It is intrinsically human to pay particular attention to our weaknesses as we are born to be vigilant to risks in our environment. We tend to focus on what does not work, often overlooking the positives. But what if we focused on, and played to, our strengths? This is the key to excelling at work, according to Sally Bibb (pictured), Founder and Director of Engaging Minds, a leading strengths consultancy, and author of the upcoming The Strengths Book.
MARGINALIA spoke with Bibb to explore the strengths approach and uncover what to expect from her new book. In this interview, Bibb shares practical and succinct advice to identify what exactly makes people succeed at work and make the right choices; decide whether a job or organisation is right for them; and understand why things seem to flow with some activities and some people, and not others. Knowing these things about ourselves, and spending more time on what really energises and fulfils us – our strengths – will lead to discovering our true working identity and purpose. Ultimately, to excel in what we do.
Gloria Lombardi: Why did you feel the need to write a book on strengths?
Sally Bibb: I decided to write The Strengths Book because I have been seeing the massive, transformative difference that a strengths-based approach makes to people.
Understanding our strengths and the type of work that is a great fit for us makes a big difference to our working lives. Unfortunately, too many young people do not receive good career advice; they don’t know what they want to do in their future, or they may just lack the confidence to excel. The Strengths Book is a practical guide to help individuals of all age groups, but I particularly care about the youngest generation.
GL: Why do we need to be taught to focus on our strengths? Why doesn’t this come naturally to us?
SB: It’s human nature to focus on the negatives because of our survival instinct. It comes from primitive times when early humans had to be continuously wary and alert to danger.
As human beings we are hardwired to focus on what is wrong with the situation, or with ourselves. But, in the modern world, this is only useful to a limited degree. So, we have to fight our negative instinct. We have to fathom that excellence comes from comprehending our strengths. Looking at David Beckham, for example, his manager knew that his strength was scoring goals. Nobody encouraged Beckham to become a goalkeeper.
Culture and society can play an important role. Generally speaking, the British culture tends to focus even more on what’s wrong. In contrast, Americans are more optimistic and capable of emphasising what works. Clearly, this is not true for all people, but it is in the British character to be modest. Sometimes people think they are showing off if they talk about their strengths.
I advise people that unless they show their strengths and what they are good at, they cannot really help others and make a difference to their organisations.
GL: What practical steps can people take to excel at work?
SB: In The Strengths Book I use neurobiology to explain it. Traditional HR practitioners can find it controversial. Their approach, I find, is usually about trying to ‘fix’ what does not work. But focusing on what works well, understanding ourselves, discovering what we love, what we’re good at, and what energises us is far better, and easier, than trying to become a different sort of person at work.
One of my natural strengths is connecting with people. I’ve always felt at ease around others, from a young age. Now, if you are not that kind of person, you cannot go to a training course to learn it. Sure, you can model the behaviours, but it won’t become your strength. Imagine finding a strong communicator and a good listener, an empathetic ‘people person’ in a data analysis role. Would they be happy? Would they be good at their job, sat in front of that screen all day?
The principle is to be your best ‘you’, rather than trying to be someone you’re not. Be your genuine, authentic self and find the work that suits your strengths so you can make an impact. We are all human and all have weaknesses, but our strengths are more important. Go with the grain, don’t fight yourself.
GL: Sometimes people find themselves in the wrong job, role, or the wrong organisation, ultimately being unhappy and unproductive. What should they do in those situations?
SB: Most of us, in any job, will have to spend some time doing what we don’t like, because it is not an ideal world. In my job, for example, I spend 80% of my time doing what I am good at; I spend 20% of my time on activities such as data analysis, which I do not enjoy. But, because I spend most of my time doing what I love, I have the energy to take me through what I don’t like.
People know deep down if their job is wrong for them. There are financial and social pressures that force people to find a job in a short space of time – and of course roles change, even organisations change. They shouldn’t feel bad, but they should explore their strengths, passions, and ambitions. They may be able to bring their strengths into their current role and reshape their work; I don’t advise people to change themselves to fit an unsuitable role.
When considering looking for a new role, it helps to talk to friends and colleagues about what they can imagine you doing in the future. Other people often see our strengths more clearly than we do.
GL: What can managers do to help employees capitalise on their strengths?
SB: There are simple steps that managers can take, such as changing the way they hold discussions. The language needs to be much more about what is working.
