Strengths in Business
Fiona Hunter has been working for over 20 years with strengths-based approaches and strengths-based practice. She works with groups and individuals from a wide range of organisations, both private and public sector. Her background includes social-work, counselling, negotiation, facilitation, individual and team coaching and fitness-training.
The new organisational terminology of ‘strengths-based’ or ‘strengths’ is becoming more common. What is this all about, where did it come from, and is it something you need to pay attention to?
The History of Strengths
Many teams and organisations tend to work in a way that can best be described as focusing on ‘improving weak areas’. At first glance, this seems perfectly normal, after all, this is the predominant was we have been trained to think about many aspects of our lives. In the Western world we seem to have an ‘unhealthy preoccupation with the negative’ – what could be called a ‘deficit-based model’. In almost every arena, you can find thinking that has started from ‘fixing weaknesses’. The mainstream western medical system seeks to ‘fix illness’ – which in itself is much needed – however, the ‘system’ as a whole does not seem to address the ‘creation of wellness’. Our education system studies truants to figure out how to keep kids in school. Even systems like ‘tax’ work on identifying those who try to avoid tax. None of these ways of working are wrong, however they do seem to be missing something, the potential, the ‘what might be’, the ‘what can we do to build on what is already working?’.
As a simple example, think of your last few meetings. Have you started any of them with a focus on “what’s going well?” If you have not done this, can you think of why not? Could it be that you yourself are actually caught in a self-reinforcing negative way of thinking and working? This model of thinking seems to suggest that if we uncover all this information and then do the complete opposite, we’ll have an ideal situation. Despite this way of thinking having produced many amazing advances, it somehow falls short of finding out what is possible. One of the dangers of this way of thinking, is that when you are in it, it can be very hard to see what you are doing, or that there may be alternatives. It can be a bit like a fish describing the water it is swimming in – how can you describe something that’s all around you and has been there since before you were aware? The answer is that you need a way to be able to ‘see from a different perspective’.
Why do we focus on the weak areas? What has happened to our way of thinking that we naturally seem to orient towards a deficit-based approach? If you take a moment to consider this, ask yourself how this prevailing way of ‘fixing weaknesses’ is working for you?
If you have a gut-feeling, or harbour a sense of there being a better alternative – you may be relieved to hear that there is! Groundbreaking work which started in the 1960’s is now becoming mainstream, and is being referred to as ‘strengths-based thinking’. The originators of this thinking include Martin Seligman, Ed Denier and Don Clifton – and they started asking themselves and their colleagues about this prevailing focus on the negative – and started to pose questions along the lines of “why do we focus on the depressed to understand happiness? Why do we focus on the ill to understand wellness? Why do we focus on truants to understand how to keep kids in school?” Their thinking sparked a movement now referred to as ‘positive psychology’, and whose aim is to bring more wellness and happiness into the world. It aims to accomplish this by focusing on what is already working well, and then seeks to build on this. For many, this is a novel idea – to start with what’s already working well!
Contrary to mainstream thinking, focusing on what we do well is actually the most effective way to improve, becoming better and better at the things we already have some ability at, and are drawn to. A key point emphasised by strengths-practitioners is that focusing on strengths does not mean ignoring areas that need attention, Marcus Buckingham formerly of Gallup recommends that you “focus on building strengths, and manage around your areas of weakness”. This is as true for organisations as individuals.
Whilst this may sound great, many managers and leaders consider focusing on strengths as a luxury, with this being disconnected from the realities of working in today’s pressured environments. They’d be wrong. Research from Gallup drawn from their Q12 survey, indicates that organisations focusing on maximising natural talents and strengths of their employees can:
- increase engagement by an average of 33 percent per year,
- increase sales by 11 percent,
- increase the profits by 10-15 percent in comparison to non-strengths oriented organisations,
- achieve 24 percent fewer unscheduled absences, and
- experience 13 percent lower employee turnover than the average
- can significantly reduce the number of health-related accidents in the workplace
Clearly, strengths-based approaches can work, and offer significant impacts for your organisation, your staff and you as an individual. The Gallup Q12 survey is one powerful mechanism to find out where your organisation is with regard to engagement and use of strengths, however, where you want to be is a strategic choice.
In short – strengths-based approaches work, are proven, well tested, and can be very easy.
Is this another fad?
Strengths-based thinking has been around for over 30 years, and in the last decade has been moving increasingly into the business world.
Now, before throwing up reasons for not trying something new – ask yourself how well your current approach is working, and try to be honest with yourself. Are you focusing on the positives, or do you focus on all the things that need ‘fixing’, both in your organisation, and in others? Does pointing the finger at your staff really get the job done? Does micro-management work, do tighter and tighter job-descriptions, stacks of processes and procedure manuals, or your constant oversight of the small details? How does this work for you? Do you have happy engaged and energised staff, great outcomes, satisfied clients and a great reputation – or perhaps not? If you take this thinking to a personal level, do you have great relationships with friends, family, do your kids engage freely and openly with you – or perhaps there are some things you’d like to experience differently in these areas.
Try two new things
What might happen if you created space one morning, sat down with your team, and asked one question, “what strengthens you?” and then let the conversation flow.
Just asking this question and then making space, really listening for the answer, could transform the team – if you listen, hear, inquire, really listen deeply and reflect then act mindfully on what emerges.
It is a fact of human nature that we are drawn to certain things, and repelled by others. There will be many things in the workplace that you are energised by – look for these, notice what they are, and try to incorporate more of them in your week. At the same time, look for the things that really drain you, that leave you feeling empty – these are things that you might need to consider ‘giving away’ or finding other coping strategies for.
What we are drawn to, we tend to practice more, we become more proficient, and start to enjoy even more. These things can be described as ‘personal strengths’. What do your team members feel drawn to individually, collectively – do you know? What kind of difference might there be if they managed to play to these strengths more often? Are you willing to step into this space of experimentation?
For a period of four weeks, once a week, take 15 minutes over a cup of coffee, whilst travelling to work or at a suitable time, to reflect on two aspects of your work and life.
Looking back – think about what has gone well in the last week, the situations that turned out well, the conversations that gave you a lift, the people who pleasantly surprised you, or the day that just felt good. As you think about these, notice how you feel about them – and if you can, use a notebook to capture a couple of sentences about what you are thinking about.
Looking forward – then turn your attention to the week ahead of you, and think about what the opportunities are for you to consciously look for strengths, the situations where you will deliberately look for positives – the meeting that you will be in, where you may quieten your normal critical voice, and instead look for the positive and openly recognise this. After you have tried this for a week or so, start to record the instances where you caught yourself, and then deliberately stepped into the strengths-based way of thinking.
After you have tried this small experiment for four weeks, take some time to reflect on what you have experienced, what you have felt, and what changes you might be seeing in others, and perhaps yourself. If you have done this, perhaps ask someone close to you if they have noticed anything in the last month.
Strengths-based thinking is easy, effective and can result in huge changes – and best of all, it starts where you are right now! What has happened to our way of thinking that we naturally seem to orient towards a deficit-based approach.
This article was written for HRINZ publication by Fiona Hunter.