Playing to our strengths

Positive psychology focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses, encouraging individuals to set meaningful goals and work toward them. Find out more about how to identify and use your strengths.

Introduction

Teamwork, forgiveness, love, humor, gratitude, and curiosity are a sample of five of the 24 character strengths recognized by psychologists.

We can’t choose our ‘signature strengths’.They may not be what we expected or even wanted, yet they form the essential elements of who we are. And when we use them, we feel happier, more energized, and better connected to what we are doing.

And, unlike passions, skills, and transient interests, they endure and remain central to how we think of ourselves and who we are. Indeed, psychologists argue that we are characterized and recognizable by between three and seven of our top, or signature, strengths. They represent the best we can be.

But more than that, studies show that they promote health, wellbeing, performance, productivity, and satisfaction when used regularly. A study including 103 students revealed that even thinking about strengths can boost psychological wellbeing, self-esteem, and optimism – that’s powerful.

And yet, mistakenly, we too often dwell on our weaknesses rather than our strengths, missing opportunities to thrive [1, 10, 14].

What exactly is a strength?

While, intuitively, we may feel like we know what a ‘strength’ is, it’s essential to turn to the psychological research to get a more complete answer.

And that’s a great question – indeed, it required a great deal of work to come up with a better understanding. In fact, it took positive psychologists Martin Seligman, Chris Peterson, and a team of 55 scientists three years of analyzing the last 2,500 years of historical and cultural material to arrive at 6 virtues – wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. And, within the 6, they identified 24 character strengths found universally across nations, religions, cultures, and belief systems.

To be defined as a strength, we must find it in various behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and actions across multiple locations and times. It should also, in some way, contribute to wellbeing, or the ‘good life,’ and have a moral value in its own right [1, 2, 5].

The hallmarks of signature strengths

‘Signature strengths’ are those strengths that are essential to who we are – we perform at our best when we know and use them. Intuitively, we can identify them when they are brought into play and actively pay attention to them. 

We recognize such strengths because they make us feel ‘like the real us’ – engaged, excited, and authentic. We yearn to find new ways to use them and feel unstoppable when we do. They leave us feeling like the very best version of ourselves, and boredom and tiredness are far from our minds.

They are recognizable, distinguishable, and measurable.

And yet, when we display them, it does not diminish or limit other strengths – it most likely benefits them. Signature strengths can be derived from, or be the outcome of, other talents refined by knowledge and skills [1].

Nature versus nurture in building up our signature strengths

We can’t choose our signature strengths, can we? Well, surprisingly, to some degree, yes! In fact, despite studies of identical twins suggesting that as much as 50% of our personality traits are genetically passed down, or inherited, the rest of the variation between ourselves and others is down to environmental factors. Put simply, we are not a lost cause – there is still the potential to cultivate our strengths!

Let’s face it, don’t we all want to be more passionate and excited rather than disengaged, exhausted, and apathetic! And employers that focus on their staff’s strengths rather than their weaknesses get better performances, more productivity, and an invigorated team that pulls together.

And the more that strengths vary in a team, the better. After all, we have survived because of our differences as a race. At certain times, we may need people with ‘prudence’ and ‘self-regulation’ to lead the way, while at others, we benefit from those with ‘zest’ and ‘bravery’ in jumping forward [1, 5, 6, 15].

Strengths in leadership

We all have our views of what makes a good leader. Perhaps humility and prudence, or honesty and perseverance. Yet, research confirms there is no perfect balance of signature strengths that identifies a leader – they are unique.

Nonetheless, the best have one thing in common; they typically surround themselves with those that make up for what they lack. Fifty years of research by Gallup, including countless interviews with teams worldwide, have recognized the importance of strengths in the workplace. Great leaders invest in their employees’; strengths, create effective, balanced teams, and identify and understand the needs of those that follow them.

Strength-based leadership is not inward-looking but outward. Leaders don’t need to be good at everything, but they should focus on their own and their teams’ strengths, maximizing performance and wellbeing [10, 12].

Differing stages of strengths

Not everyone can identify their strengths. But failing to do so may limit their use, with negative consequences and missed opportunities. 

Even if the individual knows their strengths, they may be left ‘unrealized.’ Perhaps the environment, whether at home or work, prevents them or is not conducive to their expression. However, we should strive for ‘realized’ strengths to positively affect our own and others’ performances and wellbeing. If we are aware of them and able to use them, we maximize our capabilities.

‘Learned behaviors’ are not considered strengths. They are behaviors we have learned to do well but drain us and limit our wellbeing and performance. ‘Weaknesses’ are behaviors that we have ‘not’ learned to do well and are also exhausting.

Awareness of the four factors related to strengths offers important distinctions that should influence how we react and construct environments if we wish to realize our strengths [2].

