Do You Know How to Have a Strengths Conversation?

06/05/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

When you sit down with your manager to talk about how you're performing at work what's the focus of your conversation? Do they mostly talk to you about what you're doing well or what you're failing to deliver? Are they keen to help you find ways to build on what you do best or to find ways to fix your weaknesses?

I ask because in a recent poll of more than 1,000 randomly selected American employees, the VIA Institute and I discovered that most managers are having the wrong conversations with their employees.

You see, the data suggests that with or without their managers employees are quietly leading a strengths revolution in many of our workplaces. For example, while only two out of every 10 people said they had the opportunity to do what they do best each day at work in 2001, our poll found that over the last decade this number has grown to five out of every 10 people. That's an increase of 30 percent.

Compared to estimates a decade ago that reported only one-third of employees could name their strengths, today 56 percent of employees say they can name their top five strengths.

And while in 2006, 63 percent of us believed we'd grow most in the areas of our weaknesses, today 64 percent of employees believe building on their strengths will make them more successful at work.

But here's the best part.

As a result of doing what they do best each day at work each day, 78 percent of employees report feeling engaged and energized in their jobs because they believe they're making a difference and that their work is appreciated. And 70 percent of these employees describe themselves as flourishing at work over the last six months.

Given many managers have been left scratching their heads when it comes to finding ways to improving engagement, providing a sense of purpose and boosting wellbeing for their employees, what can managers do to support this strengths revolution and get the outcomes they've been hoping for?

Unfortunately the research suggests most managers need to start having a different conversation with their employees.

You see despite the growing appetite of employees to do more of what they do best each day, the data suggests 68 percent of managers continue to fail at having meaningful discussions with their employees about their strengths. Instead, most managers are simply patting people on the back saying they're "doing okay" and others are either saying nothing or pointing out their faults without guidance on improvements.

This is despite findings from numerous sources like CEB , who have found that when managers focus on the weaknesses of an employee on average their performance declines by up to 27 percent, whereas when they focus on the strengths of an employee on average performance improves by up to 36 percent.

Gallup Research has also found that employees who feel ignored by their managers are twice as likely to be actively disengaged at work. In contrast, managers who focused on their employees' weakness cut active disengagement to 22 percent (indicating that even negative attention is better than no attention), while managers who focused on their employees' strengths cut active disengagement to one percent.

Now to be fair, it's not entirely the fault of managers that they're having the wrong conversations.

The truth is our brains are naturally wired to look for the worst in people, not the best. You see researchers suggest we appear to spend about 80 percent of our time focused on finding weaknesses, and only about 20 percent of our time looking for strengths. And not having been trained to have a strengths conversation, many managers fear this approach will be judged as "soft" and are unclear how to address the need for performance improvements through this lens.

So what can managers do to reverse this ratio and spend a little more time talking to employees about ways to develop their strengths?

  • Start looking for the strengths in your people. Watch for when they're engaged, energized and enjoying what they're doing -- even if it's just for a moment. Can you see their curiosity, creativity, humor, honesty, or perseverance in action? If you're not sure ask your people to complete the free, 10-minute strengths survey at and have a discussion about the results.

  • Try to give people opportunities to develop their strengths each day as they go about their job. It's important to help your team understand that their strengths aren't blunt instruments to be applied in every situation. Instead offer guidance on when they're underplaying, overplaying and getting their strengths just right.

You see being strengths-focused doesn't mean you have to ignore poor performance. What it does mean is that instead just trying to get someone to rewire their brain by tackling a perceived weakness head on, is that you have other tools like looking for ways to dial an existing strength up or down to make improving performance a little easier and more effective and enjoyable.

  • Offer strengths-based feedback. We all share a deep psychological need to be respected, valued and appreciated. So instead of just saying "Thanks", and leaving someone wondering what they did right, try to tell them which strengths you saw them using and why you valued what they did so they feel confident to replicate the behavior again. For example, "Thanks for using your strength of curiosity in that meeting, the questions you asked helped us to have a more robust conversation."

It's also important for managers to be aware although strengths-based approaches have many potential benefits, people can occasionally feel disappointed, disengaged, or otherwise distressed as a result of trying to use their strengths and then experiencing failure. So be mindful of people's psychological vulnerability to failure and help to reframe failure -- even when using our strengths -- as a learning opportunity so it isn't a threat to their identity or who they are at their best.

How might the performance and wellbeing of your people improve if you started trying to have more meaningful strengths conversations with them at work?