A strengths-based approach in careers guidance

I would like to thank Elaine Denniss from The Careers Group for contributing this guest posting. — David.

World's strongest kid

‘… 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.

References/Further Reading

Photo credit: MikeWebkist

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  1. #1 by Tristram Hooley on 24 August 2010 - 21:16

    I buy the basic idea behind the strengths approach. ie that you are better to focus people on what they are good at than at turning over their weaknesses endlessly. I’d guess we’ve all experienced teaching and management that constantly focused us on our weaknesses and was highly dis-empowering. However I have a number of issues with the strengths based approach.
    1) Despite Linley’s claim in your post I don’t really see how you can empirically test this kind of approach. How would you do it? Subject one group to deficit based guidance and another to strengths based guidance? What kind of outcome would prove that one worked and the other didn’t?
    2) It seems to me that there are times when focusing on your weaknesses is essential. I’m poor at detail but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it. I’ve worked hard to shore up my weakness to enable me to function in such a way as my strengths can become apparent. If I had never addressed these weak areas I’m not sure that I would have been given the space to develop strengths.
    3) My final concern is what is new. When you do things like Belbin/MBTI/OCEAN with people you are essentially giving them a conceptual language that enables them to identify and focus on their strengths. I’m not really sure what the strength finding approach adds to this.

    • #2 by Elaine Denniss on 31 August 2010 - 17:08

      I agree that focusing on strengths shouldn’t mean ignoring weaknesses and Linley recognises this. I attended a talk that he gave a while back and he illustrated this point by using an example of school children needing to master the fundamentals of mathematics in order to progress through the system even if they don’t enjoy the subject or aren’t particularly good at it. However, they’re unlikely to pursue it through to a higher level if it’s not a strength area for them. I guess we can all think of aspects of our jobs where we’ve had to ‘come out of our comfort zone’ and develop our weaker areas if the demands of the role require us to do so. However, I guess the development aspect needs to be couterbalanced with plenty of opportunities to use our natural strengths in order to maintain job satisfaction, motivation and energy. I also agree that MBTI/Belbin (not familiar with OCEAN)provide a framework for considering potential areas of strengths although both identify preferences rather than strengths per se.

  2. #3 by Gill on 25 August 2010 - 09:05

    Really interesting article and interesting to read the background. I can see this being a positive approach to helping students and graduates understand themselves, their motivations and identify careers that might better suit their leanings. Competences sound so sterile!
    Applied within the recruitment process I can’t help feeling that in practical reality, strengths-based assessment is rebranded competence-based assessment, unless a candidate’s strengths are assessed using some kind of objective method. Within an interview situation, however, asking about a candidate’s strengths is, I think, really just a different route to getting them to talk more freely and easily about their competences. And at the end of the day, a candidate, however positively they talk, will need to show they have got the skills to do the job.

  3. #4 by David Winter on 25 August 2010 - 14:52

    I recently read a snippet from a positive psychology coach, Dr Robert Biswas-Diener about the potential risks of a strengths-based approach (http://bit.ly/aKOCYX – second item).

    The first hint of danger comes from a PhD dissertation by Michelle Louis (http://gradworks.umi.com/33/21/3321378.html). This found that people who are led to believe that strengths are inherent stable traits (that you just need to identify) tend to perform less well than people who believe that strengths are things that should be worked on and developed.

    This seems to mirror findings publicised by Carol Dweck relating to intelligence. Children who are praised for working hard tend to do better than children who are praised for being intelligent. The speculation is that thinking about intelligence as a trait makes you focus on performance rather than development and learning. It makes you less likely to take risks that you might learn from in case you fail to perform.

    As the rest of Biswas-Diener’s post says: people may feel the sting of failure more if it happens in an area of perceived strength than an area of weakness. So the same process may be at work here.

  4. #5 by Career Toolkits on 25 August 2010 - 20:40

    Hey great article, you have a lot of really helpful information.

  5. #6 by Anne Wilson on 26 August 2010 - 17:33

    I have experimented by trialling a Strengths-based approach with groups of students to see whether identifying their Strengths and providing the supportive evidence for these developed students’ self awareness, confidence and ability to present themselves both on paper and at interview. Feedback from the 2 groups- one of penultimate students applying for internships and a group of Finalists with no clear career ideas produced positive feedback in each area and in the case of some of the Internship applicants, in their opinion, contributed to successful securing of offers. The opportunity to engage in individual feedback led to some really rich discussion with students and provided a good springboard with which to engage students, often leading to some valuable personal insights and a starting point to engage in career planning. Subsequent sessions with PhD students and mature students have worked particularly well as these groups often have more life experience to reference. I think that Realise 2 rovides an additional useful tool for guidance practitioners that complements MBTI and other resources.

  6. #7 by John king on 28 August 2010 - 02:38

    I’m not convinced that I fully understand the strengths-based approach. It seems to be an attempt to create an entirely new paradigm, from research into peak experience, flow and other positive psychology jibber-jabber (technical term).

    I do think it has potential, however. The competencies approach seems to have obvious flaws (not least that nearly all competencies can be learned by nearly all humans, given time, inclination and the right support – so how are you supposed to know in advance which apply to you?). And I really like the empathy that the PP approach demonstrates.

    Great blog post – but I’m not sure this approach can be understood without first ‘learning the ropes’ of PP.

  7. #9 by Emma Trenier on 27 September 2010 - 11:44

    It is so interesting to read this discussion about the the use of Positive Psychology and a Strengths Approach to career development. I work for the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology and am well versed in the Strengths Recruitment methodologies that employers are using to recruit, I am also passionate about enabling individuals to understand and develop their strengths… I have a couple of comments…

    – Recruitment: I would view strengths based recruitment methodologies as highly robust methods of selection. They often appear to be similar to competency methods because they are built on the same best practice principles of job analysis, evidence gathering and validity, however they differ in a couple of specific ways:
    1) strengths are mapped to roles and these specifc strengths are assessed rather than broader areas of competence;
    2) evidence of energy/ motivation is observed and measured in addition to evidence of exceptional performance gathered through evidenced examples and observed behaviours (in assessement centres).

    -Career Development: I think that an explicit focus on understanding and developing one’s natural strengths rather than focusing our ‘development energy’ on our weaknesses (when they aren’t holding us back or limiting us) is incredibly useful in helping people shift their mindset towards becoming excellent in the areas where they can naturally excel rather than striving to be good ‘all rounders’ (I believe the research paper by Michelle Louis found that there was a difference in impact between students who ‘identified’ their strengths (fixed mindset) and those who ‘identfied and then developed them (growth mindset)). I have had so many conversations with students, employees and managers who find themselves naturally orienting themselves around ‘fixing’ their weaknesses rather than building their strengths that I find it is helpful to provide an approach that counters this (in line with also building a ‘growth mindset’) . At CAPP, we talk about the 4M model- Maximising Unrealised Strengths, Moderating Learned Behaviours, Minimising Weaknesess and Marshalling Realised Strengths.

    If anyone is interested in finding out more about Realise2 and the 4M model, email me directly (emma.trenier@cappeu.com) and I will be happy to set you up with a free code!

  8. #10 by David Winter on 12 November 2010 - 15:50

    Elaine has also supplied this link:

    Interesting article gathering recruiters’ views on the merits of the two approaches.

    Playing to people’s strengths.

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