A Strengths Focus

{Biswas-Diener, 2008. Invitation to Positive Psychology: Research and Tools for the Professional. A 6-week Course.}

Many of us shared a childhood experience when we took a compulsory physical education class. Team captains were elected or appointed, taking turns choosing players. The first half of the choosing ceremony focused on acquiring the strongest players, while the second half focused on managing the careful acquisition of the weakest players.

The message was always clear: we want strengths-based teams because that is our best chance for success.

Another message also comes through; first, we look to strengths, then manage weaknesses.

The strengths approach to sports was a clear, well-defined strategy that capitalized on the potential of a strong team.

People also use this approach in adulthood, such as hiring the most talented workers, marrying the best partner, buying the pet with the best qualities, and hanging out with the most solid friends.

The real question is: how important was this selection approach to the game’s overall success?

Do sports teams, businesses, or universities that pick up the best talent usually enjoy the greatest successes?

Intuition, anecdotal evidence, and research all point to the answer “yes!”

However, most of us tend to lose sight of it somewhere between primary school and adulthood as we turn to fix problems.

At work, many managers try to shore up team weaknesses or correct the deficit behavior of a single “problem employee.”

In schools, teachers tend to notice the class clown or spend disproportionate time managing the behavior of the few rowdy kids.

Most of us know our failings and deficits in private life, but the message is sometimes backward: we must focus on overcoming our problems.

The Centre for Applied Positive Psychology Founding Director Alex Linley discusses this phenomenon as the “Curse of Mediocrity.” He argues that most people strongly desire to perform beautifully in almost every life area, but this is often unrealistic.

However, we undercut our potential when we give short shrift to our greatest attributes.

Problem focus betrays the idea that it is highly valuable to develop everything going well, as we still take our cars in for routine maintenance even when they are performing well. Likewise, we still go to the doctor for physical check-ups even when we aren’t sick and have no broken bones.

In other words, things don’t need to go wrong to merit our attention.

The science of positive psychology has contributed significantly to the topic of strengths.

Research suggests that identifying and harnessing our best qualities can produce better results than trying to shore up our weaknesses.

However, this can be counterintuitive; some people are slow to accept it.

In organizations, for example, many managers swear by the approach that says they must carefully supervise their worst workers.

This attitude often leads to managers using up their time on a few poor producers while their talent pool goes un-coached, un-directed, and un-managed.

Research from the Gallup Organization shows that paying attention to top performers and personal strengths can give individuals, teams, and organizations a cutting edge.

Studies of the best managers indicated that they emphasized strengths over seniority in making personnel decisions, tended to match talents with tasks, and spent more time with their top producers.

Studies of thousands of employees from dozens of industries show that workers who have the opportunity to do what they do best every day show less turnover, better customer loyalty, and higher productivity.

Alex Linley believes that this type of engagement is inherent in the definition of strengths, as one of the most important defining features of strength is that it “energizes” a person.

Positive psychology research suggests tremendous mileage is gained from attending to, developing, and employing strengths.

Alex Linley advises people to focus on growing their strengths but also acknowledges that there are good reasons to attend to weaknesses.

Similarly, Don Clifton echoes this sentiment when he counsels people that it is prudent to manage weaknesses so that they do not interfere with achievement but grow strengths for the best chance at success.

Chris Peterson, a positive psychologist from the University of Michigan, uses Gallup research and studies in positive psychology to make an essential distinction between engaged and unengaged workers.

Unengaged workers cost corporations money by turning away customers, making more health-related claims, and having high employee turnover rates.

Peterson suggests a “happy worker hypothesis” in which engaged workers perform better.

Talent is essential, but praise, encouragement, and opportunities to exercise strengths also play into the equation.

What are Strengths, and How do We Recognise Them?

The science of strengths began in the 1930s with Harvard researcher Gordon Allport, who believed that people have specific defining and unique characteristics which are mainly inborn, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. These overarching personality leanings are partly what guides decisions and behavior.

He advocated for a solid empirical foundation for research on traits to help differentiate this course of study from philosophy, religion, and morality.

Unfortunately, Allport’s study of character traits and virtues was supplanted by the more pressing concerns of mental illness exhibited by veterans of World War II.

Only recently have psychologists focused on the classification and understanding of strengths.

Raymond Cattell was a British psychologist who spent the middle of the last century researching personality at the University of Illinois.

He reduced the list of 4,000 traits that Allport had identified to 16 common factors, including eight two-polar categories such as “Outgoing – Reserved,” “Upbeat – Sombre,” and “Conscientious – Impulsive.”

His model is noteworthy in that it allows for strengths and creates a formal taxonomy of people’s best qualities, suggesting that all people have a strength somewhere.

Cattell’s work was important because it represented a new, scientifically sophisticated way of categorizing people’s qualities and allowed for strengths as well as weaknesses.

In the 1970s and 80s, psychologist Don Clifton, then head of the Gallup Organization, became interested in strengths. He suspected that there was much to be learned from top performers in the workplace and set about collecting data from the best managers.

The Gallup research on the talents of top performers led directly to the first widely used classification of strengths, the Clifton StrengthsFinder.

