the ceo magazine, strengths based management,
Dr. Jim Harter, Gallup

Understanding and focusing on individuals’ talents and strengths helps people unlock their true potential. We succeed when we spend more time doing what we’re best at, and companies struggling with productivity issues should consider adopting what we refer to as strengths-based management. In the new edition of its best-selling management book, First Break All the Rules, Gallup outlines how focusing on your employees’ individual strengths creates a workplace that fosters creativity, collaboration and productivity while establishing a foundation for growth.

What is strengths-based management?

Anyone who’s ever been assigned a task at work that didn’t exactly play to their strengths knows this situation can be extremely frustrating, like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. A strengths-based approach to management entails identifying the natural capacity of each employee you manage and adding knowledge, skills, and experiences that build on that natural capacity to create strengths. The opportunity to learn about and apply one’s talents and develop them into strengths is especially powerful in the workplace. Employees who do what they do best every day are emotionally involved in their work, and they are happier and more productive on the job.

Define expectations

Before you start honing in on what your staff’s strengths are, it is important to define what success looks like within each role. That is, what are the outcomes that define success within the role? Even in achieving similar outcomes, people are wired in unique ways and can achieve the same outcomes through their own unique paths. A less efficient approach would be to assume that each person must follow the same steps to achieve the same outcomes, or assuming that what drives one person to perform is the same as what drives another.

Identify and inform

Many employees, especially millennials who are new to the workforce, are still figuring out what their strengths are and refining their expertise. A recent college graduate might not recognize that he is particularly talented in providing superior customer service, but as the manager of your company’s customer service department, you will probably see this in him before he realizes it himself.

Employees whose managers coach to their strengths or positive characteristics have more than double the likelihood of being engaged in comparison to the average. Large-scale meta-analytic studies across tens of thousands of work groups indicate strengths-based feedback predicts higher retention, productivity, safety, customer perceptions of service, sales, and profit.    Managers who select employees for natural capacity to do a task, define expected outcomes, focus on developing individuals’ strengths, and continually fine-tune each job to fit the person and their ideal development path set themselves up for effective management and a successful team. Once managers have identified employees’ strengths, they should involve them in setting clear goals that align with the organization’s objectives and their individual aspirations and provide experiences that progressively turn natural ability into applied strengths.

Set employees up for success

A key distinction here is in separating what is changeable from what is not. Innate characteristics, such as the ability to solve problems, capacity to build relationships, conscientiousness, assertiveness, and other such traits are very difficult to change once a person is hired. It is much easier to train for job-related skills and provide knowledge and experiences which can be used to develop the natural traits into job-related strengths. Some examples are exceptional communication, effective development of others or efficient project completion.

Most employees (particularly millennials) want to develop personally and professionally through focusing on their strengths and are willing to put in the work necessary to do so. To perform at high levels and continuously improve, they need to do what they do best by using their strengths to complement those around them. If managers can effectively identify their staff’s individual strengths and position them so that they complement each other, they will likely see an increase in productivity levels and company morale. After all, most employees, even the most independent such as freelance writers or consultants, are reliant on others to do their jobs well.

Evaluate regularly

Just as employees rely on each other to perform at high levels, they rely on their managers for consistent feedback and evaluation. The most progressive organizations are having integrated ongoing performance management conversations at all levels that align performance measurement with performance development.  For example, coaching is not a separate activity from employee engagement or performance measurement.  Both performance development and performance measurement are strengths-based and engagement-focused. Unfortunately, these advanced organizations have been few and far between, but with a competitive advantage in attracting new talent that expects to be managed differently. 

As new generations continue entering the workforce, they will be seeking out organizations and opportunities that emphasize their strengths rather than squeeze them into cookie cutter molds of what ideal employees looked like in the past. By adopting a strengths-based management policy, you as a manager can gain the upper hand and show your strength as a leader within your organization.


About the Author

Dr. Jim Harter, Ph.D, is the chief scientist of workplace management and well-being for Gallup’s workplace management practice. He has been with Gallup since 1985. His research is featured in First, Break All the Rules. Harter, based in the Omaha, Nebraska area, received his doctorate in psychological and cultural studies in quantitative and qualitative methods from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Harter is on the editorial board of the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies and is a regular reviewer for other prominent academic journals. Since 1985, he has authored or coauthored more than 1,000 research studies for organizations on employee engagement and talent and on topics in applied psychology and well-being. His specialties include psychological measurement and estimating the economic impact of management initiatives.


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