Leading change using a strengths-based approach

So, strengths-based approaches are becoming increasingly common in today’s organisations.  But what is the approach and how can you get the most from it when leading change? Well, in truth, the strengths-based approach is all about perspective.  It concerns your angle of attack, your start point, your focus, where you dig deepest for answers and for solutions.  It doesn’t negate the critical or the negative as a crucial counterpoint.  But it does provide a basis for a positive dialogue about areas of strength which can be strengthened in order to become outstanding.  My four-point plan to use the strengths approach to deliver positive change is as follows:

First, understand your organisation’s strengths

What makes the organisation different and stand out from the crowd? Where is it exceptional and unique? Is it the organisation’s customer focus perhaps?  Or a specific product or service?  Is it the mission or purpose of the organisation? Does it contain the best people in the sector? Is its brand extremely well known by customers?  Be brutal in identifying genuine points of difference and then build your strategy around these.  Make sure you communicate these strengths clearly and confidently to your people and to your stakeholders as this is the best way to engage them, to make them interested and make them proud.  And make sure that your strategy will strengthen your strengths: becoming best in class in customer service, or focusing in on the very best products and placing your R&D efforts here, or pushing out your brand more confidently through a wider variety of media.  Where you find weaknesses, identify those that may genuinely disrupt the organisation’s success and fix them. Pay less attention to weaknesses that won’t really block you.

Second, understand your people’s strengths at the individual and team levels.

How do your people approach their work? With a strategic focus? By getting into the detail? With a hunger for completion? Or energy for planning?  Help individuals and teams understand how best to achieve their objectives using these strengths as their ‘fuel’ to bring about positive change. At the same time, attend to any risks your people may have, but only those risks that could stop them from delivering on their objectives. Again, pay less attention to the rest.

Third, practice appreciative questioning.  

When enabling positive change, it’s more important than ever to ask open, appreciative questions and elicit others’ honest feedback.  This is because for others to feel part of the change, they need to be listened to and truly understood.  This applies to everyone involved in a change: employees, customers, in fact all stakeholders. Stay humble and curious, enquire rather than judge, keep asking questions until you fully understand what is being said. This will keep your people engaged and the mission fresh.

Finally, build in the right structures and processes

In particular, construct HR and people management systems which ensure people feel they can play to their strengths every day as well as feeling stretched, challenged and accountable.  This ranges from recruitment, through onboarding, to day to day coaching, performance reviews, talent strategies and even exit interviews. And keep these processes under review to ensure they are delivering the value you need.

So, leading change using a strengths-based approach is as simple as applying a philosophy or set of principles, and as complex as creating the conditions for genuine cultural change by altering how your people approach conversations, solve problems, manage projects and lead their people.  But it starts with shifting your focus to positive first, to appreciation before critique, to possibility before impossibility. It starts with you.

Click for more on Strengthscope’s approach to leadership development from a strengths perspective.

Dr Paul Brewerton