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Four Steps To Effectively Leverage Your Strengths At Work

Forget what you could have done better and focus on what you already do well.

Four Steps To Effectively Leverage Your Strengths At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Gerhard Haindl]

We’re often told to accentuate the positive, but when it comes to performance reviews and even day-to-day feedback, there’s a lot of emphasis on what can be done better. Working with peers, managers, and sometimes even coaches can leave us with better knowledge of how to accommodate the strengths of others without leveraging our own.

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This comes at a cost, according to recent findings from Gallup. People who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job, which has a positive effect on performance and the company’s bottom line. Unfortunately, Gallup’s data revealed that only 3% of respondents said they set goals for themselves based on their strengths or that their supervisor and organization supported and encouraged building on those strengths. The majority (97%) of workers polled are a huge untapped pool of productivity. As Gallup’s research shows: “When employees feel that their company cares and encourages them to make the most of their strengths, they are more likely to respond with increased discretionary effort, a stronger work ethic, and more enthusiasm and commitment.”

1. Pause and Reflect

The first step towards shifting this focus is to identify your own strengths. Though there are copious questionnaires and assessments available on the web to do this, Anthony Stephan, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, says that it can be as simple as asking yourself what gives you the most energy.

“We make choices on a daily basis to choose tasks from which we get energy, but we may not be conscious of them,” says Stephan. “When you reflect and consciously identify the things you get energy from, that’s usually what you’ll be your best at.” 

It’s important to note that just because a task energizes you, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically a strength. If you complete a project that requires major revisions or extra work, it may not be an area where you excel. Conversely, you might have great success in sales, but after a deal closes, all you can envision is never having to make another. Use self-reflection to pinpoint the activities that both energize you and where you have been successful to find your true workplace strengths.

2. Keep Looking Inward

Stephan reminds us that Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” So while it’s quite common to cast about for others’ strengths to figure out what you are good at, it’s also a terrible way to go about it.

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To help you stop comparing yourself to others, Stephan recommends focusing on creating self-awareness, which includes recognition and acceptance of who you are. Then, he says, “Stand in your own truth, and act and behave in a way that models who you are and what you value when you interact with others.” 

In his own experience with a coach, Stephan was told to write down five words that he most identified with, like “courage,” “strength,” and “family.”  “Doing this helps you narrow in on your core values, which should in turn align with, and act as a strong foundation for identifying, your strengths,” he says.

3. Ask Your Colleagues

After completing self-reflection, it’s often helpful to get the opinion of a colleague. “One of the best steps I took when identifying my strengths was to actually sit with the people I worked with the most closely,” Stephan says. Asking, “What makes you pick up the phone and call me? What makes you seek me out?” yielded a variety of answers that helped him identify his strengths. “Seeking out honest feedback from people you trust is always a good idea,” Stephan maintains. After collecting three or four reasons why others turned to him, he was better able to assess what he was good at.

4. Enlist Management

The Gallup research also revealed that the best way for employers to maximize employees’ strengths is through their managers. Asking over 1,000 workers if their supervisors focused on weaknesses or didn’t mention either strengths or weaknesses, 25% of American workers fell into the “ignored” category, and 40% of those employees were actively disengaged. Managers who focused on their employees’ weaknesses cut active disengagement roughly in half, to 22%. In other words, even negative attention is better than no attention at all.

On the flip side, among those whose strengths were encouraged, nearly two-thirds (61%) were engaged, which turns out to be two times more than the average American workers’ engagement level (30%). Gallup’s findings suggest that if every manager was trained to focus on leveraging their staff’s strengths, the number of engaged employees could double, saving the economy millions of dollars in lost productivity. 

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Stephan says that’s why it’s important for managers not to wait for the annual performance review to discuss an employee’s strengths. “More frequent and timely feedback is often of greater value because it’s closest to the experience itself,” he says.

It’s On You

For employees, he reinforces the importance of taking personal responsibility. “By the time you walk into your review, you should know what your strengths are and be able to leverage them–and that’s your responsibility–no one else’s,” Stephan adds. “If you’re waiting for someone to tell you what your strengths are, then you’re not doing the hard work yourself.”

That said, Stephan cautions those who feel their work roles are limited by being on a lower rung of the corporate ladder to step up. “Strengths aren’t role-based, they’re people-based. Every day is an opportunity to leverage your strengths no matter what role you play.” 

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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