“What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?” –Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.
I never tire of that quote, despite the fact that I’ve kicked off countless leadership development training sessions with it. The concept is a simple one: discover what your talents are and then use your gifts to positively impact the world.
Imagine what could be possible if we all consistently focused our energy in that way?
In my nearly 30 years in the advertising industry as a business leader and now a leadership coach, I’ve noticed that we lose sight of that concept rather quickly. Urgent client needs, an anxiety-producing rate of industry change, fear of failure, and conforming to notions of who we think we should be, get in the way. When you combine those human truths with the reality that most of us in this business are overly driven and high achievers, it’s easy to see why we focus on “fixing” the things we don’t do well. Just like that, Donald Clifton’s empowering words get lost in the shuffle.
Nevertheless, the realities of our business require us to make an important shift.
In a complex and fast-moving industry, we cannot also ask our employees to be all things to all people. When we focus employee development on “fixing” weaknesses, we contribute to creating a culture fueled by fear of failure or inadequacy. When we shift our focus from what we can’t do to identifying ways to use our talents to meaningfully contribute to our company’s business goals, we can begin to create a culture where people feel empowered versus afraid. During a recent coaching session with one of our employees, I asked what they feel is most impactful about shifting to a strengths-based approach, and they said: “Focusing on strengths that can be channeled and capitalized on, rather than focusing on weaknesses, which can diminish confidence and productivity.”
This employee’s words are a great example of how shifting our focus to employee strengths instead of weaknesses is good for business. When we make that change, three important things happen:
- Employees’ work engagement goes up
- Relationships improve
- We embrace diversity and our differences
The Shift Leads to Employees Who Become Actively Engaged
By focusing on our employees’ strengths, we can help build positivity and confidence. Employees bring a heightened sense of self-awareness and personal ownership to their work when they intentionally use their talents to positively impact the business and the people around them.
When we take that one step further and link our employee’s strengths to business goals, their commitment to achieving them improves. It makes the business goal more tangible. Employees can more clearly see how they can use their talents to contribute to achieving business milestones.
With that commitment comes a sense of personal and professional fulfillment — they become fully engaged in their work. And, as research indicates, strong employee engagement can lead to real and positive business outcomes. In fact, Gallup research shows that when employees get to do what they do best each day, engagement, productivity, and business results all improve.
Engaged Employees Have Stronger Relationships
When managers and their direct reports engage in a strengths-based conversation by sharing their strengths and what motivates them with each other, the relationship becomes more real and authentic. We get to know each other better: what brings out the best and worst in us, what we can count on each other for, and what we need from each other. We simply better understand what makes a person tick and, as a result, we can find new ways to inspire and motivate each other. Great things are possible for organizations when there is an energetic undercurrent of inspiration and motivation fueling the people who work there.
We Embrace Our Differences
Perhaps most important, rather than resist our differences, we instead embrace and value them. A strengths-based approach cultivates a deep appreciation for the diversity that exists within an organization. When employees look for and value the unique strengths in their colleagues, they realize they don’t have to be all things to all people, and that’s a relief. With that diversity of talent comes collaboration, teamwork, and innovation — and that’s good for business.
When leaders and their teams focus their energy on actively applying their strengths to their work, they become more resilient and respond to challenges in more purposeful and creative ways. The anxiety produced by rapid change, fear of failure, and conformity are replaced by possibility, courage, and authenticity. And that makes our work — and our world — a better place.
Author: Michelle Thomas, SVP, Burning Ambition Academy, Spark Foundry