Strengths create value

But why do strengths matter? What value do they add to our lives? It’s a good question and one that we can answer because of a great deal of psychological research.

Simply by being aware and using our strengths, we gain vital insight and perspective into our lives. Their value is far-reaching, building optimism and confidence and energizing our interactions with the environment and those in it.

And, beyond individuals, it creates value in teams. Authors of a 2020 study used interviews, site visits, and observations to confirm that, when project managers use their signature strengths at work, they pump up, not only their own, but the resilience of the whole project team.

Furthermore, playing to our strengths can help us respond to the tough times. Using psychological strengths at work, at play, or at home builds psychological resilience and generates positive emotions. And at no cost; it only requires an awareness of what makes us who we are, time spent crafting what we do, and maximizing our environment [2, 16].

Replacing limiting beliefs about personal strengths

Building upon signature strengths gives us the potential to move from mediocrity to excelling at what we do. After all, each of us has access to a unique combination of evolutionary adaptations to manage our interactions with the environment, bringing our potential to light and making available our best selves.

Yet many of us hold beliefs that hinder the realization of our strengths. Perhaps we think that expressing or talking about our strengths is a form of showing off or that we are ‘nothing special.’ This is false modesty.

Suppose we take ‘creativity’ as an example. We may think, ‘I can only express my strength at home; it’s not useful at work,’ but his belief is unhelpful or false. Once identified, try replacing it with a more helpful one, such as ‘if I use my creativity in my role at work, I can come up with more imaginative solutions while encouraging others.’ Strengths have little value if left unused [1, 7, 13].

Recognizing you at your best

While there are online tools for identifying your strengths, you can find yours by simply becoming more aware of how you engage with others and your environment.

Think of a recent time when you were at your best – perhaps you were performing especially well or got yourself out of a tough spot. Picture it, closing your eyes if it helps. What qualities and strengths were you exhibiting that made you feel so authentic and engaged? What was happening, and what role did you play in the successful outcome? Write the answers down and review them. 

As you go through what you’ve written, underline what words or phrases stand out as related to your strengths. Now that you’ve got a list of potential signature strengths, watch out for when you use them next. Validate them by asking yourself ‘do they leave me feeling energized and motivated?’  [1, 6, 9, 11].

Applying your signature strengths

The easiest way to identify your signature strengths is to try out a quick and straightforward online test. There are plenty available online – choose one that is free but gives you a breakdown of your top five strengths.

Once you have them, create dedicated time in your diary to use them in a new way – at home, at work, or as part of your hobby. Even if your life is busy, be sure to create the opportunity as it’s inherently valuable.

For example, if one of your top scorers is ‘curiosity,’ find something new to learn, or revisit something existing, but this time with a fresh, engaging sense of interest. If ‘hope’ or ‘optimism’ are near the top of your signature list, find any excuse to use them; for example, create an online post or write an article that shares positive emotions about something that concerns you – science, health, education, etc.

Creating a new way of using your strengths is a proven technique for improving your wellbeing and happiness [1, 11].

Potential questions

Q1: Can you name your strengths, and if so, what are they?

Q2: Do you find new opportunities to use your strengths, if so, when?

[1] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

[2] Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. London: Open University Press.

[3] Snyder, C. R. (2021). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. Oakland: New Harbinger.

[5] Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for Practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe.

[6] Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. VIA Institute on Character.

[7] Miglianico, M., Dubreuil, P., Miquelon, P., Bakker, A. B., & Martin-Krumm, C. (2019). Strength use in the workplace: A literature review. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21(2), 737–764.

[7] Sutton, J. (2021). Understanding the CliftonStrengths assessment: A guide. Retrieved  from https://positivepsychology.com/clifton-strengths-assessment/

[8] Sutton, J. (2022). Strength-spotting interviews: 20+ questions and techniques. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/strength-spotting-interviews/

[9] Sutton, J. (2022). 10+ ways to build Character Strengths at Work (& Examples). Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/cultivating-strengths-at-work/

[10] Sutton, J. (2022, February 07). Strength-based leadership: 34 traits of successful leaders. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/strength-based-leadership/

[11] The via character strengths survey. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/Register

[12] Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. Gallup Press.

[13] Buss, D. M. (2009). How can evolutionary psychology successfully explain personality and individual differences? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4), 359–366.

[14] Dolev-Amit, T., Rubin, A., & Zilcha-Mano, S. (2020). Is awareness of strengths intervention sufficient to cultivate wellbeing and other positive outcomes? Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(2), 645-666. 

[15] Horsburgh, V.A., Schermer, J.A., Veselka, L., & Vernon, P.A.  (2009. A behavioural genetic study of mental toughness and personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 100-105.

[16] Karlsen, J.T., &  Berg, M.E. (2020). A study of the influence of project managers’ signature strengths on project team resilience. Team Performance Management, 26(3/4),  247-262.

Other references for noting:

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