiences. You’ll find happiness. (You can take some of Seligman’s strengths tests here.)
It is very hard to disagree with this logic. Marcus Buckingham and others have argued that discovering what we do well is a first step to lasting success. Leaders whose strengths are around creativity will be more successful in innovative organizations and work environments, for example.
But building only on your strengths is not enough if those strengths do not create value for those you lead. In college, I majored in English. I developed a knack for reading novels. I could read two or three novels a week and found this easy, energizing and enjoyable. But what I have since found is that few people care about my strength of reading novels. What they really care about is my ability to analyze a situation in ways that help them reach their goals. Reading and interpreting good writing is a sustainable strength when it informs my ability to diagnose and help others work through their problems.
According to the recent movie The Bucket List, the Egyptians believed that the gatekeepers of heaven ask new arrivals two questions about their lives on Earth: Did you find joy? Did you bring joy to others? The first question is about building on your strengths to find joy. It is necessary, but not sufficient. It is about the self, not others. The second question shifts the focus of joy to helping others find it. Put in terms of our strengths discussion, this means that we should build on our strengths that strengthen others.
"Building on strengths that in turn strengthen others does not mean pandering. It does not mean you will say and do anything someone wants. it means having a clear sense of self."
Leaders may strive to acquire strengths of authenticity, judgment, emotional intelligence, credibility and other noble attributes, but unless and until they apply these strengths in ways that create value for others, they have not been totally successful. Some in the strengths movement have missed the conclusion Seligman reached in his 2004 book, Authentic Happiness: "The meaningful life: using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are."
For leaders, this means that it is not enough to do our work well. We must also use our strengths to deliver value to others. HR professionals who want to build on their strengths in order to strengthen others should consider the following:
Focus on outcomes, not activities. It is tempting to focus on what HR does without fully considering what HR delivers, but it’s an incomplete goal. The outcomes of an HR activity might include employee morale, but could also be expanded to customers, investors and communities outside the organization. We have asked HR professionals to answer the query "so that …" to turn an activity into an outcome. For example: "We are investing in a performance appraisal (training, 360, communication or other HR process) so that … ." The answer to the "so that" query focuses on an outcome, not an activity. Outcomes are what we should be measuring.
Help leaders define their results. Many leadership programs are filled with exercises and seminars meant to help leaders learn and grow as individuals. They can identify their strengths and build them. But unless and until those strengths help others, they are incomplete. My colleagues at the RBL Group and I have adapted a fantastic exercise from Marshall Goldsmith. In a workshop, we ask leaders to think about their personal strengths and what they want to improve to be better as leaders and as people. Then, we ask them to stand and talk to five to seven other people who can coach them about using those strengths to strengthen others. Suddenly the focus is not just on what they want to do better, but on how their personal improvements will help others do their own work better. HR professionals who coach leaders about behavioral change can direct those improved behaviors to improved results.
Build a positive culture from the outside in. Most people acknowledge that companies have a culture, or way of doing things. This culture filters who joins the firm and how people act once they are in the firm. But often this culture is an inside-out view. It is defined as how we do things, our norms, our values, our expectations and our behaviors. By focusing on strengthening others, HR professionals can diagnose a culture against the standard of how it reflects desired outcomes by those outside the organization—customers and investors, for instance. HR professionals can ask leadership teams questions like: "What do we want to be known for by our best customers (or investors)?" By focusing on the strengths that others want to see in us, then translating those expectations into internal leadership and organization actions, we can make a culture an enduring source of value. Strengthening others affects not only the individual but the organization.
Be a contributor by working with business leaders on their issues. HR competency models that focus exclusively on what the HR professional should know and do are insufficient. The real impact of HR professionalism comes when HR professionals turn their knowledge and skills into productivity for others. HR professionals should know the business so that they help their business leaders achieve financial and customer results. HR professionals should build innovative and integrated HR practices so that strategies turn from aspirations to actions. HR professionals should be credible activists so that they can help those they coach reach the results they desire.
Develop HR professionals who are curious. In doing HR work, HR professionals should start by identifying their audience and what they want and need. This requires HR professionals who desire to learn first, then act. HR professionals should ask questions about what the business requires, about what leaders are accountable for, about what employees need, and about why customers select one provider over another. By asking these questions, HR professionals spend less time on what they are good at, and more time on what they can do to help others succeed. Curiosity means HR professionals begin their work by learning what others want rather than what they know. Strengthening others means good HR is less about what HR knows and more about how that knowledge affects others.
Building on strengths that in turn strengthen others does not mean pandering. It does not mean you will say and do anything someone wants. It means having a clear sense of self. It means identifying, developing and investing in personal strengths without arrogance or compromise. But, it also means applying those strengths to the service of others.
As the strength logic evolves and applies to HR, successful HR professionals might quietly say to themselves, "I am able to help someone accomplish what they need to do." And that happened because they used their strengths to strengthen others.
Workforce Management, March 17, 2008, p. 28-29 -- Subscribe Now!