Introduction: The Strengths Revolution at Work
Guided by the belief that good is the opposite of bad, mankind has for centuries pursued its fixation with fault and failing. Doctors have studied disease in order to learn about health. Psychologists have investigated sadness in order to learn about joy. Therapists have looked into the causes of divorce in order to learn about happy marriage. And in schools and workplaces around the world, each one of us has been encouraged to identify, analyze, and correct our weaknesses in order to become strong.
This advice is well intended but misguided. Faults and failings deserve study, but they reveal little about strengths. Strengths have their own patterns.
To excel in your chosen field and to find lasting satisfaction in doing so, you will need to understand your unique patterns. You will need to become an expert at finding and describing and applying and practicing and refining your strengths. So as you read this book, shift your focus. Suspend whatever interest you may have in weakness and instead explore the intricate detail of your strengths. Take the StrengthsFinder Profile. Learn its language. Discover the source of your strengths.
If by the end of the book you have developed your expertise in what is right about you and your employees, this book will have served its purpose.
"What are the two assumptions on which great organizations must be built?"
We wrote this book to start a revolution, the strengths revolution. At the heart of this revolution is a simple decree: The great organization must not only accommodate the fact that each employee is different, it must capitalize on these differences. It must watch for clues to each employee's natural talents and then position and develop each employee so that his or her talents are transformed into bona fide strengths. By changing the way it selects, measures, develops, and channels the careers of its people, this revolutionary organization must build its entire enterprise around the strengths of each person.
And as it does, this revolutionary organization will be positioned to dramatically outperform its peers. In our latest metaanalysis The Gallup Organization asked this question of 198,000 employees working in 7,939 business units within 36 companies: At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day? We then compared the responses to the performance of the business units and discovered the following: When employees answered "strongly agree" to this question, they were 50 percent more likely to work in business units with lower employee turnover, 38 percent more likely to work in more productive business units, and 44 percent more likely to work in business units with higher customer satisfaction scores. And over time those business units that increased the number of employees who strongly agreed saw comparable increases in productivity, customer loyalty, and employee retention. Whichever way you care to slice the data, the organization whose employees feel that their strengths are used every day is more powerful and more robust.
This is very good news for the organization that wants to be on the vanguard of the strengths revolution. Why? Because most organizations remain startlingly inefficient at capitalizing on the strengths of their people. In Gallup's total database we have asked the "opportunity to do what I do best" question of more than 1.7 million employees in 101 companies from 63 countries. What percentage do you think strongly agrees that they have an opportunity to do what they do best every day? What percentage truly feels that their strengths are in play?
Twenty percent. Globally, only 20 percent of employees working in the large organizations we surveyed feel that their strengths are in play every day. Most bizarre of all, the longer an employee stays with an organization and the higher he climbs the traditional career ladder, the less likely he is to strongly agree that he is playing to his strengths.
Alarming though it is to learn that most organizations operate at 20 percent capacity, this discovery actually represents a tremendous opportunity for great organizations. To spur high-margin growth and thereby increase their value, great organizations need only focus inward to find the wealth of unrealized capacity that resides in every single employee. Imagine the increase in productivity and profitability if they doubled this number and so had 40 percent of their employees strongly agreeing that they had a chance to use their strengths every day. Or how about tripling the number? Sixty percent of employees saying "strongly agree" isn't too aggressive a goal for the greatest organizations.
How can they achieve this? Well, to begin with they need to understand why eight out of ten employees feel somewhat miscast in their role. What can explain this widespread inability to position people in particular senior people who have had the chance to search around for interesting roles to play to their strengths?
The simplest explanation is that most organizations' basic assumptions about people are wrong. We know this because for the last thirty years Gallup has been conducting research into the best way to maximize a person's potential. At the heart of this research are our interviews with eighty thousand managers most excellent, some average in hundreds of organizations around the world. Here the focus was to discover what the world's best managers (whether in Bangalore or Bangor) had in common. We described our discoveries in detail in the book First, Break All the Rules, but the most significant finding was this: Most organizations are built on two flawed assumptions about people:
I. Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything.
2. Each person's greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.
Presented so baldly, these two assumptions seem too simplistic to be commonly held, so let's play them out and see where they lead. If you want to test whether or not your organization is based on these assumptions, look for these characteristics:
- Your organization spends more money on training people once they are hired than on selecting them properly in the first place.
- Your organization focuses the performance of its employees by legislating work style. This means a heavy emphasis on work rules, policies, procedures, and "behavioral competencies."
- Your organization spends most of its training time and money on trying to plug the gaps in employees' skills or competencies. It calls these gaps "areas of opportunity." Your individual development plan, if you have one, is built around your "areas of opportunity," your weaknesses.
- Your organization promotes people based on the skills or experiences they have acquired. After all, if everyone can learn to be competent in almost anything, those who have learned the most must be the most valuable. Thus, by design, your organization gives the most prestige, the most respect, and the highest salaries to the most experienced well-rounded people.
Finding an organization that doesn't have these characteristics is more difficult than finding one that does. Most organizations take their employees' strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses. They become expert in those areas where their employees struggle, delicately rename these "skill gaps" or "areas of opportunity," and then pack them off to training classes so that the weaknesses can be fixed. This approach is occasionally necessary: If an employee always alienates those around him, some sensitivity training can help; likewise, a remedial communication class can benefit an employee who happens to be smart but inarticulate. But this isn't development, it is damage control. And by itself damage control is a poor strategy for elevating either the employee or the organization to world-class performance.
