Introduction – are strengths relevant in 2023?
So here we are in 2023. Already. It feels a bit cliched these days to say ‘how did we get here?’ or ‘wow, the years go by so quickly’, but if people aren’t saying it, they’re definitely thinking it. The world spins at the same speed, but the pace of life and work life seems to have sped up significantly over the past few decades.
And so to strengths – what started life with a call to action to his peers from US Psychologist Martin Seligman some 27 years ago – is now becoming established as a mainstream philosophy and practice in many organisations across the world. But are strengths still relevant in our volatile, unpredictable world in 2023? That’s the question I’d like to address in today’s episode and next week in a two parter, by putting the pros and the cons in this episode. And in my next episode, I want to cover some of the practicalities of introducing and embedding a strengths approach into organisations today.
So what are strengths again?
First of all, we need to define strengths – strengths are those qualities that energise us and that we are great at or have the potential to become great at. They are individual characteristics that define how we’re perceived and which can influence the way we carry out our work, relate to others, manage our energy and so on. And they can operate at group level too, influencing a team’s ‘brand’ and ways of working. They can even work at the whole business unit or organisational level, to give an indication of the kind of culture that your organisation may have.
What are the arguments for and against the strengths approach in 2023?
I want to take you through some of the arguments for and against the strengths approach, four each way, just to be fair. I flipped a coin and decided to start with the strengths pro arguments, so here we go:
The case for strengths: The for
1. Untapped potential – most people take their strengths for granted, or more often, don’t even acknowledge the strengths that they have. This is because of our inbuilt human negativity bias…our hard wired preference to attend to negative…threat…stimuli in our environment, which is a prehistoric survival mechanism. Why would we give attention to our areas of strength when fixing our weaknesses will ensure that we won’t get eaten by a mountain lion? Errrr….because getting eaten by a mountain lion actually isn’t a major concern for most of us any more.
The net result of this focus on the negative over the positive is that there is significant untapped potential in developing our strength areas to support the effective delivery of our work and team roles, once we have identified and accepted the strengths we have. So that’s argument one: if you’re running a business, or a people function in a business, and you need to up the level of performance across the board, to sharpen your edge…look to strengths as a means to find an extra 5%, 10% or even higher percentage from the people resource you already have, because it will likely be lying quietly, waiting to be found.
2. Expectations of workers today – with millennials and Gen Z workers now making up the majority of the workforce, there is an increased expectation that employers will understand the preferences and needs of workers because…well that’s just how the world of the millennials and Gen Zs has always been. Technology individuates experience significantly by tailoring our tech towards our wants, so why wouldn’t employers do the same?
This argument will only get greater as time goes on, so the onus is on employers to understand how to provide the best environment and opportunities for each employee…how to individuate the employee experience in order to get the best return for both parties. An understood employee is more likely to be engaged and productive, particularly when their work can be tailored more towards their natural preferences and strengths.
3. Higher performance – play to your strengths and you will achieve more. And your performance will be more sustainable over a longer period. When you combine your natural energy and strengths with skills that you’ve developed and align those with the requirements of your role, you’ll achieve sustained high performance levels. And that’s reflected on the balance sheet. A study completed in 2016 showed 10-19% increase in sales, 14-29% increase in profits and 3-7% increase in customer engagement for organisations who implemented strengths interventions (https://hbr.org/2016/09/developing-employees-strengths-boosts-sales-profit-and-engagement). That’s argument three – you’ll get higher performance for longer when you support workers to play to their strengths more of the time.
4. Attraction and retention strategy – adopting strengths-based people practices and communicating that to potential recruits, as long as you have done the work to build the infrastructure internally, is a great way to attract new hires and to keep them. A recent study found that people who get to use their strengths every day are 3 times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, 6 times more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive and 15% less likely to quit their jobs (https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236561/employees-strengths-outperform-don.aspx). That’s the final argument – use strengths and you’ll hire people who will be happier, perform better and stay for longer.
