Leading in a strengths-based workplace

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Leading in a strengths-based workplace

When it comes to developing teams, in individual one-to-ones, and even in job interviews, it’s common practice to identify weaknesses with the view to improve upon them. Conversely, focussing on strengths is a far more effective approach to developing talents and creating a thriving and high-performing culture.

Strengths-based leadership is integral to creating dynamic, adaptable, and robust teams, ready to thrive in our VUCA world. The strengths-based approach is more effective than the conventional approach of focussing on weaknesses to lift performance. The research shows that strengths-based leadership improves employee engagement and productivity which, in turn, fosters a culture of high performance.

In the constantly changing work environment – especially during a prolonged global pandemic – employees are dealing with copious amounts of stress, uncertainty and change. Taking a strengths-based approach to leadership in the workplace offers an opportunity to build and develop a culture where employees thrive despite operating in a transitional environment where speed to competency has become a regular expectation.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • What is strengths-based leadership?
  • Strengths-based leadership theory.
  • Understanding strengths in the context of the workplace.
  • Adopting a strengths-based approach to leadership.

What is strengths-based leadership?

Workplace cultures often emphasise the importance of productivity and reward leaders for exhibiting behaviours such as task delegation and monitoring performance. This ignores the underlying complexity of what creates a high-performing team culture – such as employee engagement, resilience, and strengths (to name just a few things).

More than just managing people, leaders need to consider how they build relationships, engage and inspire their teams, and enhance employees’ resilience, enabling them to flourish in the ever-changing workplace landscape – a key ingredient is focussing on developing strengths.

Author and leading business thinker David Burkus says, “at the core of the strengths-based leadership is the underlying belief that people have several times more potential for growth building on their strengths rather than fixing their weaknesses”.

The concept of strengths-based leadership draws on aspects of positive psychology, as well as the leadership tenets set out by Gallup researchers and authors Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, which suggest that team members thrive when they understand, harness and build on their strengths and capabilities.

Importantly, a strengths-based approach to leadership doesn’t mean that we ignore weaknesses or abandon efforts to overcome them – weaknesses must be managed and attended to so that individuals become ‘a little bit better at the areas that challenge them.  Organisations derive increased value from their people when they support and encourage individuals to put 80% effort and energy into playing to their strengths and 20% effort and energy into managing weaknesses.

Inkling insight: A strengths-based approach to leadership is more effective than the traditional method of focussing on performance weaknesses. To help organisations grow and thrive we need to tap into people’s strengths.

Strengths-based leadership theory

Also known as strengths-based organisational management (SBOM), strengths-based leadership theory is a strategic approach to maximising the performance of an organisation that leverages positive psychology to focus on continuously enhancing the strengths of organisational resources – such as team members, tools, and technology.

In our work at Inkling, in the context of creating a thriving culture, we look at strengths-based leadership through the application of developing team members (we’ll leave tools and technology to the IT department).

The strengths-based approach to leadership gained popularity following the 2009 publication of Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, by researchers Tom Rath and Barry Conchie.

Following decades of research, Rath and Conchie derived that successful leaders had three things in common: they invested in their employees’ strengths, they gathered teams with complementary people, and they worked to understand their employees’ needs.

In essence, strengths-based leadership theory encourages leaders to focus on potential instead of obstacles and shift from focusing time and resources on improving shortfalls and move towards capitalising on strengths.

Inkling insight: A culture that celebrates individual strengths is more inclusive. Teams with a higher proportion of employees who become aware of their strengths achieve significantly greater improvement in perceived inclusion.

Understanding strengths in the context of the workplace

When adopting a strengths-based approach in the workplace, it’s important to first understand and define what strengths mean. Importantly, the lens in which strengths are viewed must not be limited to technical skills and operational capabilities. The full range of soft skills – such as strategic thinking, influencing, executing, and relationship building – must be considered.

Strengths versus competencies

When discussing strengths and weaknesses in the workplace, we’re often drawn to analysing things that we’ve done well or not done well – overlooking the notion that strengths and weaknesses run deeper than skills and competencies.

Competencies are things that we’re good at – but they’re not necessarily things that we’re drawn to or that energise us. When we’re working on things that play to our strengths,, it conjures an emotional response — we’re energised or drawn to doing this kind of work.

