The Key to Employee Engagement: Focus on Strengths

POSTED: Jan. 25, 2017

Can you answer yes to the following question?

At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

Strength Finders by Tom RathAccording to the author Tom Rath in the book "Strengths Finder 2.0," those who answered yes to this question are six times more likely to be engaged in their work and three times more likely to have a better quality of life in general. According to this study by the Gallup organization of over 10 million people, only a third of them “strongly agreed” with this statement.

When promoting employee engagement, why is focusing on strengths so important?

Focusing on employee strengths, not weaknesses, is not only a benefit to the employee and key to their overall happiness, but it also can change the mindset of us as supervisors and help us to feel better about the way we’re leading. Also, we get better results and performance from our employees.

Let’s take a closer look at this idea.

Our society seems to be focused on deficits, weaknesses and bad news.

It starts while we’re young. Seventy-seven percent of parents in the United States think that the lowest grades deserve the most attention (Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0). I know, because I used to be one of them. My daughter, who was in fifth grade at the time, came home with a report card that was all A’s and B’s except for a D in math. What do you think was the first thing out of my mouth when I looked at that report card? “What the heck is this, a D in math?” My mind was racing about what we had to do, as I focused on her poor math grade; a tutor, extra help, a meeting with the teacher? I was so focused on that D, I didn’t even bother to congratulate her on the other wonderful grades she received. In other words, I was not focused on her strengths in the least. I was totally focused on her weaknesses and how we were going to fix them.

At work, this also happens. We get fixated on our weaknesses; of ourselves, our employees, other departments and our organization as a whole. We fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others, comparing our employees to each other or even comparing our organizations to others; whatever “they” are doing well, we need to fix us to be more like them.

I am not suggesting that we can ignore our weaknesses completely.

We have to have a certain level of competence to pass a subject, graduate or perform our jobs, but once we have a certain level of competence, focusing on strengths is a much more productive road to take.

Understanding the Difference Between Strengths and Weaknesses

SailboatLet’s use a sailboat metaphor to help understand the difference between strengths and weaknesses. Pretend this sailboat is us. If there are holes in the boat (our weaknesses) we would have to spend some of our time fixing them, otherwise the boat would sink (or we wouldn’t be proficient in what we needed to do). But even when we fix the holes, this wouldn’t get us very far. We as individuals need to put up our beautiful sails (our strengths) to be able to catch the wind and move forward to get things done. Our sails (strengths) give us the energy and ability to make great things happen. They give us a clear direction in our lives and give us the ability and motivation to get there. (Biswas-Deiner, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching; Assessment, Activities and Strategies for Success)

Our Unique Basket of Gifts

basket of flowersAt birth, we have all been given a unique basket of gifts. We need to realize that everything needed to succeed is within our perfect basket. We need to stop comparing our basket with others. “Sally has a lot of sunflowers in her basket. I wish I had sunflowers.” Or “I only have a bunch of carnations. Life would be so much better if I had more roses.” Doesn’t that sound silly? So what‘s in your basket? Take a moment to self-reflect.

Recall a time when you were at your best…

  1. Where were you?
  2. What were you doing?
  3. How did you feel?
  4. What was the benefit for yourself and others?

This exercise will help identify what types of activities give you the most joy. Be as specific as possible. The more detail you can recall, the better.

Again, why should we focus on strengths?

When we focus on strengths we see and feel success happen. We experience an enormous amount of growth. Think about it; when we work on our weaknesses we become average. When we focus on our strengths we become outstanding! Also, as we utilize our strengths we enjoy bursts of energy and happiness. And remember, what you focus on grows! Strengths help us to do our best, give us the greatest sense of meaning, allow us to enjoy our lives to the fullest, give us a deeper sense of connection and increase our satisfaction and joy in all domains of our lives. (Seligman, Flourish; A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being)

So what is a strength?

According to Tom Rath in the book Strengths Finder 2.0, the strength formula is T x I = S. Our talent (our natural way of thinking, feeling or behaving) times our investment (time spent practicing, developing our skills and building our knowledge base) equals a strength (the ability to provide near perfect performance.)

Picture of a SignLook For the SIGNs

Another way of determining your strengths is to think of the acronym S.I.G.N.:

SUCCESS ­– When you do it you feel effective

INSTINCT – Before you do it, you actively look forward to it

GROWTH – While you are doing it, you feel inquisitive and focused

NEED – After you have done it, you felt fulfilled and authentic

(Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance)

Utilizing our strengths is a feeling. We know when we are experiencing a strong moment when we feel:

  • Powerful
  • Confident
  • Natural
  • Smooth
  • On fire
  • Authentic
  • “That was easy”
  • Awesome
  • “When can I do this again?”

On the other hand, we know we are experiencing weak moments when we feel:

  • Drained
  • “Time’s going by slowly”
  • “I can’t concentrate”
  • Frustrated
  • Wiped out
  • Forced
  • Irritated
  • Bored
  • “Why can’t the new guy do this?”

Supervisors Be Aware

Because our strengths are only known to us as individuals based on the feelings we are experiencing, as a supervisor, we must be cautious when identifying the strengths of our employees. Just because someone is good at something, does not mean it is a strength. For example, just because Tom is good at completing highly technical reports, does not necessarily mean that completing the reports is a strength of Tom’s. He may have the knowledge and skill to complete the reports, but the activity drains him and makes him dread coming to work. As we are observing employees, here are the behaviors that may indicate someone is demonstrating a strength:

  • Raising inflection when speaking
  • Rapid speech
  • Better posture
  • Wide eyes and raised eyebrows
  • Smiling and laughing
  • Increased hand gestures
  • More fluent speech

When someone is speaking about a topic that they are interested and competent in, they are naturally more excited and comfortable. The above behaviors are normally exhibited either when someone is discussing their strength or actually doing it.

Observation may be our first indication, but actually talking with our employees regarding what we are observing and having a conversation about it, is the most effective way in confirming what we are concluding. Questions like:

  1. What is an activity/skill that you are really good at?
  2. How do you feel when you are doing it?
  3. What have you been recognized for doing really well?
  4. What activities/projects do you look forward to doing?

The above questions are great in getting to know our employees’ strengths and also building rapport and engagement.

Once we have a good understanding of our employees’ strengths, there are two important things we can do to help increase engagement. The first is to actually recognize and provide feedback and appreciation for the job they do while demonstrating their strengths. This shows that we are paying attention to what they are doing well. The second is to give our employees specific tasks that highlight their strengths. Helping people incorporate more opportunities to utilize their strengths increases their engagement, job satisfaction and overall enhancement of their quality of life.

Focusing on employee strengths is a major driver for employee engagement.

Again from the book Strengths Finder 2.0, this statistic certainly confirms it:

The following are your chances of being actively disengaged:

If your manager ignores you                             40%

If your manager focuses on your weaknesses    22%

If your manager focuses on your strengths       1%

Enough said.