Enough about the CEO! What about the rest of us?
In the August 2001 issue of Fast Company, Marcus Buckingham, a pioneering researcher and a global-practice leader at the Gallup Organization, identified five “attitude adjustments” that redefine leadership in business — and rewrite the job description of the CEO. His interview showed him to be a truly rare thinker and consultant: He makes it his job to speak truth to power.
But most of Buckingham’s research and writing, especially his two best-selling books, focus not on the performance of CEOs, but on the creativity, productivity, and job satisfaction of the rest of us — the rank-and-file knowledge workers who are the difference between corporate success and failure. Indeed, his most recent book, Now, Discover Your Strengths (The Free Press, 2001), with coauthor Donald O. Clifton, may be remembered as one of the most quietly revolutionary — and relentlessly useful — books of its time.
The best you can hope from most business books is to learn a new way of looking at the world. Buckingham’s latest book offers you something far more valuable — the opportunity to learn something about yourself. In fact, you can take the book’s title as an invitation. Each copy comes with a personalized ID number granting the reader full access to Gallup’s StrengthsFinder Web site and a 180-question test that promises to identify your very own “dominant strength themes.” More later on those strength themes — and my own encounter with Buckingham’s Web site. The first order of business is to understand what Buckingham’s arguments mean for us and for our approach to work, professional growth, and job satisfaction.
It’s possible — and useful — to boil Buckingham’s worldview down to a single argument: The best way to do good work is to do what you’re intrinsically good at. Yet chances are that none of the people in charge of your career — your boss, your HR liaison, even you — has a clue about what makes you tick. “We don’t look in the mirror very often because we’re frightened we won’t see very much,” Buckingham says. “We’re not that special. We’re not that good. We’re not that smart. It’s the old imposter syndrome. But the fact is, we’re all filled with naturally recurring patterns that make us unique — they’re called talents. And our charge is to bloody well use them.”
That is not another feel-good incantation to self-help. Like his earlier book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Strengths draws on decades’ worth of data on performance and productivity from the Gallup Organization. In this case, he starts off with a massive survey of 1.7 million employees in 101 companies from 63 countries. When asked the question “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”, just 20% answered positively. In other words, 80% of workers feel miscast in their role. What’s more, the longer an employee stays with an organization and the higher she climbs the traditional career ladder, the more negative the response to that question. No wonder, Buckingham goes on, given two of the most basic assumptions guiding our education system, training and development programs, and the traditional career path. The first assumption is that “everything is learnable.” The idea is that a person is basically an empty vessel. Add reading, writing, arithmetic, and later, strategic thinking, people skills, and results orientation, and — presto! — one employable adult.
Buckingham turns to neuroscience to debunk that notion. It turns out that people just don’t change that much. From birth to age 15, your brain refines and focuses its network of synaptic connections. The strong connections become stronger still, and the weaker ones wither. Ultimately, we all carve out a unique network of connections — we end up with some “four-lane highways” and some barren wastelands. Explains Buckingham: “If you have a four-lane highway for empathy, you will feel every emotion as if it’s your own; if you have a wasteland for confrontation, you’ll find your brain always shuts you down at the most critical moments. What is ridiculously easy for one person might be excruciatingly difficult for another. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn new skills and knowledge or even alter values. You can scratch out a thin path from a barren wasteland. But you can never transform a barren wasteland into a four-lane highway.”
When it comes to great performance, in other words, the path of least resistance is the path to excellence. So why do so many of us struggle? Enter the second misguided assumption about learning and growth. The idea that every person’s greatest room for improvement is in the area of his greatest weakness, says Buckingham, sets us up for a life of “crushing frustration.” He cites a Gallup poll that asked a cross-section of workers around the world, “Which do you think will help you to improve the most: knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses?” In each country polled, fewer than half the respondents believed that their strengths were the key to improvement. “We are a truly remedial world,” says Buckingham.
In fact, he argues, our entire approach to psychology is “half-baked.” The focus is on disease and failure. There are some 40,000 studies on depression on record with the American Psychology Association, and just 14 on joy. That bias translates to the workplace as an obsession with correcting weaknesses, filling gaps, and focusing on the laggards. Yet again, when it comes to success, it’s much more important to develop your strengths than to overcome your weaknesses. “The most productive thing we can do in organizations is to help people understand where their dominant talents lie,” says Buckingham.
Charged up by Buckingham’s zeal, I was ready to take his Web-based test, which consists of 180 pairs of potential self-descriptors like “I read instructions carefully” and “I like to jump right into things.” For each pair, you choose which pole best describes you and to what extent (on many you might fall right in the middle). The catch is, there’s a 20-second time-out for each item — which forces you to provide a top-of-mind response, rather than to overintellectualize each answer. Feeling rushed, I was about to call for a do-over when my results popped up on the screen. There they were: My top five strength themes detailed in black and white.
“Input — you have a craving to know more. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity.” Okay so far. “Strategic — you create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, you can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.” I wouldn’t usually call myself “strategic,” but the pattern-recognition part sounds right. “Intellection — you like to think. You like exercising the muscles of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions.” Getting warmer. “Relator — you enjoy close relationships with others and find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.” Okay, but I do pretty well flitting around a cocktail party too. “Empathy — you can sense the emotions of those around you. Intuitively, you are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective.” Now I’m beginning to feel understood.
And that’s the beauty of the StrengthsFinder. It’s not an attempt to provide a categorical definition or an oversimplified typology. The themes aren’t labels, Buckingham is quick to point out, but robust language for describing a person’s recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. Nor are your five themes the last word on your potential. They’re more like a cheat sheet to begin a conversation — with yourself, with your boss, with your mentor — about your unique mental filter. There are no good or bad themes — and you don’t have to content yourself with just the five the computer turns up. The Gallup team mined millions of interviews with the most productive and engaged workers in the world to come up with 34 strength themes that best describe the most prevalent themes of human talent. Chances are, more than five will click with you.
The point, however, is not simply to feel understood. The ultimate goal, reminds Buckingham, is to improve performance. The expectation is that each person turns his unique talents, knowledge, and skills into powerful strengths, which are defined as consistent near-perfect performance in an activity — any activity. A strength can be Tiger Woods’s extraordinary long game; a star pharmaceutical salesperson’s combination of patience, influence, and domain knowledge; or the best hotel housekeeper’s ability to see a room from the guest’s eyes. And the process of a “strong life,” says Buckingham, is to take your understanding of your strength themes and sharpen the edges. “Be bold, be perceptive, keep investigating your strengths. The secret of success is to become more of who you already are.”
Now, are you ready to discover your strengths?
Polly LaBarre (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor based in New York. Contact Marcus Buckingham by email (email@example.com).