This article was originally published by Forbes.
What happens when we think about what’s right with people rather than fixating on what’s wrong with them?
That simple question inspires and motivates Marta Hanson, certified Gallup strengths coach and Assistant Dean/Associate Director of the Women’s Community Center at Stanford.
It’s also the question that prompted the four decades of research that went into the development of the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. The assessment asks people to put themselves on a continuum between pairs of self-descriptors, such as "I read instructions carefully" and "I like to jump right into things."
Taken together, the responses indicate natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Assessment results help people understand how they get things done, build relationships, stay motivated, and more.
I sat down with Hanson to better understand how this approach can improve our leadership, work, and career fulfillment.
How this “strengths-based” approach is different
Hanson’s excitement about strengths-based leadership is immediately apparent. You can hear her smile on the phone as she says, “The strengths-based approach shifts the paradigm of excellence.”
So often, she says our focus is to be well-rounded, to prioritize efforts to improve our weaknesses. Instead, the strengths-based approach encourages people to fully understand, invest in and embrace their innate talents.
Hanson uses the metaphor of a star to explain. A star has dips and points. When we focus on our weaknesses – the dips in our star – it’s in service of becoming well-rounded. It creates average performance, and ultimately a circle.
Alternatively, the strengths-based approach asks us to spend our finite time and energy sharpening our talents. In developing excellence in a few specific areas, the points of our star become sharper.
Decades of research shows the results are exponentially better. Hanson shares, “People who actively use their strengths every day report higher quality of life, higher engagement at work, and higher productivity. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Strengths-based leadership in action
The strengths-based approach gave Hanson a language and a framework to understand and articulate the “why” behind much of her life.
Her top three talent themes are:
Connectedness: understanding how seemingly disparate things are related and drawing meaning from everything
Responsibility: prioritizing follow-through and valuing integrity
Empathy: sensing others’ feelings and having an intuitive understanding of others’ perspectives
For example, she most enjoyed past fundraising roles when the focus was on building relationships with people based on the issues that were most important to them. “Can’t you hear the Connectedness & Empathy shining through there?!” she exclaims.
She notes that, for others, a joy of fundraising might have come from hitting stretch goals or out-competing others. Even with the same job, there’s no one right approach to achieve success and personal fulfillment. The key to career fulfillment is to know what motivates and inspires you personally.
There’s also duality to our strengths, Hanson explains, “Our weaknesses are often just our biggest strengths spiraling out of control.” In her experience, her personal focus on being of service can lead her to overcommit and spread herself too thin.
She sees those moments as an interplay between her strengths. “Having the language to name my strengths allows me to check in and ask: Are my strengths showing up in a positive and powerful way? Or are they on overdrive, and not serving me well?”
Beyond her own experience, she’s seen the way that focusing on strengths can enhance teams.
One team she worked with was struggling with group tension due to interpersonal dynamics. Once each participant took the StrengthsFinder assessment and discussed their results, they found a shared language to understand the group conflict. With clarity about each team member’s strengths, they were better able to strategize about how to manage workflow and expectations.
The way Hanson sees it, we are all different, bringing unique talents and perspectives. When we effectively name, own, and leverage those differences, she says, we can truly create the vibrant, thriving workplaces and world we need.