Do you get to do what you do best every day? Not once a week but every single day. Think about it for a moment. If you’re not, the chances might be one of the 80% of employees who are disengaged in their work. When you’re disengaged the likelihood is that you will be spending at least 2-3 hours per day being completely unproductive. And that will most likely be impacting on your happiness and health.
Employee engagement across the world remains low at a time when increasing numbers of people are also reporting stress and anxiety and many are reported to be looking for a new job.
What we do know is that when people are engaged in their work and get to do what they do best every day, nearly every single organisational metric improves. Productivity increases by up to 40%, individuals are 3 times more likely to report having a high quality of life, and engagement increases by up to 6 times. You’re also 50% more likely to work on teams with high level of retention and 44% more likely to earn high customer satisfaction scores.
Whilst studies show that managers account for 70% of the variance when it comes to employee engagement in the workplace, the responsibility for understanding our strengths and what engages us starts with ourselves. We have to first understand our own strengths and work on how to practically apply them for the benefit of us and others.
In my experience, this can be a struggle for most people in a world which has historically been fixated on weaknesses where we can confuse being good at something with a strength. When I’ve asked people over the years what is stopping them from doing more of what they love at work, responses have ranged from ‘work isn’t somewhere you go to do what you love,’ and ‘my manager wouldn’t listen/isn’t interested ’ to ‘I don’t know how to have a conversation about my strengths’ and right at the top of the list ‘I have to focus on improving my weaknesses.’
In his book ‘Now Go Put Your Strengths to Work’ Marcus Buckingham says one of the myths many of us still believe in which our parents told us were true, our teachers reinforced and we hear in one way or another from our managers
Myth: You will grow most in your areas of greatest weakness.
Over 60 per cent of us believe this to be true. In school I was great at English but terrible with math. When I took home my report card with a predicted A in GCSE English and a D in math I didn’t get more English classes, I got extra tuition in math twice a week after school and more homework to practice at home. I ended up ‘just’ scraping a C in Math so I marginally improved. It’s true that by digging in I got better, yet it took an exceptional amount of effort that caused anxiety, frustration and a loss in confidence as I struggled to learn.
It’s also true that since I was a child I’ve struggled with confrontation and speaking up, which is consistent with all the different personality assessments I’ve taken over the years. It has had let to a lot of well meaning advice over the years, along with mentoring and training courses. I have developed tools and frameworks around how to have conversations and today facilitate learning experiences for others around it. And whilst all the help and advice I have received over the years was in part helpful, the most effective and best use of my time came from understanding and applying my strengths. There are strengths in having low confrontation, equally when overdone it can turn into a weaknesses, which is when I need to lean into my other strengths and get support.
The weakness myth has become so ingrained in our lives we don’t even see it most of the time. It means we end unwillingly end up passing it onto others – our children, students, employees. Studies show 70% of parents will focus on the lower grade when a child bring home their report card, not the higher ones where the most potential lies. You will always learn, grow and develop the most in your areas of your strengths because your strengths strengthen you, your weaknesses weaken you.
Every single one of us has strengths and potential that we are living well below. Don Clifton, a positive psychology pioneer and inventor of the CliftonStrengths assessment once said:
“Everybody does one thing better than 10,000 other people. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of us have no idea what that one thing is.”
It’s sad to think that many people go through life never really knowing what that one thing is.
What exactly is a strength?
Your strengths are the activities that make you feel strong and the person best qualified too identify them is you. Not your partner, parents, manager, teacher – or anyone you might choose to go to for insight. Whilst you might need some help spotting them, you are the best judge of your strengths. It’s you that knows the activities that light you up, which you’re drawn to again and again. You that knows which activities keep your interest and concentration with no effort. You that knows the things you do that make you feel happy, fulfilled, energised and strong.
Let’s be honest – the job descriptions and responsibilities we have at work are rarely developed around our strengths. Many are overloaded and expecting someone to know and do too much, which can stop organisations from finding and retaining talent. When roles and responsibilities can’t be condensed, it’s a sure sign that you’re asking someone to wear too many hats. By undertaking an honest assessment of performance and understanding the strengths and values that motivate individual, job descriptions can be developed that are strength focused, with less emphasis on competencies.