For example, within a performance conversation, the manager tells her employee about his five strengths and one weakness; it’s natural for him to then focus on the perceived criticism and the weakness. So the manager needs to explain that weaknesses that truly matter to the job cannot be ignored, but that the weakness must be understood within the context of the employee’s strengths. Managers should encourage people to consciously bring their strengths to bear on their work.
Managers need to have open, honest conversations and spend time helping people to think about their strengths rather than their weaknesses. It creates a positive and productive working environment. It’s a lot more helpful than hearing about the same weakness at each performance review. Eradicating weaknesses can be a Sisyphean task, and the attempt can rob people of their self-esteem and enthusiasm. It’s better to engage their strengths and passions.
For example, there was a manager who was often told he was “too pushy”. He didn’t know what to do about this feedback, until he discovered that one of his strengths was being able to create and communicate a clear vision for people. He had a lot of drive and confidence around making that vision a reality. But, he recognised that he sometimes over did it, and people felt he was pushing them. Once he realised that his pushiness was just an overdone strength it became much easier to rein himself in, and avoid slipping into a negative mode. People stopped suggesting he was pushy, and he no longer felt criticised for his drive.
GL: What tools are available to discover your strengths?
SB: There are a number of questionnaires that generate a strength report. Sometimes the language is a bit off for the person and they may not agree with the descriptions.
There are other tools that guide people to reflect without providing neat prewritten answers. Rather, the person is led through a series of questions to make them think about themselves. In the end, the strengths are described in the person’s own vocabulary.
I worked with nurses in the top ten NHS hospitals. One of the strengths that great nurses have is loving to be ‘on top of things’. Now, that’s not consultant-speak, it’s real language; it’s not a sentence that you will find in online strength-based tools. Yet, that phrase made a lot of sense to them. Nurses found that they love to be on top of things, which means they like to get everything done; everything is tidy; everything is in its place; everything is under control. Being told they were, or to be, ‘highly conscientious’ wouldn’t have meant the same thing at all.
GL: Can strengths come and go?
SB: Our strengths can definitely be developed. But neurobiology tells us that it is very difficult to change our strengths.
As our brain develops, each neuron connects to many other neurons and can form neural networks. The connections, the synapses, carry electrical and chemical signals between neurons and the connections that get used more often become stronger, more developed. These much-used networks are like motorways – fast and efficient. Lesser used neural pathways are like quiet, narrow roads – slow, often bumpy, and not very easy to drive down.
As I child, I loved looking at people, smiling, and talking to them. My parents encouraged me to interact, and so I’d say the many neural networks responsible for conversation and connection were well used and developed. Now, had I wanted to become a mathematician, of course I could work toward that goal but, it would have taken a lot of effort to activate the many different neural networks – the synaptic connections – needed to learn, and enjoy learning, the intricacies of algebra. I hadn’t been exposed to such topics and didn’t put my brain to work in the ways that would develop the necessary cognitive functions at the synaptic level.
We can’t be good at everything – or very few people can be good at everything. I’m still developing my strengths – my ability to influence, to negotiate, to make myself a better connector. I focus and work on my strengths; this goes against the traditional HR philosophy and the assumption that everybody can become reasonably good at everything with training and effort – by fixing what doesn’t work and ameliorating weaknesses.
This conceptual switch to focus on strengths is really important when, traditionally, employees are judged against the company competency framework. These frameworks are often designed to highlight weaknesses and so hold people back from excelling unless they change themselves. How unrealistic, how destructive!
GL: Will strengths be used more consciously at work in the future?
SB: Slowly the world of work is changing. More organisations have started adopting a strengths-based approach to recruitment and development. It’s a positive thing to meet interviewers who try to understand who you are as a person and will be able to assess whether you are a great fit for a job. But it can take time for new approaches to catch on.
My prediction is that in ten years, most organisations will have adopted the strengths-based approach, because there is now compelling quantitative evidence demonstrating its worth. For example, the data shows that companies save money as staff turnover goes down and productivity goes up. A strengths-based approach also makes for happier, better engaged, employees that find their perfect role
Some companies are starting to use it just for the cost savings. But great companies are doing it because their leaders intuitively know that excellence comes from allowing people to be who they are. Those leaders are driven to push the change; they do not want to conform to the old ways. They want to make a big difference; they are change agents. They truly understand that adopting strengths in their organisations is not just a question of changing the recruitment and development systems, but also about changing the mindset and moving from trying to change people to supporting them to be more of who they are.
We will find those leaders in all sorts of sectors including healthcare, retail, and prisons.