The StrengthsFinder is a proprietary instrument Gallup uses to identify talents in workers, such as “Winning Others Over,” “Achiever,” and “Empathy.”

It is a good way of placing individuals and creating teams that will work optimally.

However, it has several limitations concerning our interests, such as the need to pay to use it and not having full access to all the data ever collected.

Additionally, it is not as applicable to relationships or other domains.

If you want a concise definition of strengths, Alex Linley provides a beautiful one:

A strength is a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user and enables optimal functioning, development, and performance.

Strengths are active potential, like a fire burning inside you, just waiting for the proper moment to be used. Authentic strengths can engage and recharge people. A kind of excitement occurs when you use your top strengths.


The work of Allport, Clifton, and others influenced positive psychology researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman when they approached the topic of strengths.

In early 2000, Seligman proposed creating a formal classification of strengths.

Psychiatry and psychology have long had formal taxonomies of mental illness in the form of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM.

Seligman mused that a similar taxonomy by which we could diagnose strengths in people would be beneficial.

Peterson and Seligman identified personal strengths that would be relatively universal. First, they turned to a vast body of religious and philosophical work. Next, they developed a candidate list of 24 strengths of character that they believed to be universal, which translated across cultures.

People from these diverse cultures recognized the 24 strengths, thought they were useful and desirable, believed there were cultural institutions that nurtured these strengths, and generally wanted their children to have these traits.

Peterson and Seligman developed the Values in Action (VIA) survey, a web-based, free-of-charge assessment that helps people identify their top five signature strengths.

The assessment takes between 20 and 45 minutes. It is scored ipsatively, presenting each individual’s strengths in their rank order.

The VIA strengths have been compared across 54 nations, linked to life satisfaction, and shown to be a factor in recovery from illness and related to organizations.

The VIA can be useful for coaches to use with their clients or students.

In coaching practice, we ask clients to take the VIA to discuss how they might best employ their strengths to solve a problem or see an idea through.

Many people are surprised by some of their VIA results, such as “I knew I was a curious person, but I never thought of myself as brave!”

Reminding clients that bravery includes speaking up to defend someone in a team meeting can help them accept and take ownership of the strength.

Talking with clients about the fact that creativity is not limited to the visual arts can open their eyes to possibilities for using their strengths and pave the way toward accepting them.

Seligman, Peterson, and their colleagues conducted a controlled experiment to test the effectiveness of various positive psychology interventions.

Two of these interventions were related to the VIA: identifying one’s strengths and intentionally using a strength during the week.

Both interventions showed better-than-chance effectiveness and led to decreased depression and increased happiness in the research participants.

Another potential use of the VIA is to work with people to consciously identify and employ a particular strength, encouraging them to use it when addressing problems or making important decisions.

People motivated by this exercise who put in the effort report that it is enjoyable, engaging, and leads to happiness and purpose.

The 24 Character Strengths identified by Peterson and Seligman (2004) and their Core Virtues.

Wisdom and Knowledge: entail acquiring and using knowledge

  1. Creativity: Thinking of novel ways to do things
  2. Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience
  3. Open-mindedness: Thinking things through and examining counter-arguments
  4. Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and knowledge
  5. Perspective: Providing wise counsel to others

Courage: involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in facing opposition

  1. Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
  2. Persistence: Finishing what one begins
  3. Integrity: Presenting oneself in a genuine way
  4. Vitality: Approaching life with excitement and energy

Humanity: involve tending to and befriending others

  1. Love: Valuing close relationships
  2. Kindness: Doing favors and good deeds for others
  3. Social intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of others and oneself

Justice: underlie healthy community life

  1. Citizenship: Working well as a member of a team or group
  2. Fairness: Treating all people equally
  3. Leadership: Encouraging a group to get things done

Temperance: protect against excess

  1. Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong
  2. Humility / Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves

without seeking the spotlight

  1. Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices
  2. Self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does

Transcendence: forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

  1. Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty and excellence
  2. Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for good things happening
  3. Hope: Expecting the best and working to achieve it
  4. Humor: Liking to laugh and bringing smiles to other people
  5. Spirituality: Having coherent beliefs about one’s purpose and meaning

Beyond the VIA

The VIA is a remarkable instrument that focuses heavily on character strengths while ignoring skills, talents, and abilities.

It also misses out on many important everyday interpersonal dynamics.

Alex Linley has identified many other strengths that can be useful to consider, such as Bounceback, Esteem Builder, and Incubators.

Bounceback is the ability to use troubling experiences to catapult themselves forward in life. Esteem Builder is the ability to appreciate all the fine points of others and say just the right thing to make them feel great.

Incubators can sit around Monday through Thursday morning playing solitaire on their computers and then suddenly flurry into action and finish everything they need by Friday and do it very well. It is easy to see that their efficient high quality work style is a tremendous gift.

When working with others professionally, it is important to consider more than just strengths.

It can be productive to move beyond the top 5 signature strengths and ask how the constellations of strengths work together, how team strengths complement one another, what strengths are being overlooked, or when strengths should not be used.

Gaining more facility with the VIA and other strengths approaches helps to make the instrument sing.