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The Strengths Revolution Transforming Our Workplaces

03/05/2015 04:22 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015
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Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best each day at work?

When the Gallup Research Organization asked employees this question in 2001, only two out of every 10 people could say "yes." Yet when Gallup surveyed teams where most people reported regularly using their strengths -- those things they were good at and enjoyed doing - there were clear bottom-line benefits to this approach including lower turnover, increased productivity and happier customers.

The findings made headlines around the world, as managers finally came to understand the sheer untapped potential sitting in most workplace teams.

You see while traditional management approaches viewed employees as problems to be fixed -- much like the parts of a machine -- advances in neuroscience were supporting the assertions of thought leaders like Peter Drucker who had counseled: "It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity."

Clearly it was time for organizations to start exploring a more strengths-based management approach that could build on the best talents, capabilities, interests and resources their employees had to offer.

As a result, books instructing managers on developing strengths have become best-sellers, strength consultants and coaches travel the world and more than 15 million people have completed strength-assessment tools. Scientific-data exploring the identification, application and benefits of strengths usage grows steadily around the globe. And a new generation of college graduates is entering the workforce having been trained to prioritize the development of their strengths.

A decade later I couldn't help but wonder what -- if anything -- had changed. So partnering with the VIA Institute we commissioned an independent survey of 1,000 American employees across different roles, industries, ages and locations to see what impact all this activity was having in our workplaces.

The 2015 Strengths @ Work Survey indicates this is what has happened:

  • Five out of every 10 people now report they have the opportunity to do what they do best each day at work, an increase of 30 percent.
  • 64 percent of employees now believe building on their strengths will make them more successful at work, compared to 63 percent in 2006 who believed they'd grow most in their areas of weaknesses.
  • 56 percent of employees can now name their top five strengths, compared to estimates in 2001 that reported only one-third of employees could list their strengths.

As we approach a tipping-point of strengths-development in our workplaces the data suggests there are three factors driving this change forward:

  • Employees want to focus on their strengths - When it comes to understanding and using their strengths more at work each day, employees are leading this shift. Despite having neither organizational nor supervisor support for focusing on their strengths, 49 percent of employees are still able to name their strengths and 26 percent still find the opportunity to do what they do best each day.
  • Managers see returns for their efforts - 71 percent of employees who believe their managers can name their strengths feel engaged and energized by their work. In addition, 78 percent of employees who report having a meaningful discussion with their manager about their strengths feel that their work is making a difference and is appreciated. These employees are the most likely (61 percent) to be leaping out of bed in the morning to get to work.
  • Organizations are reaping the benefits - The 51 percent of organizations who are committed to building their employees are strengths have 74 percent of their managers in meaningful strengths discussions with employees. In addition, 58 percent of their employees can name the strengths of their bosses and colleagues and think about how they use these as they go about their work together. And 77 percent of their employees report they are flourishing, engaged and able to make things happen at work.

While these insights are encouraging and aligned with the themes emerging from the considerable body of scientific research exploring strengths development in organizations, the data also suggests there are three further steps that may yield considerable benefits:

  • Employees need to stop waiting for permission - Most of the 25 percent of employees hitting the snooze button each morning and putting the pillow over their head, the 15 percent who'd prefer to stay at home and the 9 percent dreading going to work, mistakenly believe little would change if they better understood their strengths and weaknesses. If these employees want to make their work more engaging and energizing they should stop waiting for their organization or manager to discover the value of their strengths. Instead they should try taking a strengths assessment -- like the free 10 minute survey at www.viacharacter.org -- and most importantly start looking for ways they can show up at work each day and do what they do best. Even if their manager doesn't appreciate what you're doing, they're 10 percent more likely to start looking forward to the day ahead.
  • Employees and managers need to keep exploring - 54 percent of employees who already know their strengths are potentially underestimating the impact on their success that comes with understanding and developing their strengths further. Rather than using their strengths as a blunt instrument, new research suggests much may be gained by understanding the overplay and underplay of strengths in different situations, the interaction of multiple strengths and the potential for strength collisions with our colleagues. Further education, coaching and exploration by employees of ways to develop their strengths are likely to deliver better personal and professional outcomes.

  • In addition, the 68 percent of managers still failing to have meaningful discussions with their employees about their strengths need to change the focus of their conversations if they want employees to be more productive. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council found that when managers focus on the weaknesses of an employee their performance declines by 27 percent, whereas when they focus on the strengths of an employee performance improves by 36 percent. To ensure their own success, managers need to know the strengths of their employees and focus more of their feedback on ways these can be developed and are appreciated to improve productivity.

  • Organizations need to set clear boundaries - Organizations need to better train or remove altogether the 21% of managers who are failing to even acknowledge their employees most days. With studies reporting that when a manager ignores employees, there is a 40 percent chance that people will be actively disengaged or filled with hostility about their job this is a cost organizations can no longer afford to carry. Contrast this to an employee's manager being primarily focused on their strengths and there is just a 1% chance these people won't be engaged in their work.

The idea that employees can come to work and do what they do best each day is no longer considered a "soft skill" or a "luxury," but has become a mainstream expectation that people will have the opportunity to do what they do best each day at work and reap the professional and personal benefits.

Organizations and managers who are not riding this wave have employees who are less engaged and less energized about their work. Employees who deny themselves the opportunity to know and develop their strengths -- no matter what their job description or their manager says -- are more likely to be struggling to get out of bed. Look no further than the 40 percent of respondents who believed they'd be more successful at work and more likely to move forward if they had a better handle on their strengths, but instead told us they were "just functioning" at work and could be doing more but didn't see the point.

The goods news is that creating this shift -- be you an employee, a manager or an organizational leader - is neither expensive nor complex. It just requires a willingness to consistently look and value the best in yourself and others at work.

This article first appeared on Psychology Today.