Strengths Based Development: 4 Lessons From Expert Coaches

October 10, 2015
Todd Hall

Have you ever worked on your weaknesses and felt like you were beating your head against a brick wall? Or maybe you’ve been in a role that tapped into a lot of your weaknesses. A friend of mine was in this situation recently. He was in a high level managerial role a few years back. He worked on getting better at the administrative duties he was responsible for, but it sucked the life out of him. Over a period of time, he finally realized this role wasn’t a good fit, and that no matter how hard he worked on his weaknesses, this job would be draining.

In our development efforts, we are prone to focus on fixing our weaknesses and those of our employees.

Why do we do this? Part of the reason is the brain’s “negativity bias.” Positive experiences have to be held in awareness for awhile to transfer from short-term, or immediate memory (sometimes called the “chalkboard of the mind”) to long-term memory. In contrast, we register criticism and negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. These experiences are readily accessible, so naturally we want to get rid of weaknesses associated with negative experiences. This tendency has been systematized in the management by exception movement in which managers focus on problems, and things that deviate from standards.

But here’s the problem: awareness of, and focus on, our weaknesses doesn’t necessarily translate into improved performance. While there is certainly a place for addressing weaknesses, focusing predominantly on them can drain your energy and lead to limited results.

Research is now demonstrating that using your strengths increases performance in the workplace as well as a sense of fulfillment and goal accomplishment.

Strengths-based development, rooted in the positive psychology movement, is gaining steam as an approach to help leaders maximize their potential. In their book, Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton (1) define strengths as natural talents combined with knowledge and skills. Alex Linley offers a broader definition of strengths as “a preexisting capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.” (2)

So, how do you apply a strengths-based approach to development in practice? In a recent study, Deborah Welch, Karen Grossaint, Katherine Reid, and Cindy Walker (3) interviewed expert coaches who use a strengths-based approach. Based on their findings, here are 4 practices to help you and your team develop by focusing on your strengths.

1. Identify your strengths and how they work together.

The amount of sheer energy required to lead at any level, but especially at higher levels, is enormous and seems to keep growing. Focusing on your strengths connects you to a larger purpose in your work, and to your unique contribution to that purpose. This will energize you to keep making progress toward your goals. According to Gallup polls, motivation in the workplace has decreased 30% since 2008. (3) You need to have a laser focus on what energizes you and what drains you to buck this trend.

In order to stay energized, you need to identify and be aware of your strengths and core motivations. All the expert coaches interviewed in this study used assessment tools to draw out what energized people. There a number of assessments that are valid and effective. The StrengthFinders 2.0 will quickly help you identify your top 5 strengths. The MCORE assessment will help you identify you top 3 core motivations. The specific assessment isn’t the crucial thing; the important thing is to make the investment to obtain some formal assessment of your strengths.

These assessments are a good start, but you need to dig deeper. Think about how your strengths and/or core motivations integrate or work together. Try to capture this in one sentence. The work of creating a short statement that captures how your strengths work together will give you deeper insight into what energizes you.

Here’s an example of how understanding the integration helps. My top 3 core motivations from the MCORE are: achieve potential, evoke recognition, and develop. To integrate these, I might say, “I am fundamentally motivated to achieve potential as I evoke recognition from others due to the positive impact I make, and develop people. Even this doesn’t fully capture the cross-fertilization of all three core motivations. My best contribution comes when all three of these are being tapped. Here’s an example. A few years back, I spent a lot of time and resources developing survey system to support assessment tools I was developing. This tapped my achieve potential and develop motivations to some extent, but it didn’t tap evoke recognition. In addition, the develop motivation wasn’t oriented directly toward people. It was too indirect. Once you articulate the integration of your strengths and/or core motivations, filter everything you do through that lens.

2. Find your why.

Continue this process by finding your “why.” Simon Sinek has written about this in his book Start with Why, and many brands are now getting clear on their why. But this also applies to you.