When taking a strengths-based approach, leaders  work with their teams to identify both competencies and strengths. Otherwise, team members may be directed towards work that they are competent at but will ultimately disengage from over time. Worse still, when leaders continuously neglect their team members’ strengths it can result in boredom, burnout, and eventually departure from the company.

Strengths don’t always correlate to excellence

Just as strengths don’t always correlate to competencies, they also don’t necessarily equate to excellence either. Put simply, while a team member may be a competent communicator and indeed derive great satisfaction from presenting information, they may not be the best presenter in the team. With this in mind, it’s valuable to consider strengths through the lens of performance development  and  build on team members strengths by assigning them work that allows them to continue learning, build aptitude and gain experience all while remaining engaged.

Identifying strengths and weaknesses

Though weaknesses are not overlooked in a strengths-based organisation, excellence, in both the personal and professional context, is achieved by maximising strengths not by focussing on weaknesses.

To lead in a strengths-based workplace, it’s crucially important to first identify each team member’s unique and individual strengths; this will support team members to tap into their potential and strategise was to play to their strengths and achieve greater performance.

This is because strengths, not weaknesses, offer the greatest room for growth and are seen as enduring and unique. Gallup defines strengths as:

  • Something you derive intrinsic satisfaction from
  • Something that you consistently achieve near-perfect performance in

Helping team members identify their strengths a vital step in supporting leaders seeking to create a strengths-based culture within their workplace and cultivate team performance improvement and organisational success.

Inkling insight: Taking a strengths-based approach to leadership doesn’t discount the need to better understand and manage our weaknesses or pretend that we have all the answers – this is still crucially important work and part of an authentic leadership. style.

Strengths and inclusivity

When seeking to drive performance gains within the organisation, recognition that a wide variety of individuals applying their diverse talents and perspectives (garnered through their own unique experience) is essential.

Exploring recognising and celebrating individual talents creates an inclusive, diverse culture that in turn, perpetuates a cycle that continues to build strengths.


Adopting a strengths-based approach to leadership

Building a strengths-based workplace delivers many benefits including enhanced team satisfaction and engagement, improved trust and confidence, and stronger relationships.

Practising a strengths-based approach to leadership is an ongoing process that needs to be applied throughout the company at individual and team based levels. Leaders should gain buy-in on an organisational level and from there begin to introduce the approach working to understand their own strengths and then their teams’ strengths.

Techniques for leading in a strengths-based workplace

At Inkling, we recommend first exploring the strengths-based leadership theory that underpins the practice and engaging a strengths-based diagnostic assessment partner to determine the individual strengths of leaders and team members.

From there, the following techniques can be leveraged to apply strengths-based leadership and create motivated, successful, inclusive, and cohesive teams.

  1. Understand individual strengths
    Use a diagnostic tool to understand your own strengths and the strengths of your team, then use these insights to focus on building strengths.
  2. Tap into authentic leadership
    Authentic leaders enact their values and operate in alignment with their true selves. This, in turn, means that authentic leaders are playing to their strengths. Leaders can then invest time to understand their values, and those of their team members, and how these connect to their strengths.
  3. Create a culture of care
    Taking time to get to know team members and what motivates and engages them creates a culture of care that builds the foundations for cultivating a strengths-based workplace.
  4. Use strengths as a recruitment tool
    Asking questions that are designed to explore weaknesses is commonplace in many company recruitment processes. When seeking to build a strengths-based workplace, leaders use questions designed to illuminate the candidate’s strengths.
  5. Increase diversity and inclusion
    When leaders focus on their team members’ strengths this celebrates and recognises each individual’s unique personality and experiences, highlighting what they can offer to the team.  Inclusivity and diversity become attractive indicators a strengths-based workplace.
  6. Don’t discount weaknesses
    Remember that focussing on strengths doesn’t mean we discount weaknesses. Instead, it’s about recognising we all have weaknesses that can be worked on to a level at which they are acceptable within the responsibilities of the role whilst simultaneously focusing on enhancing strengths. Weaknesses become gaps that can be managed with the support of colleagues and systems .

Inkling insight: When building a strengths-based workplace, don’t forget to remember the shadow side of strengths – overusing a strength or building up too much of one particular strength within the team or organisation can create gaps in relationships and innovation

Creating a strengths-based culture

Are you ready to build a strengths-based culture within your organisation? Get in touch with the Inkling team if you want to find out more about our leadership and workplace resilience programs.

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