Traditional competency based interviews don’t provide enough insight into candidates, only giving a small insight into what they can do and past success, which isn’t always an indicator of future performance. It doesn’t tell the interviewer anything about what the individual loves to do or what’s important to them. And there is a big different between being good at something and whether we enjoy or feel engaged by it. With more effective job descriptions based on strengths rather than competencies, interviews you can gain greater insight into candidates strengths and what energises and drains them. As Buckingham says, when you know an employee’s strengths, you can focus their work more effectively and create a more engaged, high performing team and a happier workplace.
Once we are inside an organisation, we can often be faced with a feedback system that usually focuses on the areas where we fall short and need to improve. Conversations are focussed on what we are lacking, reinforcing the fixation on weaknesses. If we aren’t able to contribute our strengths regularly enough, we end up feeling frustrated.
It’s a horrible place to be when this happens. When you get up every-day knowing you are going to go to work and spend time doing things that you aren’t good at or have no passion for. They are the activities that you try and put off because they drain you of energy and over time erode your confidence.
The above has been me by the way so I get this. I got to the point where I realised that the only thing that could change was me. I had to take responsibility for being in this place and do something about it, I just didn’t know yet what that was. It was around this time that I was introduced to the Clifton StrengthFinder assessment which would help me find out my innate talents. That’s how you naturally think, feel and behave. It gives you insight into not what you do but how you do it.
I took the assessment and when I read the results thought yes, this sounds like me. Stuck it in my draw for about 3 months and carried on feeling rubbish. Then I was told that the chances of me having the same top 5 strengths in the same order as someone else is 1 in 33 million people. It made me get it out again, read it and wonder how I could do something with the information I had in my hands.
So I got curious. When I was doing certain tasks, what was the impact on my energy? Which situations left me energised, which ones left me feeling drained? When did I feel frustrated? What caused it and what was the result? Without realising it at the time a number of my strengths (Input, Learner and Maximizer) went on a quest to find out as much information as possible. My team, friends and family all took the assessment and I coached and mapped them. I began reading books, articles, watching videos, listening to podcasts, researching organisations who have become strengths-based. I kept a log of the answers to my curious questions and began to link these back to my strengths.
Fast forward to today and my life has changed dramatically. I’ve learnt how to be comfortable with my weaknesses and manage around them through understanding my own and the strengths of others. I know what my strengths contribute and need to be at their best and have put in place ways to support these so I can do what I do best every day. I know what my triggers are, how they can cause my strengths to show up as weaknesses and have developed ways to help manage these so they don’t get in the way of others or myself.
It has enabled me to have conversations with others about my strengths and find work that suits them. As a result my relationships have improved along with my productivity, engagement, happiness and well-being.
Consider the impact for a moment of never getting the opportunity to discover what it is that makes you unique and what you do best. What is the cost to you – your well-being, happiness, relationships and results? To your team, colleagues and organisation?
I’d like to share with you a snippet of an email I received from someone who wrote to me about the impact discovering their strengths had for them:
It was an awakening – a sort of validation to something that I have always been asking myself about. I never fully knew how to explain my thinking process and my actions at the same time. I got to see specific situations where I could either be frustrated or fulfilled. Understanding my strengths gave me enough encourage to find a way to play to my strengths everyday as much as I can.
You can get started on your own strengths journey by paying attention to the work you do and how it makes you feel. We all have experiences every day that help us learn about what we’re good at, what we’re not, what we love and what we don’t.
Reflect each day on what you loved and found energising and what you didn’t enjoy and found frustrating and draining. What results did you get for yourself? For others? By doing this you will develop a list of activities that are both strengthening and weakening, giving you the opportunity to look at where you can find ways to use more of your strengths in day to day activities.
People who get to do what they do best pay attention to their experiences and learn from them, so they can understand what they want and need to keep repeating.
In the words of the late Scott Dinsmore, founder and CEO of Live Your Legend:
We learn things every day…if we don’t spend time paying attention to that and assimilating that learning and applying it to the rest of our lives, it’s all for nothing.” Scott Dinsmore