What do you mean by strengths-based feedback?
There’s no doubt about it… there’s something about focusing on strengths when delivering feedback, or even when you’re just having a conversation with someone, that lights them up. What I mean by a focus on strengths is when we home in on someone’s natural talents, passions and strengths. When we notice the stuff that they naturally do well or excel at and that seems easy for them.
Maybe it’s because when we’re talking strengths, we’re actually talking energy. So when noticing and appreciating someone’s strengths, you’re more likely to see a visible reaction in them, as their natural passions and energies come to the surface.
Maybe it’s because we’re so suppressed by our intrinsic negativity bias that when someone gives us positive feedback on our strengths, it gives us a moment of happiness and lightness as we’re ‘seen’ at our best.
Whatever the reason, it’s definitely a thing. So here I want to throw the spotlight on the power of strengths-based feedback – when to do it, how to do it and what happens because of it.
First of all the science – are there studies that demonstrate the power of strengths-based feedback?
There are a few. First up is a study by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2006 found that focusing on strengths in appraisals leads to a 36% jump in performance vs. a 27% decline when focusing on weaknesses (Corporate Leadership Council, 2006).
More recently, the CIPD found that civil servants whose managers had attended a workshop on leading strengths-based conversations went on to report one-to-one conversations that were more effective in supporting their performance. They also reported that they had more frequent personal conversations with their manager like, for example, discussions of personal issues and career ambitions and non-job-related conversations (CIPD, 2017).
I’ve included both of these references at the end of the blog.
How can you deliver strengths-based feedback?
So I have two practical ideas on this: 1. strength spotting and 2. when you see strengths create value. Both of these situations can offer up great moments to invoke the power of strengths based feedback. I also want to touch on framing. First though…
Strength spotting (when energy becomes visible). So sometimes when you’re in conversation with someone, and particularly if you’re talking about something they’re passionate about, work-related or otherwise, you can see how quickly they become animated. Even people who have Emotional control strengths and who wouldn’t normally show so much emotion will be visibly more energised and engaged as they talk about the things they’re passionate about.
When you tell someone that you see this and in particular if you are able to dig a little deeper and help them uncover where that energy may be coming from, it can be tremendously insightful for the person who you’re giving the feedback to. Particularly if you (or even better they) can link it to their strengths.
I’ve got a recent example of a first meeting between me and a new member of the Strengthscope team. At our first ever time of meeting, we spent a good 30 minutes chatting about things that we had in common, interested to learn more about the other person’s passions and interests and to share our own. We got super energised when we found something that overlapped. At one point, I asked ‘have you got a collaboration strength’. And the colleague I was speaking too said ‘I do actually, it’s one of my top 3’. ‘Me too’, I said. So that’s why we were getting so into finding things we had in common – it’s the energy we both have for connecting with others by finding common ground. Powerful when just one person has it, but when two collaborators get together, watch the energy increase. Lightbulb moment right there.
The second area of strengths-based feedback I want to touch on here is when strengths create value. So this is during meetings or projects or just anywhere at work when you see someone’s strength deliver a shed load of value (which often they won’t realist at all). The reason this is super powerful is that for most of us, we don’t spend nearly enough time recognising or honing our strengths. Instead we work on fixing our weaknesses.
So when someone says – “I really appreciated your Results focus in that meeting. It was so clear that you wanted us to get to a conclusion and allocate actions, and it was exactly what the meeting needed. Thank you,” you know that the reaction is likely to be a mixture of surprise and delight. Surprise because we often don’t know when we’re using our greatest assets, our strengths, because we take them for granted. And delight because it’s amazing to be acknowledged and appreciated for the qualities where we can naturally create value at work.
The final point I want to make here is about ‘framing’, that is the lens you use when asking a question or when giving feedback. In our Strengthscope360 tool, we ask the people providing the feedback several open-ended questions relating to strengths. For example: ‘How could this person use their strengths even more effectively in their role?’ and ‘What do you really appreciate about this person’s contribution to the organisation?’. The framing of these questions is entirely positive and strengths-based. So even though the first question is asking the feedback provider to suggest ways they could ‘do better’, the framing on strengths makes the answers palatable and constructive to receive rather than them being overly harsh or critical and therefore easier to reject. So always keep ‘framing’ in mind when giving others strengths based feedback.
What about the shadow side of strengths – any tips on giving feedback in these situations?
It would be wrong of me to ignore the shadow side of people’s energies and strengths when considering strengths-based feedback. And I’m talking here specifically about two areas: 1. When strengths go too far (strengths in overdrive) and 2. Energy drainers and working around them.
Taking strengths in overdrive first – this is when a strength goes too far in a given situation and leads to unintended consequences like losing the audience or overwhelming someone when you didn’t mean to. Examples might be Enthusiasm in overdrive looking like steamrollering others and not listening to other points of view. Or Empathy in overdrive feeling too intimate or nosey to someone else. The thing to remember is that a strength in overdrive IS STILL A STRENGTH.
So when you’re thinking about giving feedback on a strength potentially going into overdrive, it’s helpful to remember times when you’ve seen that same strength used powerfully and positively so that you can provide helpful pointers if appropriate. When framing the feedback, start by asking the person ‘Did you feel any strengths into overdrive happening in that meeting/conversation?’, before you offer your observations. Being given the time to reflect may well lead to a better result as the feedback recipient is being invited to come up with their own insight and solution rather than you proposing one.
If it makes sense to bring it up, the classic strategy to counter a strength in overdrive is to find another antidote strength that will create a different outcome. Like moving from Enthusiasm to Emotional control or Compassion to let others in. Or moving from Empathy to Critical thinking or Results focus to move the conversation forward.
Secondly, giving feedback on energy drainers can be enlightening and liberating for others. For many people, their draining areas may well be areas of great skill for them. But if you say ‘I notice that you seem quite low energy with this task, why might that be?’, again that space for reflection can give someone opportunity to notice that what they’d always thought of a strength is actually not giving them energy at all. In situations like that, maybe they could think about a different approach they could take to managing the draining task – changing their focus on it, or perhaps finding someone else who would be more energised to take it on.
Starting conversations with strengths – opening the door to a productive conversation
So there are my tips today on leveraging the power of strengths-based feedback. Bringing a strengths perspective to a feedback conversation, or frankly to any conversation, so often leads to the discussion opening up into areas that you wouldn’t have imagined before you went there. Give some of my ideas a go and you’ll see what I mean. Till next time, stay strong.
Corporate Leadership Council (2006). From Performance Management to Performance Improvement: Leveraging Key Drivers of Individual Performance. From: http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/human-resources/performance-development/academic/assets/docs/further-reading/ceb-research.pdf.
CIPD (2017). Strengths-based performance conversations: an organisational field trial. https://www.cipd.org/uk/knowledge/reports/strengths-based-conversations/