About 800 miles south of Tokyo lies the region of Okinawa. Okinawans have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. Because of this, National Geographic explorer, Dan Buttoner calls this region “ground zero for longevity.” What sets the Okinawans apart? They don’t have a word for retirement. But they do have a word that refers to a fulfilled life: “Ikigai.” Roughly translated, ikigai means “the reason why you get up in the morning.”

So, why do you get up in the morning? Put differently, why do you, or would you, spring out of bed in the morning, looking forward to the day?

Going a bit deeper, CJ Casciotta, founder of Sounds Like a Movement, suggests that you’ll find your why at the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs. Here’s a few questions CJ suggests to help you find your why:

What do you naturally, instinctively do that benefits others?

What do you love doing for others so much that you do it without getting paid?

Now, put your why in a single statement: “I exist to….” I’m always refining this, but as an example, my current why statement is, “I exist to facilitate human connection in life and work.” I love facilitating connection in relationships, in work, and between life and work. Hopefully I’m good at it, and I believe the world desperately needs more and healthier connection.

Your why is your most foundational filter, and the target at which you aim your strengths. Getting crystal clear on your strengths and your why will increase your energy and motivation, and ultimately your productivity and impact.

3. Develop an ecosystem of supportive relationships.

One of the findings from this study was that all the expert coaches emphasized that strengths develop through relationships. You’ve got to go beyond processing things in your head. You need other people to help you see and develop your strengths. Ask others who know you well what they see as your strengths, and their thoughts about what you see as your strengths. They may confirm some, and may help you see strengths to which you were blind. The Reflected Best Self exercise will also help you develop supportive relationships while discovering more about your strengths.

The goal is to develop a support system for the use and development of your strengths. And for you to do the same for others. As you consider others with diverse strengths, you begin to appreciate others more, and how a combination of diverse strengths is required to achieve shared goals.

As you help others develop their strengths, take a stance of dialogue and inquiry, rather than one of quick fixes. Draw people out with compassion, which helps people broaden and build on their positive emotions (see Barbara Fredrickson’s work on broaden and build theory).

4. Address weaknesses in the context of your role and your strengths.

The strengths movement has been criticized for ignoring people’s weaknesses, sometimes to the detriment of overall well being and performance. One of the findings from this study was that all the expert coaches welcomed addressing people’s weaknesses.

In doing so, these coaches often helped people identify strengths that were masked by weaknesses. Sometimes, for example, a weakness is the result of a strength being deployed too much. Someone who is good at challenging the status quo, for example, may do this too much or in an unhelpful way. This needs to be addressed, but it’s important to not miss the strength here and work to use it more effectively.

Figure out which weaknesses are ones that you really need to address because they’re non-negotiable for your effectiveness. Basic relational competencies, like managing your emotions, are pretty crucial to long-term effectiveness. You can’t scream at people when your angry and try to work around that by using your strengths. But other weaknesses you may be able to work around to some extent, such as follow through on details, or idea generation.

In addition, when your weaknesses hinder your performance, look for ways to accomplish the goal by leveraging your strengths. Maybe marketing doesn’t come naturally to you, but you need to do some marketing as part of your job. And let’s say you have the strength of “input.” Use that strength to collect best practices in marketing, and this will move you one step closer to your goal.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have strengths been developed through relationships? Post a comment below, or take the conversation to twitter (@drtoddwhall).


(1) M. Buckingham & D.O. Clifton. Now Discover Your Strengths. New York, NY: The Free Press (2001).

(2) Alex Linley. Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press (2008), 9.

(3) D. Welch, K. Gossaint, K. Reid, & C. Walker (2014). Strengths-based leadership development: Insights from expert coaches. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 66(1), 20-37.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

3 Practices to Love Your Little Corner of the World, and Beyond

The Pain and Promise of Transitions: 7 Reflections on Growing in the Midst of Change

3 Ways to Develop Personal Authority

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientist at E Pluribus Partners. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall’s work, read his blog and get his free E-Course “Lead with Connection” at Follow Dr. Hall on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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