Putting Your Strengths to Work

This article was previously published on Positive Psychology News Daily.

To the Rescue by Tommy Huynh

OK, so you’ve taken the VIA Survey to determine your character strengths.  And after reading one (or several) of Tom Rath’s books on “Strengths-Based Leadership,” you’ve taken the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test to get another perspective on what your strengths are.  You’ve even done the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to find out your personality type.  You are finally ready to use this newfound self-knowledge to turn your job into your calling.  But you may still be scratching your head and wondering, how do I do it?

This is precisely the question that Marcus Buckingham answers in his book, “Go Put Your Strengths to Work.”  According to Buckingham, the tests above give you valuable information, but they don’t really tell you everything you need to know to start applying your strengths in your every day life.  In fact, he argues that the tests above don’t really tell you your strengths at all; they tell you your talents.

“Talents” are innate abilities that each of us has, but that vary from individual to individual.  Talents are an important part of the strengths that we use every day, but they do not tell the whole picture.  In addition to talents, which are fairly stable over the course of a person’s lifetime, people also have “skills” and “knowledge”, which are developed as people learn and grow through practice and study.  According to Buckingham’s definition, a strength comes when someone determines the highly specific actions and circumstances where use of talents, skills, and knowledge leads to behavior that is energizing and successful.

Obviously, the word “strength” can be used in many different ways and so it’s pointless to debate the semantics.  However, there is tremendous value in analyzing and clarifying the specific instances where your strengths come into play.  I have been doing strengths workshops with hotel and spa employees, and while it is one thing to identify their top strengths or talents by using a standardized test, it is quite another to get them to identify their strengths in action.  No one is better than the individual at determining what a strength in action looks like, because only the individual knows how it feels in that moment.           

Buckingham also addresses weaknesses in his book.  In my training programs, the idea is not to ignore weaknesses, but to spend a little time really focusing on our strengths and how to do more of what we do well.  Because we tend to be biased towards the negative, we sometimes forget to do that.  But ignoring weaknesses would be creating a new bias that would be equally unhealthy. 

Buckingham addresses weaknesses in his book in a healthy way.  He provides tools to help determine your dominant weaknesses, that is, the ones that are really getting in your way.  He calls them your Kryptonite, referring to the substance that sapped Superman’s strength.  He suggests focusing on those and then not worrying so much about lesser weaknesses because, “Frankly, this time would be far better spent figuring out how to free up one of your strengths.”  

Buckingham’s book includes a series of exercises that people can use to get more clarity around their strengths and their weaknesses.  It also provides tips for applying that knowledge in the workplace.  Like Tom Rath in his book on Wellbeing (both Rath and Buckingham began their research working at Gallup,) Buckingham focuses on small incremental improvements rather than instant transformation.  The question to ask is, “How can I play to my strengths a little more this week than I did last week?”  Those incremental improvements, week after week, are the steps that can craft a job into a calling.

For more on this book, see Kathryn Britton’s excellent review in Positive Psychology News Daily.  Marcus Buckingham will be the keynote speaker next week at the International Spa Association annual conference in Washington D.C.  I’ll be sitting near the front–if you can make it, come say hello.

References and Recommended Reading:

Buckingham, M. (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance.  Free Press.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. Gallup Press.

Rath, T. (2010).  Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.  Gallup Press.

Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership. Gallup Press.

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