Getting a deeper understanding of your strengths
Think of your national athletics team at the Olympics. All the individuals in it are exceptionally talented – but at different things. The javelin thrower is able to throw his javelin powerfully and release it from his grasp at exactly the right time; the marathon runner has phenomenal endurance; and the sprinter has powerful leg muscles so that she can explode out of the starting blocks. No team manager would encourage the sprinter to start throwing javelins, nor would he assign the endurance athlete to the 100 meter race.
If he did, he’d be ignoring their strengths, and expecting them to deliver results from an area of weakness. Yet managers do this every day in business! If you’re not convinced, think back to your last appraisal. Did your boss praise the way that you carried out various key aspects of your role? Or do the “areas for improvement” he or she identified stand out more clearly in your mind? The chances are that the criticisms are most memorable. And what this means is that, at best, you’re working on your improving your weaknesses, and you’re ignoring your strengths.
Why Strengths Matter
Of course, managers clearly need to point out areas of team members’ performance which are not up to standard, if that area is an essential part of the job. But there are two good reasons why ignoring people’s strengths can fail to yield the results that managers want: i.e. increased performance. First, focusing on weaknesses often doesn’t encourage people to work on those weaknesses: negative feedback generally puts us on the defensive. And, for many, it’s natural to deny that the observations are true, or to dismiss them as irrelevant, by telling themselves that that aspect of their work isn’t important anyway. Either way, they’re not motivated to do much about it. On the other hand, most of us respond well to praise. We realize that what we’re doing is appreciated, so we try to repeat the positive behavior, in the hope of getting more praise.
Second, there’s good evidence that our strengths and weaknesses are, to some extent, fixed (for more on this, listen to our Expert Interview with Chuck Martin entitled “Are we hardwired for success?”, or read our article on Benziger’s Personality Types). But are you clear about what your strengths are? The traditional appraisal system offers only so much help in identifying them. What we need is a way of finding out what they are, and also of figuring out what we should do to “play to our strengths”. The Reflected Best Self™ exercise helps us do just that, and this article gives our interpretation of the exercise.
How to Use the Tool
This is an overview of the steps in the Reflected Best Self™ technique:
Step 1: Survey others about your strengths
Identify ten or so individuals who are in a position to give you accurate feedback about your strengths. This group should include current colleagues, but also, ideally, former colleagues, friends and family members. Then, ask them to think about what your strengths are, and to give an example to back up every strength they identify. The strengths don’t need to be specifically work-related. In fact, if you’re unhappy in your current job, it’s particularly important that you get feedback from people who know you from outside a work context, as they may identify real strengths that you have which you’re unable to display at work.
Step 2: Identify themes
Once you have all of the responses in from your survey group, start to group the responses together into themes. Some of the themes may reflect strengths you were aware of, but they may also identify things that you hadn’t realized were strengths because they come so naturally to you.
Step 3: Write Your Strengths Profile
Next, draw together the key strengths that have emerged from your analysis, and tie them together in a few paragraphs that summarize what you’re really good at. When you’re writing this, bear in mind that you’ll use this in the future in two ways: first, to guide future actions and choices, and second to shore up your confidence when times get tough.
Step 4: Identify how you can play to your strengths
With a clear idea of your strengths, take a long, hard look at your current role. Are you playing to your strengths? If not, can you adapt the focus and nature of your work to make more of your strengths? For example, are you really a “people person” who’s spending half a day a week compiling reports? Is there someone in your team who would be better suited to this kind of work, and be grateful for the extra responsibility, while you spend the extra time coaching team members? Or maybe you’re a Sales and Marketing Manager who has come to the role from a sales position.
You have a great knowledge of your products and understanding of what your company’s customers need, but you also have a real weakness when it comes to copywriting. Here, hire a copywriter to turn your enthusiasm into words for your brochures. If you do this, not only will your marketing materials read better, but you’ll also free up time to spend with the product development team, letting them know what customers are telling you about the product range.
The Reflected Best Self™ exercise is a simple, structured process that helps you identify, and make the most of your strengths. It is not a replacement for the traditional appraisal approach which identifies areas for improvement with respect to your job description. Rather, playing to your strengths is an opportunity to raise your overall performance levels, by focusing on areas where you can excel, rather than simply being competent. In order to have a clear head to consider the outcomes of Reflected Best Self™ analysis, it’s best to carry it out at a different time of year from your appraisal.