Published: 2009-10-17

How often have you been advised – or advised others – to “play to your strengths”? It sounds like common sense, but is it actually a recipe for success?

Well, there is certainly research evidence to support the value of identifying and playing to your strengths. Benefits for the individual include elevated vitality and motivation, a greater sense of direction and higher probability of goal attainment, not to mention increased self-confidence and productivity (Clifton & Anderson, 2001-2; Hodges & Clifton, 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Focusing on strengths also improves organisational performance. The Corporate Leadership Council (2002) found that emphasising employee strengths in performance reviews increased performance by 36.4%. The Gallup Organization reported a 12.5% increase in the productivity of teams whose managers received a strengths intervention and 14.9% lower turnover rates (Asplund, Lopez, Hodges, & Harter, 2009). It is hardly surprising that one of the key contributions of positive psychology is considered to be enabling people to identify their core strengths and use them (Boniwell, 2006).

So, is the strengths recipe for success as simple as “Use your strengths more!”? Well, no, it is not quite that straightforward. Being the best me I can be is not just about operating in my gifts, it is also about meaning and enjoyment too. Had I not switched my A levels, one term in, from what I was good at to what I found interesting, I would have been very unhappy.

That is because being good at something does not necessarily mean it is a true strength. This is recognised by Alex Linley in his definition of a strength as 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” (2008, p. 9).

Natural talent is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a strength. If an area of effectiveness is not energizing, it is likely to be merely a “learned behaviour”, not a true strength.

So, what if we refine our recipe to, “Use your true strengths more!”? Again, I would want to qualify this statement. For instance, take someone whose top strengths are all strengths of the intellect. If such a person were to develop only those strengths further, s/he might miss out on the social and emotional riches of life. As Alex Linley has pointed out, Aristotle’s Golden Mean is pertinent here: optimal strengths use calls for “the right strength, to the right amount, in the right way, and at the right time” (2008, p.58).

And what about situations which call for strengths which are not in your top 5 or 10? Perhaps we need an approach to strengths which recognises their value, but also contextualises them; an approach which acknowledges that all strengths may not be equal; that, in certain contexts, some strengths may be optional whilst others are essential.

A number of researchers make useful contributions to address this scenario. Lucy Ryan (2009), for instance, uses strengths to help clients identify which ones are required in the particular situation they face. Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) highlight the necessity of wisdom to discern which combination of strengths are likely to be most effective in a specific context.

If those capacities do not happen to be our natural strengths, all is not lost. Carol Dweck (2006) demonstrates that if we embrace a mindset that is willing to learn, to put in effort and persevere in the face of challenge – in short, if we go for growth – we can grow strengths that may not be ‘natural’ talents. Indeed, she provides numerous examples of people who have succeeded only by learning from their mistakes and working on their weaknesses. Growth, however, is not the easy option; it is not necessarily pleasant, indeed it may even reduce happiness in the short term (Keyes, Shmotkin & Ryff, 2002).

I would suggest that here, again, wisdom holds the key: having the wisdom to discern in which contexts to play to existing strengths and in which to go for growth. My hunch is that stress, vulnerability, attitude to risk and how high the stakes are might be factors relevant to the optimal balance between growth and strengths.

For instance, working recently with an organisation that is going through a very stressful period, I have recommended that it finds ways for staff to play to their strengths, in order to build energy and well-being. However, I have also advised that it would be important to consider what strengths are required in different contexts and also – when things get less stressful – to go for growth/challenge.

If that all seems more complex than you would like it to be, do not be put off! It is like learning a new exercise at the gym: I am usually boggled by how much there is to think about – breathing, engaging the abdominals, posture, not to mention doing the exercise correctly! It might take a while for everything to slot into place, but when it does, the exercise is much more effective.

At one level, the messages of positive psychology are pretty simple. On the other, their application requires a nuanced, thoughtful, context-specific approach. That can only be a good thing.

References and Further Reading
Asplund, J., Lopez, S.J., Hodges, T., & Harter, J. (2009). The Clifton StrengthsFinder® 2.0 Technical Report: Development and Validation [technical report]. Lincoln, NE: Gallup.Boniwell, I. (2006). Positive psychology in a nutshell. London: PWBC.

Clifton, D.O., & Anderson, E.C. (2001-02). StrengthsQuest. Washington: The Gallup Organization.

Corporate Leadership Council. (2002) Building the high-performance workforce. Washington, D.C.: Corporate Executive Board.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Hodges, T. D., & Clifton, D. O. (2004). Strengths-based development in practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 256-268). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Keyes, C.L.M., Shmotkin, D. & Ryff, C.D. (2002). Optimizing well-being: the empirical encounter of two traditions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 1007-1022.

Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and vitues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ryan, L. (2009). Opportunities and obstacles: Incorporating positive psychology into business coaching. Unpublished master’s dissertation, University of East London, London, UK.

Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K.E. (2006). Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meeting positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies ,7, 377-395.