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Lead This Movement
THE FIRST STAGE: HOW TO LABEL
It's hard to trace the source of the strengths movement.
Some will identify Peter Drucker, citing his seminal 1966 book, The Effective Executive, in which he wrote: "The effective executive builds on strengths -- their own strengths, the strengths of superiors, colleagues, subordinates; and on the strengths of the situation."
Some will cite a 1987 article that launched a new discipline called Appreciative Inquiry, whose basic premise, according to its founder, David Cooperrider, was "to build organizations around what works rather than fix what doesn't."
Some will make reference to Dr. Martin Seligman's 1999 speech after becoming president of the American Psychological Association. "The most important thing we learned was that psychology was half-baked, literally half-baked," he said. "We've baked the part about mental illness, about repair of damage. The other side's unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we're good at."
More recently, some might even point to the book I wrote with Donald Clifton for the Gallup organization, Now, Discover Your Strengths, which began with this optimistic statement of intent: "We wrote this book to start a revolution, the strengths revolution."
Whatever its true source, the strengths movement is now in full flood. It is a wave of change that, over the last several years, has swept us all forward. No discipline has been left behind. Whether we work in business, government, education, or health care, this wave has lifted us up, spun us around, and revealed to us all a new world. You may not yet recognize the change -- some of us were bowled over by the wave, while others barely noticed it carrying them along. But, with or without our knowledge, it has picked us up and deposited us far from where we were a decade ago. And there's no going back. This wave has forever changed the way we perceive ourselves, our employees, our students, and our children.
Look around you, and you'll see clearly the signs of change.
Many of the world's most successful organizations such as Wells Fargo, Intel, Best Buy, and Accenture have declared their commitment to becoming an explicitly strengths-based organization. All new managers at Toyota must now attend a three-day Great Manager training program that shows them how to spot the strengths of their subordinates. All new managers at Yahoo are required to take an online survey that measures their talents and pinpoints their strongest.
Look beyond business, and you'll see nonprofit organizations such as the U.S. Coast Guard, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, the American Society on Aging, and the New Zealand Ministry of Youth Development all installing similar strengths-based programs and initiatives.
Universities too have been swept up by the movement. Princeton, with great fanfare, recently set up its own Center for Health and Well-Being, dedicated to the study of all that is right in the world. Over half the faculty are, surprisingly, economists. At Harvard, Professor Tal David Ben-Shahar's class An Introduction to Positive Psychology is now the most popular elective class in the entire curriculum. And Azusa Pacific University now has a Center for Strengths-Based Education, set up by the pioneering educator Edward "Chip" Anderson.
Look further still, and you'll see more signs of the movement's reach. If your child happens to break the law in Ingham County, Michigan, before his day in probate court, he'll be asked to fill out a Strengths Assessment for Juvenile Justice, which will pose strengths-based questions such as "Have you made any good changes in the past? How did you make these changes?" and "What is your first step to get out of this trouble? Who will be the first person to notice this step?"
If you are a psychiatry student learning to work with patients suffering persistent mental disorders, you will be asked to read Charles Rapp's 1997 classic, The Strengths Model, which shows you, case by case, how to "amplify the well part of the patient."
If you are an aspiring soccer coach, Major League Soccer will be happy to sign you up for its Strengths-Based Coaching course. Here you'll learn, among other things, how to hand out "green cards," which draw a child's attention to a particularly good pass or tackle he made, rather than the traditionally punitive yellow and red cards.
Today the strengths movement is everywhere: the corporate world, the worlds of public service, of economics, of education, of faith, of charity -- it has affected them all. It has its detractors, of course, but an appeal as universal as this begs the question "Why?" Why do so many people from so many different worlds see such power in the strengths-based perspective?
Because it works better than any other perspective. The radical idea at the core of the strengths movement is that excellence is not the opposite of failure, and that, as such, you will learn little about excellence from studying failure. This seems like an obvious idea until you realize that, before the strengths movement began, virtually all business and academic inquiry was built on the opposite idea: namely, that a deep understanding of failure leads to an equally deep understanding of excellence. That's why we studied unhappy customers to learn about the happy ones, employees' weaknesses to learn how to make them excel, sickness to learn about health, divorce to learn about marriage, and sadness to learn about joy.
What has become evident in virtually every field of human endeavor is that failure and success are not opposites, they are merely different, and so they must be studied separately. Thus, for example, if you want to learn what you should not do after an environmental disaster, Chernobyl will be instructive. But if you want to learn what you should do, Chernobyl is a waste. Only successful cleanups, such as at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado, can tell you what excellence looks like.
