Give me strength!

Which would help you improve the most – working on your weaknesses, or working on your strengths? A worldwide Gallop poll found that the majority of people (59% USA, 62% UK, 76% China) felt that focusing on weaknesses was the best way to improve (Hodges and Clifton, 2004). But are they right?

If you recall from a previous newsletter on attributional style, what you focus on and what you think about colours your mood and confidence. Focus on your weaknesses and failures, and you will descend the sunken steps of despair. Instead, you might consider focusing on your strengths; focusing on what you already do well. In fact, research that was stimulated by the Gallop poll’s original finding showed that there are positives to focusing on strengths. Even though people thought that they should focus on weaknesses, when they tried focusing on strengths instead – 59% said using strengths helped them make better life choices, 60% were more productive and 63% had greater self-confidence. So it seems that developing strengths builds resilience.

But what are ‘strengths?’ And how does one develop them?

One way to identify strengths is to pause occasionally across your working week and consider what you are doing, whether you are enjoying it and whether you feel you are doing well. List what, where, who, when, why. Split into ‘like’ and ‘loath’. These will likely map onto Strengths and Weaknesses. In essence, you should feel invigorated when you engage strengths and drained when employing weaknesses. Likewise, you look forward to employing strengths.

From an academic perspective, there’s a movement in psychology to categorise trait-like Strengths across the population. So, just as we have a ‘personality’ we also have ‘strengths.’ We were probably born with a predisposition for them and then developed them through learning and experience across our formative years. Some examples of strengths: creativity, curiosity, bravery, humour, leadership, kindness, judgement, teamwork, self-regulation.

A couple of different research groups have created their own lists and are actively researching them – one is Gallop and the other is VIA (values in action). For our purposes, they are much of a muchness. And you can fill in online questionnaires to discover what your own strengths are. (Interestingly, when I filled in the via questionnaire there were some surprises in my top strengths. Was I really ‘good’ at that? But when I tried employing the strengths that I hadn’t immediately recognised I actually found it to be quite empowering!)

If we spend our working day focusing on doing something we’re not very good at, then we’ll become frustrated, annoyed and disheartened. We’ll go home in a bad mood. Instead, if we identify our strengths and then try to employ them in whatever we are doing, we will be more productive, feel more satisfied and go home happy. That’s what research suggests (Seligman et al., 2005).

Specific examples of using strengths includes: (1) focus on using your top strengths over the next week; (2) use your top strengths in new ways for a week; (3) craft your job to increase your ability to employ your strengths; (4) create a person specification for a new job based on strengths rather than on qualifications; (5) identify strengths in a team and then apportion work based on this. You could easily spend a week or two or more on each of these. You can also apply it at the organisational level – what strengths does my business have? How can I capitalise on those?

In terms of neuroscience, it is unlikely that there’s an area of the brain involved in ‘strengths’ per se. But it is likely that an individual’s strengths reflect the effective processing of their own brains e.g. if one of my strengths is good self-regulation (will power) then that will likely reflect efficient (and dominant) functioning of the prefrontal cortex ‘inhibitory’ system relative to subcortical ‘temptation’ circuits (Parkinson, 2009). In this sense, a strength is merely a reflection of what our brains are good at. When you think about it that way, it seems a bit silly to try and get our brain doing things it isn’t good at. Surely, individual success and contentment will come from using our brain in the way it works best. This form of neural fluency is also reflected at the psychological level – we tend to get greater satisfaction and enjoyment when our thought and behaviour is aligned.

At the psychological level, ‘strength finding’ works for a number of reasons – it is empowering, it is enjoyable and it is motivating. Fundamentally, it produces a fluency in our thoughts and actions which can improve productivity and achievement. It also makes us happier (Seligman et al., 2005)

I mentioned earlier that strengths might be a bit like personality. Indeed, when you compare them you find that the two are related (Macdonald et al., 2008). So for example, a person who scores highly on the personality trait of conscientiousness, would also score highly on self-regulation. So next time we will consider the relationship between personality and strengths and see how research into the neurobiology of personality can help us in the workplace.

In the meantime – identify your strengths (or those of your team, or your organization) and then try and employ them


Hodges TD and Clifton DO (2004) Strength-based development in practice. In Positive Psychology in Practice, Ed. Linley PA and Joseph S. Chapter 16, pp256-268. John Wiley and sons.

Macdonald C, Bore M, Munro D (2008) Values in action scale and the Big 5: an empirical indication of structure. Journal of Research in Personality 42, 787–799

Parkinson JA (2009) Appetitive Systems: Amygdala and Striatum. In: Squire LR (ed.) Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, volume 1, pp. 539-545. Oxford: Academic Press

Seligman MEP, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C (2005) Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–421.

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