Strengths-based leadership, coaching and development

A number of years ago now, I attended a WomenEd conference where first I learned about what knowing your own strengths might unlock. I learned about leading with them, nurturing them and relying on this origin as a foundation for continued growth and development.

I’ve always been someone whose found it a struggle to identify my strengths; inclined instead to dwell on my shortcomings, pick them apart and find myself wanting. I’ve frequently felt nervous to reveal myself. I organise. I control. I edit in case others also find me to be less than.

Whenever I meet people who offer up the entirety of their selves easily and without edit, I am always in awe. It is only in a climate of deep trust and belonging that I’ve felt brave enough to take tentative steps towards sharing my true nature and strengths with those around me. Someone confident and assured, playful and warm, articulate and positive. These moments are rare, hard-earned, and never far from retreat.

Adulthood, it feels to me, is a continual process of seeking myself out, wondering where I’ve gone and finding myself once more, if only for a fleeting moment. I catch glimpses of myself and then she’s gone again. Since I’ve seen her so rarely over the years, I don’t know her strengths as well as I might.

‘I am looking for myself and I am trying not to yell in case I scare myself away'

Iain S Thomas, The Truth of You

On the journey to getting to know myself and my strengths, I got trapped in the many layers of my strengths: the ones that existed in every context and those that existed only in some. I became curious about those that lived on the surface and those left to be unearthed. As I became curious on this journey, I wondered how knowing the strengths of those I worked closely with might be helpful so I begun to incorporate strengths work into the leadership and coaching of my teams. There are a couple of key tools that have helped me along the way and they are tools that I continue to use to this day.

 

Evidence from research

Before we take a look at the tools, let’s consider some of  the research evidence behind this strengths-based approach to leadership, coaching and development.

Some studies exist to point towards effectiveness and there’s also some evidence that a strengths-based approach may have a positive impact on wellbeing but the effect sizes are minimal at best

There’s evidence to suggest that we believe we can improve on our weaknesses and feel more motivated to focus on these but could “false hope syndrome“, the ‘unrealistic expectations’ we possess ‘about the likely speed, amount, ease, and consequences of self-change attempts’, be one possible driver of this behaviour? As I understand it, humans are shockingly bad at identifying our own weaknesses and evaluating our own performance so there’s a risk involved in focusing on self-assessment at all when it comes to our own development. If we are able to successfully identify our own strengths, then there’s also a possible risk that focusing on them may enhance them to our detriment, falling foul of the “too much of a good thing” effect.

It’s worth saying that I don’t know the research base on this especially strongly. It’s also worth knowing that publication bias in scientific research makes it far more likely that we’ll encounter positive outcomes over negative. Psychology has a reputation for engaging with WEIRD participants so the results are rarely representative of the population, and there are often replication problems in studies.

So, a strengths-based approach may or may not work. The research seems promising but less than conclusive. Perhaps it’s one tool that some leaders may find useful, especially if used alongside a coaching approach and feedback.

I’ll now provide an insight into how I’ve used strengths-based coaching tools as one approach to developing my team and myself. Whatever tool I choose when I’m working with my team, there are some key principles that guide my approach:

  • Discussion of strengths takes a coaching format with probing questions designed to elicit when strengths have emerged and how
  • It’s one tool to support meaningful conversations about performance that moves beyond target setting and appraisal
  • A strengths-based coaching session occurs 2-4 times a year and forms the basis of summative feedback
  • Enhancement of wellbeing is central to the approach
  • Critical feedback and discussions of deficits are not absent from my leadership approach
  • Formative feedback arrives beyond these sessions and often
 
Let’s now take a look at the tools.
 

Strengths Finder

This book and associated questionnaire lay the foundation for my understanding of strengths work, namely that ‘you cannot be anything you want to be – but you can be a lot more of who you already are’ (Rath 2007). This seemed, early on, to be a development approach that would work with my nurturing leadership style and naturally positive disposition. I had a new team I was getting to know and so we engaged with this exercise to understand one another better, our natural working preferences, and the areas of strength to nurture, build on, and launch development from.

After reading a short introduction in this book, you’re invited to complete a questionnaire and discover your unique combination of strengths, although given the world’s population it seems unlikely that your combination would be entirely unique!

Once your strengths have been revealed, you have the opportunity to read more about them, how they might appear, how you can maximise them, and helpfully, how you can prevent them from becoming ‘too much of a good thing’.

Of myself, I learned that my core strengths might be achiever, input, intellection, learner and restorative. So what does all of this mean and how do they play out for me?

Achiever: ‘You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself… You have an internal fire burning inside of you It pushes you to do more, to achieve more’. You bring enthusiasm and momentum to a team as ‘the prospect of what lies ahead is infinitely more motivating than what has been completed’ (Rath, 2007). Since burnout and excessive productivity are risks for me, there’s advice to prevent this such as putting in place timelines and goal measurement so that I’m better able to ascertain when I’m ‘done’. There are suggestions to build in celebration and recognition into my life in order to resist the temptation to move straight on to the next thing, never actually feeling good about any of my successes. I should also ensure all meetings are accompanied by a clear set of objectives so there’s a positive outcome to be achieved from them.

