Dr. Nicole Tschierske

How to Leverage Your Strengths at Work

Are you aware of and in tune with your and your team members‘ strengths? For example, I know I’m very good at creating structure – it’s one of my strengths. I’m good at getting an overview of the situation, sorting out elements that don’t belong or aren’t useful, and then clustering what remains into logical categories. And I’m also great at arranging everything into folders, lists, process steps, routines, project plans, and so on. In short, I thrive when I can turn a mess into something useful and organised. It’s something I could do all day, every day. It’s the perfect challenge to use my strengths of judgement and creativity.

I’m also good at maintaining structure, but it costs me tremendous energy. I can keep spreadsheets updated, follow up on loose ends, carry out routines, and follow process steps to a tee. Although I can do it, I don’t particularly like to or want to. I know it’s necessary for many aspects of life and work, so I learned to do it. Building a career and doing work that features creating structure suits me. But continuously having to maintain and manage that structure would leave me dissatisfied in the long run.

So here are a couple of questions for you. Have you built your career around your strengths? And do you lead your team by strengths?

Let’s explore this topic in more detail.

What are strengths and why do they matter at work?

First thing first, what do we mean by strength? How do we define the concept? Various definitions exist, so for the purpose of this, let’s think about strength as something that we’re good at and that we like doing. This may be a short and simple explanation in the sea of possible ones, but it’s important when it comes to people’s development and striving to bring out the best in others.

Too often in a corporate environment skills or competencies are mistaken for strengths. But there’s a significant difference. Skills and competencies are not truly innate – they are things that we trained ourselves to be able to do but that we don’t necessarily enjoy. If you continuously give tasks to your team members based on their competencies (rather than their true strengths), instead of feeling more energised by the task, they will end up feeling drained.

This matters even more when we look at the research that investigated the effects of using our strengths more often. As Dr. Michelle McQuaid summarised so beautifully in her Business Case for Strengths:

  1. People who use their strengths more are happier. Studies have found they report lower levels of depression, higher levels of vitality, and good mental health  (Seligman et al., 2005; Gander et al., 2012; Mitchell, et al, 2009)
  2. People who use their strengths more experience less stress. Studies have found they report higher levels of positivity; and in particular, the character strengths of kindness, social intelligence, self-regulation, and perspective appear to create a buffer against the negative effects of stress and trauma (Wood et al., 2010; Park & Peterson, 2009; Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
  3. People who use their strengths more feel healthier and have more energy. Studies have found that greater endorsement of character strengths is associated with a number of healthy behaviours, including leading an active life, pursuing enjoyable activities, and eating well (Proyer et al, 2013; Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
  4. People who use their strengths more feel more satisfied with their lives. Studies have found individuals who are satisfied with life are good problems-solvers, show better work performance, tend to be more resistant to stress, and experience better physical health (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Proyer et al., 2011; Buschor, Pryoer & Ruch, 2013; Brdar & Kasdan, 2010; Proyer, Ruch & Buschor, 2012; Gallup, 2013a; Rath, 2007; Harter, Schmidt & Keyes, 2003).
  5. People who use their strengths more are more confident. Studies have found that both strengths knowledge and strengths use are significantly associated with self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-confidence  (Govindji & Linley, 2007; Minhas, 2010; Hodges & Harter, 2005).
  6. People who use their strengths more experience faster growth and development. Studies have found that positive self-monitoring and strengths building are particularly suited to circumstances when you’re learning something new, something difficult, or something perceived as difficult (Kirschenbaum, et al, 1982).
  7. People who use their strengths more are more creative and agile at work. Studies have found that the feelings of authenticity, vitality, and concentration created by developing strengths help people to better adapt to change, engage in more creative and proactive behaviours, pay more attention to detail, and work harder (Dubreuil, Forest, & Courcy, 2013; Harzer, & Ruch, 2014).
  8. People who use their strengths more feel more satisfied and experience more meaning in their work. Studies have found that people who use four or more of their top character strengths at work are more likely to experience job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning in their work  (Littman-Ovadia, & Steger, 2010; Wrzesniewski, et al, 1997, Harzer, & Ruch, 2012; Harzer, & Ruch, 2013; Peterson, et al, 2010; Littman-Ovadia, & Davidovitch, 2010)
  9. People who use their strengths more are more engaged in their work. Studies have found that employees who have the opportunity to regularly use their strengths at work each day are up to six times more engaged in what they’re doing (Minhas, 2010; Gallup, 2013b; Gallup 2013c; Clifton & Harter, 2003; Crabb, 2011)
  10. Managers who focus on people’s strengths experience improved team performance and greater success. Studies have found that leaders who focus on the strengths of employees benefit from lower levels of staff turnover, higher levels of productivity, more satisfied customers, and greater profitability (Corporate Leadership Council, 2004; Hodges, & Asplund, 2010; Clifton & Harter, 2003; Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002). 

Are you playing into your strengths at work?

So with all those benefits, what is holding you and your team back from making better use of your strengths? For one, we often don’t know our own strengths. We don’t usually talk about them – it’s not common to do so. The only time at work when we intentionally think about our strengths is when we prepare for a job interview. And in those situations, we often default to terms like ‚organised‘ or ‚driven‘ because lack the vocabulary to explain what we do well and love doing.