As long as an organization operates under these assumptions, it will never capitalize on the strengths of each employee.
To break out of this weakness spiral and to launch the strengths revolution in your own organization, you must change your assumptions about people. Start with the right assumptions, and everything else that follows from them how you select, measure, train, and develop your people will be right. These are the two assumptions that guide the world's best managers:
I. Each person's talents are enduring and unique.
2. Each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.
These two assumptions are the foundation for everything they do with and for their people. These two assumptions explain why great managers are careful to look for talent in every role, why they focus people's performances on outcomes rather than forcing them into a stylistic mold, why they disobey the Golden Rule and treat each employee differently, and why they spend the most time with their best people. In short, these two assumptions explain why the world's best managers break all the rules of conventional management wisdom.
Now, following the great managers' lead, it is time to change the rules. These two revolutionary assumptions must serve as the central tenets for a new way of working. They are the tenets for a new organization, a stronger organization, an organization designed to reveal and stretch the strengths of each employee.
Most organizations have a process for ensuring the efficient use of their practical resources. Six Sigma or ISO 9000 processes are commonplace. Likewise, most organizations have increasingly efficient processes for exploiting their financial resources. The recent fascination with metrics such as economic value added and return on capital bear testament to this. Few organizations, however, have developed a systematic process for the efficient use of their human resources. (They may experiment with individual development plans, 360-degree surveys, and competencies, but these experiments are mostly focused on fixing each employee's weaknesses rather than building his strengths.)
In this book we want to show you how to design a systematic strength-building process. Specifically, Chapter 7, "Building a Strengths-based Organization," can help. Here we describe what the optimum selection system looks like, which three outcomes all employees should have on their scorecard, how to reallocate those misguided training budgets, and, last, how to change the way you channel each employee's career.
If you are a manager and want to know how best to capitalize on the strengths of your individual direct reports, then Chapter 6, "Managing Strengths," will help. Here we identify virtually every ability or style you might find in your people and explain what you can do to maximize the strengths of each employee.
However, we don't start there. We start with you. What are your strengths? How can you capitalize on them? What are your most powerful combinations? Where do they take you? What one, two, or three things can you do better than ten thousand other people? These are the kinds of questions we will deal with in the first five chapters. After all, you can't lead a strengths revolution if you don't know how to find, name, and develop your own.
Two Million Interviews
"Whom did Gallup interview to learn about human strengths?"
Imagine what you might learn if you could interview two million people about their strengths. Imagine interviewing the world's best teachers and asking them how they keep children so interested in what might otherwise be dry subject matter. Imagine asking them how they build such trusting relationships with so many different children. Imagine asking them how they balance fun and discipline in the classroom. Imagine asking them about all the things they do that make them so very good at what they do.
And then imagine what you could learn if you did the same with the world's best doctors and salespeople and lawyers (yes, they can be found) and professional basketball players and stockbrokers and accountants and hotel housekeepers and leaders and soldiers and nurses and pastors and systems engineers and chief executives. Imagine all those questions and, more important, all those vivid answers.
Over the last thirty years The Gallup Organization has conducted a systematic study of excellence wherever we could find it. This wasn't some mammoth poll. Each of those interviews (a little over two million at the last count, of which the eighty thousand managers from First, Break All the Rules were a small part) consisted of open-ended questions like the ones mentioned above. We wanted to hear these excellent performers describe in their own words exactly what they were doing.
In all these different professions we found a tremendous diversity of knowledge, skill, and talent. But as you might suspect, we soon began to detect patterns. We kept looking and listening, and gradually we extracted from this wealth of testimony thirty-four patterns, or "themes," as we have called them. These thirty-four are the most prevalent themes of human talent. Our research tells us that these thirty-four, in their many combinations, can do the best job of explaining the broadest possible range of excellent performance.
These thirty-four do not capture every single human idiosyncrasy individuals are too infinitely varied for that kind of claim. So think of these thirty-four as akin to the eighty-eight keys on a piano. The eighty-eight keys cannot play every single note that can possibly be played, but in their many combinations they can capture everything from classic Mozart to classic Madonna. The same applies to these thirty-four themes. Used with insight and understanding they can help capture the unique themes playing in each person's life.
To be most helpful we offer you a way to measure yourself on these thirty-four themes. We ask you to pause after reading Chapter 3 and take a profile called StrengthsFinder that is available on the Internet. It will immediately reveal your five dominant themes of talent, your signature themes. These signature themes are your most powerful sources of strength. If you want to learn about the themes of your employees or family or friends, you can read Chapter 4 and learn about each of the thirty-four. But initially our main focus is you. By identifying and refining these signature themes you will be in the best possible position to play out your own strengths to the fullest.
As you study these five themes and consider ways to apply what you have learned, keep this thought in mind: The real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn't have enough strengths, it's that we fail to use the ones we have. Benjamin Franklin called wasted strengths "sundials in the shade." As you can see, the impetus of this book is that too many organizations, too many teams, and too many individuals unknowingly hide their "sundials in the shade."
We want this book and your experiences while reading it to cast a light and thereby put your strengths to work.
Copyright © 2001 by The Gallup Organization