When we think about strengths, we generally have a vague idea about what a strength is. We tend to think of it as something that we’re really good at. This is definitely part of it, however, there’s a bit more to it.
Let’s start with a definition. This comes from Alex Linley, a world leading researcher on strengths:
A strength is a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.
(Alex Linley, 2008)
The Curse of Mediocrity
Within our brain, we have the wiring for a particular way of being. We’re wired to be good at certain things. This being the case, it means that it’s not a matter of picking and choosing what we want as strengths.
Alex Linley talks about how people are expected to be good at many different things, which we’re simply not. Kids are expected to be good at all subjects, and workplaces focus on weaknesses in employees when it comes to performance reviews and call it opportunities for development.
He calls this the Curse of Mediocrity. Trying to be good at everything has us focusing on fixing weaknesses, which takes a lot of energy to do, and has us being mediocre across the board.
To break the Curse of Mediocrity means to take a strengths based approach. This way, we’re able to bring out the best in ourselves and our ability to excel.
Strengths and learned behaviours
Strengths exist within us to certain degrees, depending on whether we’ve had opportunities to develop them or not. We can have strengths that may be dormant, because we haven’t had the opportunity to use them.
We’re multifaceted beings. We have different things we come to experience in a life time. As we go through those different experiences, we call on different aspects of ourselves and therefore different strengths come into play. This is when we have the opportunity to develop that particular strength, or combination of strengths.
Then we may go to a different stage of life and find that we call on other strengths that perhaps we didn’t even know we had.
An indication that something may be a strength is the ability to pick something up really quickly when we’re learning.
This is because of the pre-existing capacity with the wiring in the brain to build on the pathways that are already there, rather than creating completely new ones. This is why we experience optimal development when we’re developing an inherent strength. We can still learn new things that are not our strengths and be really good at them.
The difference will be that rather than it being a strength, or ever becoming one, it will be a learned behaviour.
This is a key distinction.
The way to tell the difference between a strength and a learned behaviour is that an inherent strength is energising, and the learned behaviour is de-energising.
There are things we do that we’re really good at and get a buzz from, and there are things we do that we’re really good at and feel drained by.
This distinction was missing from strengths identification tools until recently when Alex Linley and his team developed the R2 Strengths Profiler. It specifically measures the energy component and is backed by a lot research, making it the most comprehensive tool currently available for assessing strengths.
Authenticity is energising
When we’re using our strengths, we feel like we’re being our true selves — what we’re doing is aligned with the way that we’re built. This alignment enables us to be energy-efficient and is also fulfilling, which in itself is a source of energy. It’s also why we function at our best and deliver our best performance.
When we are using our strengths, we are more authentic and energised, have higher levels of wellbeing and fulfilment, and are more likely to achieve our goals and deliver better performance.
Alex Linley, ‘Average to A+’
What about weaknesses?
With all this talk about strengths, you may be surprised to know that the R2 Strengths Profiler also addresses weaknesses.
Having a sole focus on strengths to the exclusion of weaknesses is not what this is about. Acknowledging the things we’re no good at is also important.
The question to ask is whether the weakness is an issue. Does it affect your ability to do your job or any other role in your life?
If it does, then how can you make the weakness irrelevant? A couple of ways we can do this is by calling on other strengths to compensate, or to team up with someone else who can be a complimentary partner.
Bringing balance back
Because the brain has evolved to notice the negatives, it has a negativity bias. At a certain point in our evolution, being vigilant about the negatives played a crucial role in keeping our ancestors alive. What that means for us now is that we notice negative things more than the positive.
This is true for noticing what’s negative about ourselves as well.
A strengths based approach addresses this imbalance of the negativity bias. This being the case, it’s exactly that — bringing balance. It’s not about focusing on strengths to the exclusion of weaknesses. And if we focus on weaknesses to the exclusion of our strengths, we miss the opportunity to develop our potential.
Our strengths are where our potential is.