A Practical Look At Strengths

If you stick me in a room with at least one other person, there is a small chance that I will start talking about my latest ‘favorite’ book (or two). Earlier this week, I played golf with an old friend when I started talking about several books that I had recently read. I like sharing what I learn. After hearing me talk myself blue in the face, my buddy innocently asked, “Doug, how many books do you read in a month?” (I think the question was more of a statement, actually – “Please stop talking about books and just play golf!”)

In any event, it made me think about the time that I invest in learning and what makes me recommend a book. I want to be able to put the concepts from a book to good use in my work and/or personal life. If I take the time to read something (and scribble a set of unintelligible notes in the margins), I would like it to have a lasting, positive effect for me. The trouble, however, is that most personal and professional development books are long on theory but short on practical application. The Strengths Book, written by Alex Linley, Janet Willars, and Robert Biswas-Diener, does a masterful job of combining the latest research in positive psychology with straightforward tips that are easy to implement.

Most books on this subject give sound advice – spend more time working on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. The Strengths Book realizes that this approach is too simple. All of our behaviors and thought patterns cannot possibly fall into two neat little buckets (strengths or weaknesses). The conversation about strengths needs to expand and the authors have done well by giving us more to work with in our pursuit of higher levels of productivity and engagement.

First, they introduce the concept of “unrealized strengths.” They define these as “…things at which you perform well, find energizing, but don’t do very much.” They are our greatest area for growth and improvement. By

finding new ways to apply these hidden strengths, we open ourselves up to new possibilities and ways of thinking.

Second, the authors tell us to identify our “learned behaviors.” These are defined as “…things at which you perform well, but which you find de-energizing or draining. Over time, they will lead to burn-out if not used in moderation.” Keeping in mind that performance is one-part energy, knowledge of your “learned behaviors” is critical. They are reinforced because 1) we do them well and 2) our managers praise us for the results. In the end, however, we need to find ways to “moderate” these behaviors before it’s too late.

Finally, The Strengths Book talks about another dirty little secret – over-using strengths can get us in trouble, too. There really can be too much of a good thing. The use of a strength needs to be applied in the right context and in the right amount. While it is easier said than done, just imagine someone who thanks you endlessly (eg; exercising the strength of “Gratitude”) to convince you of the merits of the new, complex software program when she should have been using the strength “Explainer” to help simplify the team’s approach.

In the end, Gallup and others have concluded that working in one’s strengths is the fastest, most effective way to develop an individual and an organization. It improves productivity and engagement all while serving as a ‘back door’ to resilience. The Strengths Book takes the existing research (and some of their own) and packages it in an easy-to-read, practical handbook. A must read for those in the business of professional development or just interested in personal improvement.


5 thoughts on “A Practical Look At Strengths

  1. Doug, I am a proponent of using one’s strengths, particularly those that energize. If you want discuss over lunch sometime, let me know. Rosina

  2. Donald Clifton wrote soar with your strengths in 1992. Is this all psychologists have learned in 18 years? Strengths are good and weaknesses should be minimized? Sad.

  3. Jacob – Agreed. The science definitely needs to move further on this. I would argue, however, that Linley, Willars, and Biswas-Diener have uncorked two important concepts to consider in this area – learned behaviors and unrealized strengths. These two concepts actually make a big impact on one’s development plans as ‘learned behaviors’ can push someone in the wrong direction, with poor results, at the end.

    On the other hand, I would like to see more on personality, mindsets (via Carol Dweck’s line of research), and strengths. I think it’s pretty clear that working in one’s strengths and minimizing weaknesses lead to more engagement and well being but there is definitely room for growth.

    Thanks, again, for your comment.


  4. To those of you who have posted on this site, thanks for your attention to the book. And Jacob, I appreciate your comments. You are right to point out Don’s pioneering work on strengths, and Marcus Buckingham has done much to popularize this work just as Shane Lopez and others have done much behind-the-scenes research for Gallup. We take the view that both concepts and science are dynamic, and grow over time. Just as Aristotle wrote about happiness thousands of years ago we still continue to add to the discussion of this fascinating topic today. Just as Clifton introduced strengths based management we have added new insights to this delightful topic. As Doug mentioned above, we think of strengths as having new conceptual dimensions including learned behaviors and unrealised strengths; and we have developed new tools for strengths performance management and development. We also continue to work on cutting edge ideas such as 1) strengths blindness– the reasons people are sometimes unaware of particular strengths, 2) strengths tilt– the intersection of interests and strengths, 3) strengthsw regulation– sometimes using strengths less can be a great strategy, among others. One area that particularly interests me is “how” strengths are good. We know more about the benefits of strengths use than we did a decade ago, especially about how strengths, goal pursuit and emotional activition work together. I hope (and am confident that) in another decade or two people will be writing new books with fresh insights on the topic.

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