‘… One cannot build on weakness. To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths… These strengths are the true opportunities’ (Drucker, 1967)
In preparing to facilitate a recent Guidance Forum on using a strengths-based approach in careers guidance, I revisited some of the positive psychology and strengths-based literature. Because of this, I have been reflecting further on how I can incorporate some of the ideas, theories and approaches into my careers work.
The positive psychology and strengths-based movement has been gaining momentum over recent years with a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of positive emotion and focusing on our strengths for our life and our work. In emphasising strengths rather than weaknesses, positive psychology moves us away from the Negativity Bias whereby we find it easier to pay attention to what’s wrong or areas requiring development. The concept of strengths appeared in business literature with Peter Drucker (1967) and subsequently through the vision of Donald Clifton of The Gallup Organisation and the work of Martin Seligman in the field of positive psychology.
What’s the difference?
So what do we mean by a strength and how does a strength differ from an ability or competence?
One definition of a strength provided by Alex Linley of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology is ‘a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance’ (Linley, 2007).
When we use our strengths we demonstrate a real sense of energy and engagement. We will often lose track of time because of being so engrossed and will rapidly learn new information and approaches. Strengths are not synonymous with an ability or competence: we may be good at something but it may sap our energy. With most definitions of strengths there is a strong emphasis on the fact that strengths are natural, they come from within and we are urged to use them, develop them and play to them by an inner, energising desire. When we use our strengths, we feel good about ourselves and we are better able to achieve things and we are working toward fulfilling our potential.
It’s out there
Many organisational HR processes place emphasis on employees’ weaknesses including performance appraisal, reward schemes and selection/promotion processes. However, several organisations have started to move towards a strengths based approach to develop their employees and their organisation. In this approach, individuals are encouraged to develop and optimise their strengths and what they do best.
For careers professionals who are supporting and preparing individuals for interviews and other selection techniques it is worth noting that some employers are also moving towards a strengths-based approach for recruitment. For example, Ernst and Young have moved away from the competency approach for their UK graduate programme and developed a strengths-based approach in an effort to help students to make decisions aligned to their abilities, passions and strengths. Aviva also use a strengths-based approach to recruit for their customer service roles, ‘an eye for opportunity’ and ‘personal responsibility’ being two of the strengths they look for.
Helping individuals to understand and articulate their strengths may become as important as helping them to identify/evidence their skills and competencies if the trend towards a strengths-based approach to recruitment continues to grow.
Strengths in coaching
In a coaching context, Linley suggests that ‘the strengths coaching approach is a model of coaching psychology, with a solid theoretical and empirical grounding, that harnesses the inner potential of people, thereby facilitating their optimal performance and well-being‘ (Linley & Harrington, 2006). I would suggest that, as career professionals, we may want to consider how a strengths-based approach can also be used in career guidance, outplacement counselling and career transition contexts. For example, a strengths-based approach can be used to develop resilience and encourage realistic optimism which can be an effective approach if a client is experiencing low self-esteem and low self-efficacy as is often the case in a job loss situation.
The discussion is potential-guided, being focused on future achievement on the basis of past success, building on the foundations of what the client does well and the successes achieved. From a more practical perspective, a strengths-based approach can also be used to help map an individual’s strengths to roles or potential career areas as well as providing material for CVs and interviews. Helping individuals to identify their strengths does not have to be a complex or lengthy process. Encouraging your client to share their ‘at their best’ experiences with you can be effective in helping to uncover strengths, both realised and unrealised.
- Drucker, P.F. (1967) The effective executive. London: Heinemann.
- Linley, A. (2007) Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press
- Linley, P.A. & Harrington, S. (2006) Strengths Coaching: A potential-guided approach to coaching psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review, 1(1), 37-46