Study unproductive teams, and you soon discover that the teammates argue a lot. Study successful teams, and you learn that they argue just as much. To find the secrets to a great team, you have to investigate the successful ones and figure out what is going on in the space between the arguments.
Focus your research on people who contract HIV and die, and you gain some useful insights about how the disease wrecks the body's immune system. But focus your research on those few people with HIV who are relatively unaffected by the disease, and you learn something else entirely: namely, how the body fights back.
Conventional wisdom tells us that we learn from our mistakes. The strengths movement says that all we learn from mistakes are the characteristics of mistakes. If we want to learn about our successes, we must study successes.
Fueled by this idea, the first stage of the strengths movement -- the stage we are in right now -- has been dominated by efforts to label what is right with things. Thus, whereas the World Bank used to rank countries according to their negative qualities, such as poverty, violence, and vulnerability, today it has developed a list of positive labels that capture a country's overall level of well-being, labels such as social capability, economic self-determination, and sustainability of local customs.
In the field of psychology, our descriptors all used to be heavily skewed toward the negatives: neurotic, psychotic, schizophrenic, depressed. Today we have redressed the balance and have added equally detailed labels to describe the positives. For example, Martin Seligman and his colleague Chris Peterson have developed their list of "Character Strengths and Virtues," which includes such qualities as Courage, Justice, Transcendence, and Temperance.
Similarly, Now, Discover Your Strengths introduced Gallup's online personality profile called StrengthsFinder (since renamed the Clifton StrengthsFinder, in Don's memory), which measures you on thirty-four themes of talent, with names like Ideation, Restorative, Significance, and Connectedness.
Our hunger for these labels can be measured in part by the number of people who have taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder profile since 2001. The total is now over two million. More revealing still, each year this number not only increases, but the increase increases. More people took it last year than the year before, and more the year before than the year before that. Clearly, millions of us feel a deep need to label what's right with us.
THE SECOND STAGE: HOW TO TAKE ACTION
If all this labeling is to not go to waste, however, we must now take the necessary next step. We must progress into the second stage of the strengths movement: the action stage. This is where we learn how to go beyond the affirming power of a label. It's the stage where we engage with the real world, where we figure out how to use our strengths to make a tangible contribution, where we deal with people who don't agree on what our strengths are, or who don't care, or who do care but want us to focus them differently than we do. It's the stage where we step up and put our strengths to work.
This book leads us into the second stage, where the real payoff is to be found.
While the labeling stage was driven by the theoretical idea that you learn little about excellence from studying failure, the action stage is founded on a more pragmatic premise: namely, that a person or an organization will excel only by amplifying strengths, never by simply fixing weaknesses.
At the level of the organization, this premise has been both widely disseminated and well executed. Drawing on the economic theories of the eighteenth-century economist David Riccardo, Peter Drucker wrote that the most competitive companies, just like the most competitive countries, "get their strengths together and make their weaknesses irrelevant." Jim Collins in his book Good to Great captured the same idea when he wrote that great companies focus on those few things they can be "the best in the world at." Study any effective organization, from Starbucks to Lexus, Apple to Dell, Wal-Mart to Best Buy, and you will see that many have figured out how to put this advice into practice.
At the level of the individual, this idea has been equally widely disseminated. The second page of Now, Discover Your Strengths references a study of 198,000 employees from thirty-six companies who were asked whether they had the chance to play to their strengths every day. Those who strongly agreed that they did "were 50 percent more likely to work in teams with lower employee turnover, 38 percent more likely to work in more productive teams, and 44 percent more likely to work in teams with higher customer satisfaction scores. And over time, those teams that increased the number of employees who strongly agreed saw comparable increases in productivity, customer loyalty, and employee retention." Today there are now many further studies confirming and extending these findings, the most comprehensive of which is the study of more than 8,000 teams by Jim Harter and Frank Schmidt, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The conclusion to be drawn from all these studies is clear: While there are many good levers for engaging people and driving performance -- levers such as selecting for talent, setting clear expectations, praising where praise is due, and defining the team's mission -- the master lever is getting each person to play to his strengths. Pull this lever, and an engaged and productive team will be the result. Fail to pull it, and no matter what else is done to motivate the team, it'll never fully engage. It will never become a high-performance team.
