The importance of playing to your strengths

Most of us appreciate the link between creating fabulous experiences for clients and customers with having really engaged employees. But with a workforce that is typically diverse; how do leaders ensure everyone is engaged?

As a leader, I’m aware of the importance of having highly engaged employees; people who genuinely feel connected to why we do what we do, people who are passionate and positive and who are great team players, and people who are motivated to make a difference and really go that extra mile.

The right seat on the bus

But of all the things I have done to try and ensure I have really engaged employees, the most effective has quite simply been allowing people to play to their strengths. Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” talks about the importance of having the right people on the bus. I like to think that once the right people are on the bus, they can change their seat not just to move to a different (already existing) internal role but to move to a newly created role designed specifically to allow their unique strength to be utilised.

Numerous times, we have created new roles (new seats) to enable an individual’s strength to be capitalised on. And in these cases, the move created not only great results but real momentum within the business and wonderfully positive and inspired culture as a result. This is because enabling people to play to their strengths is a win-win scenario.

The power of identifying strengths

The business benefits because it can tap into the talent and improve individual performance and that individual feels much more engaged because they are doing more of what comes naturally to them. According to the Langley Group, recent research in the field of positive psychology has shown that people who use their strengths are (among other things) happier, more confident, less stressed, have higher energy and vitality, are more resilient and are more engaged at work.

Incorporating a ‘strengths profile’ into performance management is an effective way for managers and leaders to identify employees’ strengths. A 2002 study performed by the Corporate Leadership Council (now Gartner) surveyed 19,000 employees and managers and the results found that when companies focus on employee strengths during performance reviews, employee performance rose by 36%. Conversely, the results showed that when a weakness was focused on, it decreased performance by 27%.

I reflected on this and came to realise that when I’ve performed well recently, it was because I thought outside the box. Rather than allowing my progress to slow due to a hurdle, I thought of ways to remove the hurdle altogether. But in those circumstances, I’ve needed to feel confident, assertive and brave. But I was only able to be so bold because I believed in myself. And I was only able to believe in myself because I gained confidence from using my strengths; day in, day out.

And this was a long time coming for me. For a large part of my career, my focus was on my weaknesses (disguised as ‘areas of opportunity’) and that crippled me to be honest. I wasn’t using enough of those skills that tapped into my natural ability or what I was really passionate about. I wasn’t playing to my strengths enough. A lot of the skills that I needed in order to perform the required real effort.

Over time, and actually, without even realising it, I have been able to use more of my ‘natural skills’; my strengths and less of my ‘real effort skills’. I now surround myself with people with a different skillset from me who can do the ‘real effort skills’ for me, because for them, those skills come naturally. By identifying my weaknesses (now disguised as ‘effort skills’) and mapping them to someone else’s strengths, everyone is able to play to their strengths creating more win-win scenarios.

Things would have been a lot easier, not to mention more efficient if I had a framework that enabled me to:

  1. Identify my strengths
  2. Identify my weaknesses
  3. Map my weaknesses to other team members strengths

Having a strengths-based performance management framework is a good starting point. Many people can’t articulate their strengths; the strength is so innate in them it doesn’t feel that special to them and it is hard to identify. Having a framework in place is invaluable, as is having the opportunity to obtain feedback from peers and managers (common in performance management reviews) so an individual’s strength can be identified more easily.

Leaders should also consider the following in identifying employees’ strengths:

  1. Individual strength and weakness profiling – there are many commercial tools that provide profiling (for instance Myers Briggs) but there are also many free ‘social’ profiles that can be accessed too.
  2. Listening and observing their employees – generally speaking, when an individual is playing to a strength, they are more at ease. They appear relaxed yet are focused and energised. Their tone of voice changes (and moves from minor to major key), they speak with more passion and use more descriptive language.
  3. Real-time feedback – by highlighting an area of strength immediately after it is performed helps create self-awareness for the individual. It will also enable a ‘more of the same’ in terms of behaviour which may create real momentum for both that individual and the business.

By focusing on individuals’ strengths in a formal way, leaders can create not only engaged employees but a culture of high performance; all of which has benefits for the business, the clients or customers of the business and for all the employees. And that is definitely a win-win scenario.