Input: ‘You are inquisitive. You collect things… Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity’ (Rath 2007). It’s recommended that I devise a storage system for filing and locating information I collect. I wrote about this strength recently when I shared how I nurture my garden of knowledge using Google Keep. It’s also important to recognise with this strength that ‘input without output leads to stagnation’. That’s why writing or blogging is one habit I must maintain. When I don’t write, I begin to feel sluggish.

Intellection: ‘You like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection… Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.’ Once again with this strength, ‘writing might be the best way for you to crystallise and integrate your thoughts’ (Rath 2007). To maximise this strength I should capture my ideas to provide later insight and get involved at the front end of projects rather than joining at the execution stages so that my ideas don’t come too late. I should also schedule energising time for thinking; this is my inhale time and an opportunity to balance out my achiever strength.

Learner: ‘You love to learn… The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered’ (Rath 2007). Short projects work well for me and they are an opportunity for me to learn a lot in a short amount of time and apply it. Gaining more technical competence is significant to me and I should take the time to celebrate the progress I make. Having learning needs met at work is important though engaging in more formal learning may be helpful too.

Restorative: ‘You love to solve problems. You enjoy the challenge of analysing the symptoms, identifying what is wrong, and finding the solution… you enjoy bringing things back to life… Intuitively, you know that without your intervention, this thing… might have ceased to function. You fixed it, resuscitated it, rekindled its vitality’ (Rath 2007). With this strength, it’s vital that I avoid the temptation to be overly self-critical in my journey to fix knowledge and skills gaps, and that I crucially avoid the tendency to solve others’ problems for them.

I share these strengths here since writing is one way I process my learning but also to expose the level of detail the book will reveal about what makes you tick and how to manage your strengths to best effect. I find it useful to revisit these strengths periodically and consider how they show up for me in my work and life, whether I could rely on them more, how I might draw on them as a source of energy at times of challenge, and my team are encouraged to do the same. One thing this list has helped me to do is begin to value my natural introversion and thoughtful nature far more, seeing the ways in which it gives rise to many of my other valuable traits and behaviours. Since I completed the questionnaire years ago, I also often read through the other strengths in case they resonate with me more. I’m yet to find much divergence from these five though I do feel there are significant parts of me that are not represented in this list so I wonder what might be revealed by doing the questionnaire after this period of growth and getting to know myself better..

 

At My Best

Strengths cards scattered on a round glass table

I bought this set of cards a few years back, I have since also added the questions set and use them frequently with my team and myself – and not only because they’re beautiful items to hold made on glossy thick card with rounded edges and high-quality print.

On one side of the cards is an image and on the other, a strength. There’s no guidebook about what either the images or the words mean and that’s why they’re a great tool for a coaching conversation since the freedom exists to create the meaning for ourselves.

I use the cards in various ways at different points of the year with my team but the approaches I take consist of some combination of the following:

  • Sift through the words and select a long list of strengths that resonate.
  • Work quickly and rely on your immediate response as you see each word without questioning it.
  • Narrow this long list to a short list that are most representative of you, the last 6 months, you in this role…
  • Describe how you think each one shows up for you
  • Share the specific evidence that  surfaces in relation to each one
  • Determine the extent to which you’ve been able to use these values in your role, the last 6 months..
  • Consider how these strengths might be helpful when faced with challenges
  • Determine how these strengths a source of energy in your work
  • Identify how these strengths may have a ‘dark side’ for you
  • Consider how you can be aware of this and counter the effects
  • As a team, select the strengths we value in one another
  • Provide evidence for choices
  • Identify collective strengths we hold as a team when we combine our individual strengths
  • Select an image that represents us as a team
  • Select an image that describes how you’ve felt at work in your role, the last 6 months…
  • Describe what it represents to you
  • Select an image that captures the essence of you
  • Describe it
  • Select a strength you’d like to develop further in your role, over the next 6 months…
  • Identify how you might utilise your other strengths to help you achieve this development
 

Within these approaches are common probing questions I’m inclined to ask. Having the additional set of question cards opens up new avenues for us to explore. Prior to a strengths session, I plan the approaches that will be useful for that team member at that moment in time and I might also select some question cards to accompany the conversation. At other times, I might give the question cards to my team member and ask them to select the questions they feel drawn to explore or the ones that may unlock possibilities in relation to a challenge they’re currently facing. 

In using the cards for my own development, I find that they’re most useful at considering a snapshot in time. The strengths I’m utilising in my role and those I’m neglecting. The strengths I have in particular situations or to sustain me through particular moments. Some of these strengths might appear more frequently than others indicating their dominance. Turning the cards over, I select images I’m drawn to that represent a particular strength. I spend time journalling about their meaning since writing helps me to process my thoughts and learning.

 

The process of getting to know myself has become a lifelong preoccupation. It’s sustained by getting to know the strengths of others and it’s enriched by the words of those who know me best. Since embarking on my strengths journey, I celebrate that over recent years, I’ve come to recognise, nurture and begin to live life wholeheartedly with my strengths; acknowledging that I will inevitably err frequently (daily!) along the way but that I no longer have to treat such moments in the way I once did. My compassion can be turned in as well as out, my preference for quiet can be indulged, and my desire to write can be prioritised.

References

Rath T (2007) Strengthsfinder 2.0. Gallup Press: New York.

Thomas S (2021) The Truth of You. Andrews McMeel: Missouri.

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