Do you think of employee training as a way to shore up weaknesses in your team and thereby get better performance? Most people do. After all, we train in areas that need improvement, not so much in what we already do well.
But many companies have taken a cue from the positive psychology movement and adopted “strengths-based development.” Broadly speaking, these companies improve performance by concentrating on employees’ strengths more than their weaknesses.
Why bother with a strengths-based program?
Many of those who’ve tried it have seen significant benefits. According to a recent Gallup study of 49,495 business units with 1.2 million employees in 22 organizations in 45 countries, those who adopted strengths-based management saw better performance than those that didn’t:
- 10% to 19% increased sales
- 14% to 29% increased profit
- 3% to 7% higher customer engagement
- 6% to 16% lower turnover (low-turnover organizations)
- 26% to 72% lower turnover (high-turnover organizations)
- 9% to 15% increase in engaged employees
- 22% to 59% fewer safety incidents
And 67% of employees who strongly agreed that their manager focuses on their positive characteristics were engaged at work, but only 2% of those who strongly disagreed were engaged.
The Gallup findings align with other research. A recent Psychology Today article summarizes studies concluding that people who use their strengths at work are happier, less stressed, healthier, more satisfied, more confident, more creative, and more engaged.
Where do these benefits come from?
We’re all naturally better at some things than others. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn a new skill or work to improve poor performance. But spending time doing what you’re good at takes less energy, gives more satisfaction, and builds more confidence. And doing something enjoyable will more likely create that wonderful state of flow that makes work fun.
Companies who manage based on strengths try to assign people tasks that fit their natural capabilities. And managers help employees expand those abilities further. But how can this approach help your training program?
How can a strengths focus improve training results?
Learning new skills can be hard and uncomfortable, but if you help people springboard off their existing abilities into new ones, they’ll improve faster and enjoy the process more. Here are 5 tips for leveraging strengths in your program:
Train employees to identify their own strengths.
The first step is to know what each person’s strengths are. You can use a tool like StrengthsFinder or rely on self-assessment and peer feedback to identify key capabilities.
Anthony Stephan, principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, suggests in a recent Fast Company interview that your strengths are the tasks that give you the most energy and at which you naturally excel. So people can start by looking at the parts of their jobs they naturally gravitate towards or the ones for which time goes by fast.
Focus most training on improving strengths.
Author and consultant Michelle McQuaid polled over 3000 employees and found that companies who are successful with strengths-based management ask employees to set regular goals for improving their natural talents further. And they meet with managers regularly to review progress and get constructive feedback.
Improvement goals could include taking on higher-level tasks, mentoring others, or taking outside classes and reporting back to the team. Managers or L&D should track and measure these efforts so people can see their accomplishments.
This approach requires enough flexibility to let each person create individual development goals, but it also puts the responsibility for driving improvement in the employees’ hands with managers providing guidance and L&D offering resources.
Use strengths for coaching.
For some people, teaching others is a strength, and you can use it to create a peer-to-peer learning program. And most people love to share what they do best.
By teaching others, the expert deepens his or her understanding of the task because teaching requires you to think about a topic from different perspectives. You might be surprised at how many competencies people can learn from peers.
Use strengths to make learning easier.
When you simply need to teach new skills, you can draw on employees’ natural abilities to help make learning easier and more effective. You may start with a class or video, but you can let people absorb and apply the information according to their preferences.
For example, someone who loves communication may want to blog about what she’s learned or write a reflective journal about how she’s using her new skills throughout the day. Someone who favors discipline and process may want to create a procedure around the new skill and share it with the team.
Again, you’re giving people the latitude to make learning work for them, but you’re also asking them to own the process.
Focus on weaknesses (a little).
Even though you spend most of your training time building on strengths, you can’t ignore weaknesses entirely. People need to improve in these areas to perform better overall and expand their abilities. McQuaid recommends spending 80% of your time on strengths and 20% on weaknesses.
Give employees small goals in their most challenging areas and keep learning tasks short, perhaps just one 15-minute task per day. They’ll make regular improvement but won’t get burned out. And if they spend most of the day in their strong-zone, they’ll have extra energy to tackle the tough goals, too.
What are the pitfalls?
There’s been some backlash against strengths-based approaches recently. As with any management theory, you have to apply it judiciously. Here are some gotcha’s to avoid:
Don’t use strengths as an excuse to stagnate.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief of Hogan Assessment Systems and professor of business psychology at University College London argues in a 2016 Boston Globe article that addressing what employees do well could lead them to believe they’re better than they are and assume they have nothing to learn.
So it’s important to communicate that you’re drawing on employees’ best abilities to help them improve overall, not to offer an excuse for resting on their laurels.
Don’t forget the needs of the business.
In the end, you train to improve business performance. That means that regardless of employee talents, you need to ensure your team can accomplish your goals. And although you want employees to enlist their strengths as learning tools, they need to spend time on skills that will make a difference. Someone with an aptitude for software may want to learn CAD, but that’s only useful if your business needs a CAD operator.
Don’t ignore results.
Never start an initiative without a clear understanding of your goals and the metrics you’ll use to measure progress. Then measure regularly. If your program isn’t helping you reach specific goals, it’s time to adjust and tweak until you find what works best for you.
Why fight mother nature?
No one person should be pigeon-holed as a “type.” And it’s never useful to assume that someone “just doesn’t have a head for numbers,” or “just can’t use technology.” But we can’t get around the fact that we all have a comfort zone of ability where we excel and enjoy ourselves.
That’s why a strengths-based program can make a difference. Instead of letting that comfort zone define the limit of employees’ capabilities, you can build a development program around it and use it to launch your team and your business into deeper expertise and better overall performance.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping you create a flexible, individualized learning path that makes the most of your team’s strong suit. Learn more.