Leading with strengths

Whilst being interviewed for a radio show a couple of weeks ago, I was asked ‘what does it mean to take a strengths-based approach?’

As you might imagine, this is a question we get asked rather a lot, and is one that is worth taking some time to explore, to dispel some of the commonly held myths.

Strengths-based approaches DO allow space to discuss weaknesses

To start with, taking a strengths-based approach is not a call to ignore weaknesses and it doesn’t mean we discourage developmental feedback or that we suggest you should gloss over mistakes.  As strengths-based practitioners we know that understanding and managing the negatives is important. 

However, negatives are only part of the picture. If we focus solely on weaknesses when we are managing our own and others development, we are missing critical information about performance.

Strengths-based approaches aren’t about ‘providing a rounded picture’

To compensate for a negative focus, we often see people giving positive feedback to ‘balance things out’ or talking about both positives and negatives to give a ‘complete picture’.  Discussing all aspects of performance, both good and bad, is clearly more comprehensive, but it is not taking a strengths-based approach.

It’s not about using positives to sugar-coat

It wasn’t all that long ago that a common management practice was the ‘positive feedback sandwich’ – which essentially translates as using superficial positive praise to soften the blow of criticism.  Just in case you’re wondering, that’s not a strengths-based approach either!

It is about making strengths your default, not the after-thought

For us, a strengths-based approach means leading with strengths; it’s about putting strengths and successes at the forefront of how you manage yourself and others.  We advocate making an intentional effort to always look for what is working and for the strengths’ individuals are showing.  By looking for those things and reinforcing them through genuine, thoughtful praise you start to shift the focus away from the negatives and towards the successes.  And what you focus on grows; if those you are working with properly understand what their strengths are and how those are valued, they will better understand how they can be using them even more and to even greater effect. 

Which brings me to my final point for now…

Strengths-based approaches require a culture change not a questionnaire

Finding out your top 5 strengths may, or may not, be an important part of taking a strengths-based approach for you. Strengths questionnaires, workshops and other tools can play a really valuable part within an organisation’s or an individual’s journey towards understanding strengths.  But putting your managers through a strengths questionnaire or half day workshop does not constitute ‘taking a strengths-based approach’ within your organisation.  Taking a strengths-based approach is about everyone leading with strengths; it is about the daily practice of asking ‘what is working?’ rather than ‘what is failing?’; It isn’t about being able to quote the dictionary definition of your top strengths, it’s about understanding what those strengths mean for you and how they enable you to be at your best; It is about strengths-spotting in yourself and others and finding ways to use those strengths more.
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