Or we overuse our strengths in a way that they start to sound a lot like weaknesses. Because with strengths, there can be too much of a good thing as demonstrated below.

One last idea I want to mention is that instead of using our strengths and those of others in synergy so they can benefit from one another, we’re sometimes a bit ‚allergic‘ to other people’s strengths. We can perceive them as threats or misinterpret someone playing into their strengths as a relationship conflict, especially if their strengths differ from ours.

How to encourage your team to use their strengths

Based on these stumbling blocks, here are some concrete ways to help your team members leverage their strengths, use them more wisely, and reap the benefits that come with them.

Create awareness around strengths

Start by building your own strengths vocabulary. To get you started, you can use some of the below as a starting point for conversation or inspiration when interacting with your team. Of course, this is only a short high-level introduction to the topic of strengths, and I highly recommend you delve into this further. You can, for example, take the VIA Character Strengths self-assessment

Or, you can take a look a look at the below and find more information and inspiration from Strengths Profile.  

Observe your team members

Another proactive step you can take is to purposely observe your team members. In what situations do you see a particular strength being demonstrated? Pay close attention to when they are at their best. For example, notice when challenging tasks come easily to them. When does their face light up? Or when do they speak more fluently and with more animated body language? Those are the moments when people tap into (or speak about) their own strengths.

So make a point to verbalise what you see. For example, consider saying things along the lines of:

  • In our last team meeting, you shared so many new and different ideas. You have a true strength of creativity there!
  • Or, you seem to be really proud of the new folder structure you implemented for our team. I like that you enjoyed working on that. It really shows that prudence is a key strength of yours.

You don’t have to wait for a formal occasion to do this – it can be something you do every day as long as it’s sincere. Sure, you can emphasise your points and discuss your observations more at length during annual appraisals or performance reviews, but make it a regular habit. Also, consider using this ’strength spotting‘ technique for any feedforward conversation

Help your team member adjust their intensity of strengths to the situation

For example, instead of talking about ‚being too outspoken‘ as a weakness that someone needs to fix in order to succeed in the company, you can help someone see that while honesty is a key strength they have, they also need to learn to perhaps dial it down in certain contexts. That way, it doesn’t become a pitfall. We all know that in some cases honesty can hurt others. And sometimes comments are delivered at inappropriate timing or not received in the way we intended them. 

Needless to say, we can overuse strengths, but we can also underuse them. So instead of framing a particular trait as a weakness, you can switch the conversation around. Let’s say that you noticed that one of your team members can be particularly negative in conversations or during brainstorming. Instead of asking them to ’stop the negativity‘ you can suggest that they ‚dial up their strength of hope‘. This may help them become more aware of their how they sound to others and encourage them to follow a different approach.

Here are a few more examples (Niemic, 2017):

Too littleWell-tunedToo much
Show zero interest in what’s going on in the team/ companyUsing the strength of curiosity to explore new options or seek out novel topicsBeing nosy and prying on others or spending more time on discovery than execution
Being indifferent to how others are doing and continue with business as usual even when others are distraught Using the strength of kindness to do good things for others and have genuine concern for their wellbeingBeing intrusive to others and overbearing by trying to help them with everything even without asking
Selfishly putting your own needs first and never volunteering to chip inUsing the strength of teamwork to collaborate well and participate in team effortsBecoming dependant on the team and not moving forward unless others are part of it
Being overly serious about everything and too focused on the ‘what’ of workUsing the strength of humour to have a laugh together (for example, making the meetings more fun)Being giddy in all the wrong moments and maybe disrupting focused work
Being unreflected about how work is done or which decision should be madeUsing the strength of judgement for critical thinking and rationality Becoming narrow-minded or cynical about new proposals and ideas

Use strengths knowledge to improve collaboration in your team and beyond

Another step you can take is to observe synergies taking place between members of your team. Or sometimes, this could be between a member of your team and someone else in the company. Identify the strengths that are at play and how they amplify each other in the best way. Don’t forget to also highlight that to the people involved and take a moment to celebrate such synergies.

You can also help resolve colliding strengths. Think about team members who might continuously butt heads with other people, for example. Get curious and try to identify the strengths they each express in those moments. Also, help them resolve the issue with a strength lens rather than a conflict lens.

Here is an example of creativity vs judgement, as described by Ryan Niemic (2017) where “the out-of-the-box thinker clashes with the reflective discerning person.” While one wants to keep sharing ideas, the other one only wants reasonable ideas. So how might you facilitate the conversation to give room for both strengths to work together? Or if you are one of those people, how might you approach the situation to lower your or the other person’s frustration?

You may notice that in order to add value in these contexts, you need to become aware of and better at describing what’s happening. Help each person explore and understand how they see a situation. Which of their character strengths are they using? Together, discover how these strengths play out and what their driving forces are. In what way can each person adjust their strengths to be optimal for a situation? It’s not about planning what comes next here. It’s about making sure that everyone commits to an action they are prepared to take right now and then think about similar situations in the future and how they might be managed more wisely (Niemic, 2017).

So what will you do to help your team leverage their strengths at work? 

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​