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Strengths bring out the best

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 10 October 2019
It's been a while ... six months, in fact, since the last newsletter. Across those months a few themes seemed to emerge from the workshops and coaching I've been doing. So I'd like to highlight and try to connect those themes in the next couple of articles.

First, life is hard enough for many people without workplaces unnecessarily making it even harder.

Second, confidence is fundamental to performance, development and resilience. It's also variable, tenuous and rarely as deep as it seems.

Third, apparently small positive behaviours matter (a lot) in bringing out the best in ourselves and others. Our daily habits shape not only what we do but who we are and how others experience us.

Let's take a look at the first issue.

In helping put together some workshops on teams earlier this year I was reminded of Goffee and Jones' work on "Creating the best workplace on earth". Their insights from interviews and feedback from their seminars around the world over three years revealed "six common imperatives" people wanted:

Let people be themselves - "the ideal organisation makes explicit efforts to transcend its dominant culture".

Unleash the flow of information - tell people what's really going on.

Magnify people's strengths - develop them so they can contribute their best.

Stand for more than shareholder value - "make me proud to work here"

Show how the daily work makes sense - make it meaningful.

Have rules people can believe in - "don't hinder me with stupid rules".

Whether it's stupid rules or making it difficult for people to contribute their strengths or express their unique perspectives, too often workplaces make work (and therefore life) unnecessarily difficult and frustrating.

What genius, we probably all sometimes wonder, came up with the idea that making workplaces unpleasant, inhibiting and punitive was a good strategy for bringing out the best in people? And if it's not an intentional strategy, then why allow, enable or encourage such repressive and fear-based environments?

Why not, instead, take just one or two of the insights from the list above: "let people be themselves ... magnify people's strengths develop them so they can contribute their best."

This is something Dan Cable, from London Business School, calls "best self activation."

"There's a growing body of research to shows that best-self activation can improve people's emotions, physiology, cognitive functioning, and relationships," Cable says.

Part of best-self activation is identifying and enabling people's strengths to be applied to their work. And yet the Gallup organisation's research shows that only 20% of employees report having the opportunity to do their best, to use their strengths every day. That's a missed opportunity.

"People who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job," Gallup report. (This is based, in part, on their surveys of well over a million people across more than 100 companies in 60 countries.)

Based on research Cable and fellow researchers conducted with Wipro BPO's onboarding program, Cable notes the power of a simple "best self" exercise: "Asking 'who are you when you're at your best?'."

The exercise they ran with new employees took only an hour, inviting people to reflect on, write down and talk about an experience of working at their best. They then tracked the performance and retention rates of those employees compared with others. The results were significantly better compared to the non-best-self groups who had been onboarded at the same time.

In his book, Alive at Work, Cable describes "best self" as the story we create about the qualities and characteristics we display at our best. "Our concepts of our best selves are not projections of what we think we could become someday. Rather, they're based on our real-life experiences and actions. They comprise the skills and traits that we've developed and discovered over time, and the actions we have taken to affect others in a positive way. The more our colleagues know who we are when we're at our best, the more likely we can feel like ourselves at work."

Cable goes on to say: "When people alter their unique values to fit into an organisational culture, they can suffer from identity conflict. When people are empowered to express their authentic best selves, they are less anxious and less likely to suffer from exhaustion ... When people activate their best selves, they bring more energy into the workplace and invest more in the company they work for."

If we want stronger organisations and teams then we need to tap the "best" our team members have to offer. But that's not something that can be enforced. It's discetionary. A choice. That means identifying, celebrating and developing the unique and varied strengths each person brings. And yet, this apparently simple interaction is typically ignored. So often when the strengths-based development discussion comes up in workshops people cannot recall ever having a strength-based conversation with their manager. Or with themselves.

Life is hard enough for many people without workplaces unnecessarily making it even harder. Activating strengths encourages people to contribute more of their best selves. That's got to make life and work just a little easier.

Next time, we'll look at confidence ...


Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

References & Resources

Cable, D. (2018). Alive at Work: The neuroscience of helping your people love what they do. Harvard Business Review Press

Cable, D. (2016). How to activate your best self, and what happens when you do. (26 June). London Business School. https://www.london.edu/lbsr/how-to-activate-your-best-self-and-what-happens-when-you-do

Goffee, R. & Jones, G. (2013). Creating the best workplace on earth. Harvard Business Review (May).

Sorensen, S. (n.d.). How Employees' Strengths Make Your Company Stronger. Gallup Business Journal. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231605/employees-strengths-company-stronger.aspx

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2019

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