The 3 Mistakes Companies Make Focusing On People's Strengths

Have you been asked by your organization to complete a survey that measures you're strengths - those things you're good at and actually enjoy doing at work? Chances are at least half of you are nodding your head with 51 per cent of American employees recently reporting that their organization is committed to building their strengths.

Developing people's strengths has become of growing interest in organizations. With more than a decade of research that suggests providing opportunities people to build on what they do best each day can positively impact their engagement, confidence, and wellbeing at work, it's not surprising millions of employees are being asked to complete online strength surveys like StrengthsFinder or the free VIA Survey.

But does focusing on people's strengths really work?

After teaching thousands of people around the world to put their strengths to work, the answer I've discovered, no matter how much I wish it was otherwise, is a resounding "sometimes". Of course even the best psychological research only suggests what works for some of the people, some of the time, so my experience shouldn't be that surprising.

However given the investment being poured into organizational strength development programs - it is estimated American companies spend $24 million annually just to access Gallup's StrengthsFinder survey - it would seem reasonable to ask: "What's actually working?" Here the evidence-base comes up woefully short.

So over the past twelve months, to compliment my workplace observations I've polled more than 3000 employees in over 65 countries to try and better understand how organizations are successfully developing their people's strengths. Of course these are not randomized control group, placebo studies which would be the ideal next step.

With this is mind, the three most common mistakes I've seen organizations making are:

  • Treating people's strengths like a blunt instrument - Employees who are encouraged to set weekly strength development goals are three times as likely to be strongly engaged and energized at work. Yet only 20 per cent of employees who know what their strengths are go on to set weekly goals around their development.

While a decade ago researchers thought the best way to put your strengths to work was to figure out what they were and then just apply them more often, this advice - though well intentioned - was the equivalent of giving people a blunt instrument. After all you can imagine the surprise, disappointment and sometimes dismay that people feel when they try to tackle something at work by using their strengths only to discover that it fails to deliver the results they wanted.

As we've come to understand our strengths better we've learnt that it's not enough to just "use" our strengths more, instead it appears beneficial to set weekly goals to "develop" our strengths so we can improve our understanding of how different strengths, in different amounts, might serve us best in different situations.

  • Lack of opportunities for daily strengths development - 94 percent of employees who report feeling engaged and energized, also report having the opportunity to do what they do best each day at work. Let's face it, working with the way your brain is wired to perform at it's best feels good for most of us.

Embedding people's strengths into their job descriptions, annual performance plans and weekly goals can make it easier for people to develop their strengths each day. I've had employees ask for regular strength reminders on company intranets and around their offices or mindfulness tips for planning their daily tasks to help them stay strengths focused. I've also found that helping people to create an 11-minute daily strength habit can improve employee's ability to do more of what they do best each day at the office.

  • Meaningless manager conversations - There does appear to be a pattern between the development of our strengths and employee wellbeing measures like: feeling engaged and energized, believing our work makes a difference, being respected and valued, and describing ourselves as flourishing at work. When we put all the different factors we'd been exploring into a model to see what had the greatest impact we found the key was coupling the chance to do what they do best each day with a meaningful strengths conversation in the last three months with their managers.

Unfortunately, in my experience there is a common fear among many managers that being strengths focused means they can only talk about what's working well when it comes to people's performance. As a result, most managers are patting people on the back and telling them they've done a good job, but offering no meaningful feedback on how employees can develop their strengths.

However, managers who have meaningful strengths discussions explore how someone's strengths are being overplayed, underplayed and used well at work. They also address potential weaknesses and how these can be managed around or set realistic goals for dealing with them head on. I like Professor David Cooperrider's suggestion of trying to spend about 80 per cent of our time focused on building strengths and 20 per cent of our time addressing weaknesses.

The good news is that none of this is rocket science, nor does it have to be an expensive exercise. In fact we've found that a free one-week Strengths Challenge, that encourages people to create an 11-minute daily strength habit was enough to see: 60 per cent of participants start setting weekly strengths goals; 41 per cent of participants doing what they do best each day at work; and 39% of participants engaging in meaningful strengths conversations with their managers.

If you'd like to see how this could work in your organization then join the free global Strengths Challenge at