The case for strengths: The against
Now to the con arguments, because we need balance and perspective here, and because there are, for sure, some con arguments. So here goes with four against:
1. Lack of evidence – if the strengths approach has been around for nearly 30 years, why is there not more peer-reviewed evidence for its utility in organisations? Where is the research in management and social science journals that points towards the strengths approach needing to be seen as a standard management and HR practice? This is a significant shortcoming. There is evidence for sure, but you have to look for it. And some of it, particularly from companies like Gallup, is proprietary, meaning that it won’t necessarily have been peer-reviewed outside the research team that did the research. So con argument one is that we need more solid evidence of the value of the approach in different work contexts.
2. Snowflake anxieties – what I mean by this is the concern from leaders and people professionals that in supporting people to focus on their strengths, we may be legitimising workers deciding to turn away from the parts of their work roles that they don’t enjoy, or making it okay for them to ignore their weaker areas. This is a fair argument if the approach hasn’t been fully understood or communicated well into an organisation that plans to adopt strengths-based practice. However, it’s important to know that the strengths approach doesn’t advocate ignoring the things you don’t enjoy or that you’re not naturally good at. Instead, it offers up options for how you can continue to do that work but with more energy and with a more collaborative approach. However, the perception has definitely held back the widespread take-up of strengths in some organisations.
3. Turning philosophy into practical – one of the strongest arguments against the strengths approach is that the idea of strengths is fine in practice…people get it quickly…but they can stumble when they try and introduce it practically into their performance management system, their recruitment approach, their talent management or succession planning processes and so on. So a big negative, explaining why the strengths approach is still only fully adopted by a minority of organisations is that to do it well, you need to do serious work to integrate it fully into your people processes. And that will often require some cultural shifts that are hard to achieve. BTW, this is why I will focus next week’s episode on how to practically weave strengths into some of the core aspects of your employee lifecycle.
4. Toxic positivity – the last con argument I want to cover today is the suggestion that by focusing solely on the positive, we might marginalise or exclude people who are feeling negative about their work, their team or the organisation for whatever reason. This argument, I believe, comes from a misunderstanding of the strengths approach, which I feel should always be balanced in its focus on maximising strength and mitigating performance risks, as well as giving time and space to all emotions, not just positive ones. The truth is that we are so familiar with our negativity bias that without something to counter it, we may in fact tip into toxic negativity too much of the time. So used well, the strengths approach can provide us with a healthy balance of perspective. But that shouldn’t detract from the possibility of focusing too much on the positive when people actually just want to sulk, vent or sit with their negative feelings because…well…that’s just how they feel.
Conclusion – there’s so much more to do, let’s not ignore strengths
So there you have it, four arguments for strengths relevance in 2023 and four arguments for strengths irrelevance. As always, I’m keen to hear from you if you’d like to add to, or challenge, anything I’ve said here. Please do that on our social posts or by getting in touch with me direct on LinkedIn.
In closing, for many people, strengths are qualities that they take for granted because they use them with such ease that they don’t pay them much attention, preferring instead to focus on the things that they feel are broken or in need of improvement.
But strengths, when understood and acknowledged, can be our greatest opportunity to contribute value to our work just because we tend to use them naturally to get things done. Imagine everyone in an organisation becoming more intentional in using their strengths, directing them towards work tasks, teaming better, leading more effectively. In my view, that remains a great opportunity as we head into 2023. Next time, I want to outline the practical approaches you can take across the employee experience to strengthen your organisation using the strengths approach. And if you can’t wait till then, in the blog version of today’s episode, over on the Strengthscope website, I’ve listed out individual previous podcasts that take you through the practice of strengthening your organisation’s:
- Performance management process
- Learning strategy
- Team development
- Leadership development
- Change management
- Career management
- and culture.
Till next time, stay strong.
Reference podcasts/blogs to help you strengthen your employee experience
- Performance improvement/coaching: S5E5: Upgrade your performance management process – setting expectations the strengths way
- Personal development and personal development plans: S12E10 What is strengths-based learning and development and why does it matter?
- Team performance: S7E8 Empowering your team with strengths
- Authentic leadership: S10E4 What is strengths based leadership and how can you get it?
- Resilience/overcoming challenge/dealing with change: S14E3 How to use your strengths to manage change and transformation
- Career conversations/management: S11E4 Busting career myths to build a strengths-based career
- Creating the culture: S11E7 Why building a strengths-based organisation is top priority for leaders