And organizations pay homage to these studies when they say "Our people are our greatest asset." Though, in truth, they don't actually mean this. What they mean is "Our people's strengths are our greatest asset." After all, organizations place a premium on their employees because in today's knowledge and service economy, the value of the employees lies in their creativity, innovation, and good judgment. None of us, though, is creative, or innovative, or has good judgment in every single aspect of our work. On the contrary, each of us has some aspects of our work where we aren't very creative at all, where our first idea is not only our best idea, it's our only idea. We keep talking, but there's nothing there; the well is dry. By contrast, each of us is at our most creative, our most innovative, and shows our best judgment precisely in our areas of greatest strength. You don't focus on people's strengths to make them happier. You do it to make them better performers. What these studies reveal is that no matter what the team, no matter what the organization, when you do, they are. That's why the best organizations are now so public in their commitment to become strengths based.
Despite the loud support for this idea, however, the evidence reveals that most of us still don't know how to do it. In fact, the evidence is even more damning than that. It shows that even though we now know how to put a label on our strengths, we still have little idea how to take control of our work and steer it toward these strengths. Back in 2001, polls revealed that only 20 percent of us claimed to be able to put our strengths to work every day. Today, despite more than two million people taking the Clifton StrengthsFinder profile, when you poll people with the question "What percentage of a typical day do you spend playing to your strengths?" only 17 percent answer "most of the time."
Now, I'm not a Pollyanna. I didn't expect 80 percent of people to say that they have the chance to play to their strengths most of the time. Our time is not our own, as we are pulled in different directions by our colleagues, our customers, and our organization's shifting expectations.
Still, 17 percent? This number seems wastefully low. Let's say, in a bow to the challenges of the real world, we're granted fully a quarter of our typical day to fill with those annoying nonnegotiables we all have in our job. We can have 25 percent of our day -- from the time we arrive through eleven in the morning, each and every morning -- to fill with the calls we don't like making, the emails that drag us down, the mundane reports that refuse to write themselves, the grumpy guy down the hall who daily insists on barging into our office and unloading his problems on us. Twenty-five percent of every day bequeathed to activities that bore us or frustrate us or just leave us cold.
All right, but this still leaves vast stretches of time, 75 percent of our time, that could be filled with activities that call upon some aspect of our strengths. What these data reveal is that only 17 percent of us have managed to fill this time with activities such as these. Only 17 percent of us have our strengths in play most of the time. The truth is, we are not our organization's greatest asset, at least not nearly to the extent that we could be.
When it comes to the strengths movement, we are stuck in the first stage. We know how to label. We don't know how to move beyond a label and actually put our strengths to work. If the subject were physical strengths rather than psychologi-cal, it's as if we know how to measure the different elements of fitness -- weight, heart rate, good cholesterol, body fat -- but not how to exercise. And so, although we know a great deal more than we did before the strengths movement began, we're still not getting any fitter.
This book is about how to exercise. It's about how to get unstuck and step confidently into the second stage. It's about how to identify what is best and most effective in you and then apply it in the real world. It's not a book of theory. It's a practical book, one that teaches you a powerful new discipline. Learn this discipline, practice it each week, and you will soon find yourself able to take control and unleash fully the force of your strengths. Whatever potential your strengths possess, the world will come to see them, and your performance, your career, and the significance of your contribution will be forever changed.
I recently presented the 17 percent figure to a group of chief executives and finished my talk by saying that, as yet, large organizations have proven themselves to be an inefficient mechanism for getting the most out of each employee. At which point, one of them started laughing. "Do you really think," he said, "that in my position I can carve a role for myself where I really get to play to my strengths most of the time? Come on, I've got far too many responsibilities to be able to do that."
He does indeed have lots of responsibilities. He also has a ton of discretion. He of all people should be able to take control of his time at work and gradually steer it toward his strengths and away from his weaknesses. If the newest frontline employee struggles to fill his days with activities that call upon his strengths, well, he has our understanding and our sympathy. He's not off the hook, by any means, but we can certainly see why he might feel a little constrained by his circumstances.
The chief executive, on the other hand, has no such constraints. If he laughs at the notion that it's his responsibility to figure out how to put his strengths into play each and every day, then perhaps it's little wonder that so few of the rest of us manage it.
And yet clearly it is possible. A little less than two out of ten people succeed in capitalizing on their strengths, but at least there are those two. And, as the research reveals, those two are significantly more productive, more customer focused, and more likely to stick around than the rest of us. So, for large organizations, once they've figured out how to get the chief executive to stop laughing, the profitable question to ask is "How can we build the kind of workplace where more than two out of ten people use their strengths for most of the day?"
That is an important question, one that deserves a great deal more focus than it's getting, but it's not the question that this book deals with. No, this book asks "Are you one of the two out of ten? And if you're not, how do you get to be?"
Copyright © 2007 by One Thing Productions, Inc.