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What is Strengths Focused Leadership?

“By celebrating what’s right with the world, we find the energy to fix what’s wrong.”

So says award winning National Geographic photographer, and Stephen Covey co-author, Dewitt Jones. His years of capturing the beauty, splendour and potential of developing nations convinced him that this focus on their strengths could advance their cause much more than berating their deficiencies. But does this outlook hold true for the modern leader and their people?

Today’s leaders strive for top results for their team and their organisation in a tough economic climate. Naturally they want to have a team that loves to be at work, really makes a difference and creates something of real value for everyone involved. But no matter how hard everyone works and how much they achieve, sometimes employees seem stressed and de-motivated. And that means they are not achieving their optimum potential.

And so what do we do? We hold an appraisal to see what’s going wrong.

Conventional wisdom has held for many years that our weaknesses represent our greatest opportunities for development, and that we should focus on fixing weaknesses (our own and our teams) in order to increase our chances of success. However research over the past decade has challenged some of these assumptions.

Focusing on what people do well can deliver measurable business returns, both in terms of hard results such as increased revenues and reduced costs as well as having a positive impact on “lead‟ indicators of future success such as customer engagement, improved morale, discretionary effort and personal wellbeing (a major contributory factor in absenteeism rates).

Research has shown that those who use their strengths more are happier, more confident and have higher levels of self esteem and congruency. This results in people who have higher levels of energy, experience less stress, are more resourceful and resilient and are hence more likely to achieve goals, perform better at work, be more engaged and more effective at developing themselves.

For example, recent research across the last decade shows these results:

Impact on Employee Performance

The Corporate Leadership Council studied 19,000 employees across 34 organisations and 19 countries. It found that an emphasis on performance strengths in appraisal was linked to a 36.4% improvement in performance. In contrast, an emphasis on performance weaknesses was linked to a 26.8% decline in performance. (Corporate Leadership Council 2002).

Impact on Employee Engagement

Rath and Conchie make it clear that the most effective leaders are always investing in strengths – theirs and others. They describe Gallup’s analysis of years of research with over one million work teams, which showed that leaders who focus on and invest in strengths increase engagement. They found that a dismal 1 in 11 (9%) staff were engaged when leaders focused on weaknesses, and a more hopeful 3 in 4 staff (73%) were engaged when leaders focused on strengths. So leaders who invest in strengths increase engagement eightfold in their teams and in their organisations.(Rath and Conchie 2008)

Work Unit Productivity

Harter, Schmidt and Hayes completed a meta-analysis of over 10,000 work units and over 300,000 employees in 51 companies. They found that work units scoring above the median on the question “I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day” had 38 percent higher probability of success on productivity measures. (Harter, Schmidt et al. 2002)

Customer Retention

The study of Harter, Schmidt and Hayes just mentioned also showed that work units scoring above the median on the question “I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day” had 44 percent higher probability of success on customer loyalty and retention. (Harter, Schmidt et al. 2002)

So, with all that evidence in mind, why do many employee appraisals and development programmes continue to focus on what’s not working? And even those businesses that focus on what people are good at sometimes miss a critical element of a real strengths focus.

It’s Not Just About What You’re Good At

Ask yourself, which of your key strengths are the ones that also really inspire and motivate you?

The answer to this question touches on a fundamental part of the definition of a strength. A real strength is more than simply something that you are very good at. It is also something that energises and motivates you.

A focus on strengths is a focus on what people are good at that also energises them, rather than just a focus on what they are good at. A focus on strengths is also a focus on building on people’s strengths rather than a focus on fixing people’s weaknesses.

The Strengths-Focused Leader

The leader of the team or business wishing to move towards a strengths focus has a critical role to play. A strengths focused leader is one who adopts and demonstrates the following principles, beliefs or mindset in their behaviour:

  • Everyone has strengths which can be harnessed and built on.
  • People will perform better, and be more motivated and engaged, and make a stronger contribution, if they are enabled to play to their strengths.
  • People perform at their best when expectations are clear and when they are supported and challenged to match the expectations as closely as possible with their strengths.
  • Helping people identify their strengths helps them use them more.
  • Teams can play to their strengths more if they identify one another’s strengths.
  • Recruit to strength (competence plus energy), not competence alone.
  • Celebrating strengths and what is working gives people the energy to address their weaknesses and what is working less well or not working at all.
  • I view my own and others’ weaknesses from a position of strength – looking at how we can use our strengths to address any significant weaknesses

How To Become a Strengths-Focused Leader

Mike Roarty and his co-author Kathy Toogood have developed the MORE Model, which gives leaders an easy to remember framework for comprehensively incorporating a strengths focus into everything that they do as a leader, in order to get the most out of their people, their potential and their performance.

We design bespoke strengths-focused programmes for our customers including some or all of the following elements:

    • Leadership development and coaching – which brings a keen understanding of natural strengths and talents
    • Performance management/improvement/induction – to ensure that line managers understand what energises and motivates direct reports, rather than solely focusing on problems/deficits and fixing them
    • Teambuilding – to give teams clarity on who has which strengths, help understand the team‟s natural talents and gaps and use this information in resourcing and project delivery, and increase trust, openness and respect
    • Talent development/career development/transition – to help individuals to understand the best fit for their strengths as regards future roles and formulate career decisions according to those strengths
    • Organisation development – to build a resilient, appreciative, constructive culture which understands its strengths, talents and weaknesses and plans accordingly
    • Selection – to select individuals who fully understand the strengths and talents that they can bring to a role and who can demonstrate where they have used their strengths to contribute value in the past

Fig. 1 The MORE Model

(Roarty and Toogood 2012)

Supported by a strengths-focused mindset, establishing strengths in a team or organisation follows the following 4 steps:

M Identify & develop My own strengths
O Identify and develop the strengths of Others
R Apply a strengths focus to Regular conversations
(1-2-1s, team meetings, coaching etc)
E Apply to Employee processes (Performance & development planning, recruitment etc.)
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