This post is written for all leaders and aspiring leaders serious about enhancing their capacity to develop people and teams towards the most positive and preferred outcomes possible. The information presented here has been tried, tested and proven to enhance the capacity of managers towards greater leadership.
Success is achieved by developing our strengths not by eliminating our weaknesses.
— Marilyn vos Savant
Our work over the last 3 decades has confirmed 4 major sources of motivation and meaning, which we refer to as Core 4 (Needs, Values, Goals and Strengths). This piece will focus on strengths; specifically, on the importance and potency of a strengths-focus in leadership practice. The article aims to accomplish a set of important objectives, intended to:
- Highlight the Problem with Focusing on Problems
- Discuss the Unintended Consequences of a Problem-Focus;
- State Why Leaders Should Start with Strengths;
- Share Our Favorite Strengths-Focused Questions;
- Present the Profound Impacts of a Strengths-Focus and;
- Challenge Leaders to Consider 5 Simple & Practical Strategies.
A Problem with Problems
It is unfortunate that for many people, strengths-focused questions like, “what are your strengths?” or “what are you good at?” can be difficult to answer. Others find it easier to answer questions like “what’s not going well?” or “what are you not good at?”. Many of us, for a myriad of reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, spend a great deal of our time, energy and focus on problems.
Most approaches to behavior improvement and performance development continue to focus on deficits, weaknesses and/or undesirable behavior at the expense of strengths and successes.
Many conversations regarding improving behavior and/or performance are corrective in nature and focus on what needs to be modified and/or fixed altogether.
Unintentional Consequences of a Problem-Focus
A predominant focus on problems can have unintentional and unfortunate consequences for how people experience themselves. Simply put and for starters, it just doesn’t feel good. A consistent focus on problems can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, fear and can contribute to an increased sense of pessimism, helplessness and even hopelessness. Such feelings and experiences do little to positively motivate and engage people towards overall growth and success. A problem focus can limit potential and lead away from overall improvement.
When it comes to developing people and their potential, an attempt to eliminate limitations by focusing on problems, does little to build them up. A problem focused inquiry can inform us only on what is not preferred, what we don’t like and/or what we need to change and/or need to move away from.
Human possibilities are not found in problems, deficits or weaknesses. Our potential lives in our capacities; success and; overall growth can only be achieved, not by focusing on and eliminating weaknesses alone, but by searching for and developing our strengths.
Start with Strengths
Given the predominant problem-orientation that pervades most approaches to behavior and/or performance improvement it is critical that a strengths focus be made a priority in every interaction and engagement. When we are focussing on our own or others development, we must start with strengths!
Our Favorite Strengths- Focused Questions
All strengths approaches begin with an inquiry into what is going well. Our favorite strengths-focused questions are Appreciative Statements and Questions, Exception Questions and Better Questions.
Appreciative Statements and Questions are great for cultivating and identifying individual and group strengths that can be built upon and leveraged in the pursuit of important goals. It is not uncommon for appreciative questions to illuminate strengths and additional resources that are just outside of our and others ‘awareness.
- I like having you on the team, because you have a positive attitude.
- You’re good at talking through challenging situations.
- When and how have you succeeded before this?
- What are the good things that are going on right now?
- What do you like about being here (even if it’s one small thing)?
- What went well today; at your appointment; with your client, project etc.?
Exception Questions are based on the idea that no matter how difficult and/or challenging a problem is, there are always exceptions to the problem. This means that there are times and/or situations when the problem wasn’t so much of a problem. It is up to us to look for the exceptions in difficult or challenging situations so that we may discover the strengths and resources available in the exceptional times. When we can discover what was happening in the exceptional times, we can uncover and illuminate resource possibilities that have been ignored, minimized, and/or overlooked.
- Can you tell me about a time when you were able to get your work in on time? How did you do that?
- Can you tell me about a time when you felt anger toward a colleague and did something other than yelling at him?
- During your probationary period, you had excellent attendance at work. How could you do that? What was happening for you that helped you get here regularly and on time?
Better Questions can lead to the positive exceptions to difficulties as well as illuminate a variety of strengths and resources that were operating at that time. Better questions are quite versatile in that they can be used to focus on the past and/or to consider better in the future.
- Can you tell me about a time when things have been better for you?
- Can you tell me when you had a manager that made things better?
- Have there been times in your career when you were feeling and/or doing better?
- What are the first things you would notice if things were a little better at work?
- If things were just a little better for you in the office/program/company, what would work look like?
More than “Fluff” – Profound Impacts of a Strengths Focus
Strengths, as I have written about before, make up one of the four major sources of Most Meaningful and Motivation. When strengths are not identified, they lay dormant as an untapped resource for improving and optimizing individual and group development, success and overall well-being. The following represent some of the positive by-products that are the result of strengths-focused efforts.
It Feels Good
A focus on strengths feels positive, refreshing, and uplifting— just good overall. Imagine if this was the only benefit?! That alone is a pretty good outcome, given that usually when we feel better, we do better and the people we are responsible for do better also. Feeling good is great, and can be the beginning to improving the climate of the team and the organization overall.
Affirming and Validating
It is extremely affirming and validating to hear that we are saying and doing a lot of things right. Most people, to some degree, like to hear about their strengths as much as possible, especially in the tough times, when things may not be going well or when we feel like we are moving away from better. Being affirmed and validated around what we are doing well can act as a buffer, making us able to hear about or face with strength and courage the things we need to improve or develop further.
Sense of Real Competence and Confidence
A strengths focus points in the direction of successes and concrete results from efforts and accomplishments of both the past and the present. Real success from real strengths results in real competency. A strengths approach provides the valuable message that people are capable; they have done it, they can do it, and they will do it again! A strong sense of competence and confidence are invaluable assets for people who are developing others. Increased competence and confidence is directly linked to increased satisfaction, motivation, engagement and performance.
Provides Hope and Optimism
A strengths approach provides a great deal of hope and optimism by illuminating that there is more to us or a situation than just deficits, weaknesses or problems. Even if hope is all we have, it can be everything. Hope can sometimes mean the difference between giving up and getting up – giving in or giving it one more try.
A diligent and focused strengths inquiry can turn identified strengths into additional resource possibilities that were previously unnoticed and/or operating outside of awareness; a focus on strengths begets more strengths and successes. It increases the pool of possibilities—potential and available raw materials necessary for making the journey to better.
Simple & Practical – 5 Strategies for Leaders
- Prioritize a strengths-focus with yourself and all team members.
- Initiate interactions, meetings and performance reviews with, “What’s Going Well?”
- Begin to utilize the 3 types of strengths focused statements and questions offered here.
- Schedule a one-on-one with each staff member to discuss strengths only.
- Recognize and reinforce interactions and actions that are strengths-focused.
We, at The CORE Leader, wish you the best on your journey towards Greater Leadership!