As the leader of a large career counseling team at the University of Colorado, I am dedicated to be the best leader I know how to be and to empower the people on my team to be the best they can be. I want the people I work with to experience a workplace that is vibrant and alive, and to look forward to coming to work every day.
Five years ago, I enthusiastically developed a strengths based approach with my team after discovering and implementing the practices I learned from the field of Positive Psychology. This perspective on people speaks to my mission with evidence based research and practices, and has transformed our office. The traditional field of Psychology is based almost entirely on the study of mental illness, but Positive Psychologist, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., also wonders what people look like at their best.
Dr. Seligman seeks to study what is right with human beings, to find and nurture genius and talent, and to make normal life more fulfilling, not simply to treat mental illness. The field is intended to complement, not replace traditional psychology. For example, if you want to find out what makes a successful marriage, would you focus on the marriages that aren’t working, or on the ones that are working exceptionally well? If you share my interest in finding out what makes highly functional, highly engaged teams, should we study the teams that aren’t working well and find out what they are doing wrong, or should we look at the teams that are functioning at an exceptionally high level and find out what they are doing right? I concur with the latter.
The Gallup Organization, in the spirit of Positive Psychology, asked this question: What does leadership look like at its best? What are the keys to being an effective leader? Gallup conducted 20,000 in depth interviews with senior leaders, studied more than one million work teams, and conducted 50 years of Gallup polls about the world’s most admired leaders. Also, they conducted a study of 10,000 followers around the world who were asked why they follow the most influential leader in their life. This is what they found. (Rath, 2008)
- The most effective leaders invest in their strengths and consciously develop them. They lead with their unique strengths and encourage their employees to focus on theirs.
- When leaders fail to focus on their employee’s individual strengths, the odds of the employee being engaged are 1 in 11 (9%). When a leader focuses on the strengths of their employees, the odds soar to 3 in 4 (73%). That is an eightfold increase. When you focus on weaknesses in your employees they lose confidence. It is hard to gain confidence when you are focused on your weakness.
- The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team. While the best leaders are not necessarily well rounded, the best teams are.
- The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs.
Gallup conducted another study that has now been replicated multiple times. (Brim 2004) They conducted a randomized survey with more than a thousand employees asking them where their manager focused the most time and attention:
- On employees’ strengths
- On employees’ weaknesses
- Neither of the above: the manager ignored employees
This is what they found. When people reported that their manager did not focus on their strengths or their weaknesses (the manager ignored employees), there was a 40% chance of them being actively disengaged in the job. Active disengagement spreads rapidly. One negative person can quickly bring down the well being of colleagues, students, friends, and family members. If you are affected, your friends and family members are too. If their manager focused primarily on weaknesses (and presumably was at least paying attention), things actually got better, and there was only a 22% chance of them being disengaged.
When a manager primarily focused on an employee’s strengths, there was just a 1% chance of that employee being very negative or actively disengaged on the job. Disengagement (negative daily interactions) is a curable problem. If we put enough time into focusing on the strengths of the people around us every day, it changes the entire environment. In light of this research, are you curious about what your strengths are, and how you might use them to become a better leader and team player?
As a Strengths Based Team Facilitator, I can help you start exploring this question for yourself and for your team. I would like to conclude with a Cherokee folktale: One evening an old man told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is bad. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, and superiority. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson listened and thought for a while. Then he asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins the battle?” The grandfather smiled and replied, “The one you feed.” (Rath, 2004).
Rath, T. and Conchie, B. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2008 Rath, T. and Clifton, D. How Full Is Your Bucket? New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2004 Brim, B., Asplund, J., Driving Engagement by Focusing on Strengths.
Gallup Management Journal, 2009 http://gmj.gallup.com/content/124214/Driving-Engagement-Focusing-Strengths.aspx
Linda Faucheux is the Associate Director of the Career Services Center at the University of Colorado, and a Career Counselor in Private Practice. She enjoys working with teams and organizations within the University of Colorado, Naropa University, and other private organizations, to facilitate a strengths-based approach to organizational growth and development. In addition, she counsels individuals to facilitate a strengths-based, contemplative approach to life/career growth and development. You can contact Linda at or 720-394-3864.