What do you find energising at work?

‘The Strengths-Based Organization: How to boost inclusivity, wellbeing and performance’ by Emily Hutchinson and Caroline Brown is published by Practical Inspiration Publishing. Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne asked Emily, who is also our Associate Editor for Books, about the book.

Your book is a tool to help organisations implement a strengths-based approach – to focus on developing employees’ strengths rather than on improving weaknesses. Why do organisations tend to focus on weaknesses?

It is a very human thing to do, to focus on weaknesses! It is fairly well accepted that we have a natural negativity bias in the information that we notice, take in, process and retain. In the early stages of our evolution, this bias would have made perfect sense – in a survival situation, it would have been an advantage to be very alert to threats and our own weaknesses, so that we could take the right actions to stay alive. Therefore, we all have a tendency to do this, and it permeates most organisations – from the way that project reviews are conducted, to performance reviews, to investment in training and development. This bias makes less sense in non-life-threatening situations, because when we focus on the bad stuff, it really reduces our capabilities (rather than enhancing them). 

Even psychology has been prone to the same bias – traditionally psychology largely focused on the bad more than the good, but the positive psychology field has redressed this. And subsequent research has shown that there are many benefits of deliberately switching to focus on the positives.

How does a focus on strengths improve inclusivity, wellbeing and performance?

Taking a strengths approach directly boosts all of these three areas, as well as there being a multiplier effect. Strengths by their nature are unique to each individual, and so if we start to really focus on individuality, everyone becomes different (rather than just those in under-represented groups). As long as there is the organisational context to enable all those different voices to be heard (psychological safety) then this focus on the individual naturally results in greater inclusivity.

Strengths are also intimately linked to emotion – key to the definition is that they are activities that feel good to us when we do them. So, very simply, the more you use your strengths, the more positive emotions you feel. 

Finally, using your strengths – what you naturally enjoy, and find interesting, and get an emotional return from – leads to high performance that is sustainable. It is in the application of strengths to whatever you want to achieve, in consideration of the current context, that results in the highest performance. 

Are there any negative sides to not focusing on individuals’ weaknesses? Perhaps if someone only underwent some training for a specific weakness it would eventually become a strength.

Good question! It’s probably worth saying that we are realists. Caroline and I work with and within businesses, and it is highly unlikely that someone has a role which is perfectly matched to their strengths, 100 per cent of the time. So, it is important to have an awareness of weaknesses, but we advocate that this should be so they can be managed rather than automatically focusing on development. The point is that we are all more likely to be aware of our weaknesses (because of the negativity bias) than our strengths, and so we are trying to redress the balance, rather than ignore weaknesses completely.

We define a weakness as something that you don’t do well that also drains your energy. If you get no emotional return from an activity, it is unlikely that you ever will, and therefore spending too much time on this activity could result in burnout and certainly is likely to result in unproductive and poor performance. You could invest time and money in development here, but the return will be low, and the cost may be high.

Instead, we advise knowing and owning your area of weakness, but firstly asking whether it actually gets in the way of what you need to achieve. If it doesn’t, then don’t worry about it. If it does get in your way, we suggest that you try to manage it rather than develop it. For example, can you re-design your job in some way so that it has less impact? Can you work with a colleague who has a strength in that area? Could you use one of your strengths to counterbalance it? An example of this might be if you had a weakness in emotional awareness but a strength in explaining, you could use your explainer strength to communicate about emotions (even if you don’t feel them).

The last resort we’d suggest is to undergo development in a weakness – simply because the return on investment of developing a strength instead is so much higher. But if a weakness is really getting in your way, and you can’t manage it in any way, then develop it to just get it to an OK level.

As individuals, can we adopt this approach even if it’s not taken by our employers? If so, how do we recognise our own strengths? We might be tempted to look at areas of competency in our jobs, but in the book, you say, ‘competency matters, but strengths matter more’.

Yes, as individuals you can definitely adopt this approach for yourselves (and of course with those who work for or with you). The first step is to recognise what your strengths are. One way to do this is by simply starting to notice the activities that you really gravitate towards and enjoy (rather than are simply good at, which is competency). What do you feel compelled to do? How do you naturally approach things? What do you look forward to the most in your day? Or what do you feel a real sense of satisfaction with? You can also start to notice when others are looking really energised or alternatively really drained as that may indicate what their strengths are.

Once you have a feel for this, you can then start to think how you can approach anything that you are doing, by using your strengths. For instance, if you want to improve your leadership, reflecting on how you could use your love of planning to help you, or your love of connecting with others if you have that as a strength, will help to increase the likelihood of achieving good outcomes.

Are there any quick wins that employers or managers can implement straight away to introduce aspects of this approach?

We suggest that the strengths approach is best introduced by small tweaks and nudges to the way that you already do business, so absolutely, yes. For instance, if you are having a weekly team meeting, just ask everyone what they have done that they have enjoyed in the last week. This will not only start your meeting in a positive way, but it will start to reveal people’s strengths rather than just competencies or deliverables and really helps to build relationships. Or in performance reviews, ask what people have found energising in the last year and what they would love to do more of to deliver this year – it’s a very different conversation to reviewing objectives! In the book we cover the broad range of areas and touchpoints where strengths can be introduced in a very easy, low investment way. 

Finally, what are you hoping to achieve with the book?

We have been applying this approach for over ten years and have seen the impact. We wrote this book because we really wanted to share that more freely with others. We often get asked if any of this is written down, but couldn’t quite find the book to recommend, so ended up producing our own. We hope that this will give people enough understanding and insight to be able to start experimenting for themselves and make a real difference to the world of work.

-       Read Emily’s reflection on writing the book, and find out what’s on Emily’s shelf

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