Anyone putting together a team recognises that having a range of skills and personalities is important. You need a person who is going to challenge and ask the difficult questions, but if you have a team full of them, you’re going to do nothing but argue. You need a peacemaker who will minimise disputes and help overcome disagreements, but if you have a team full of them, you’ll only ever achieve the nicest decision rather than the best decision.
We are all different, and we all have different strengths. Positive Psychology tells us that understanding and using our personal strengths is of fundamental importance. (Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking.’ Prof Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and President of the American Psychological Association, pointed out that psychology has historically always had a focus on pathology, on mental diseases and how to treat them. He argued that it needed a new focus on growth and fulfilment, where mental health was viewed to be more than simply the absence of mental disease. This new focus became Positive Psychology).
Seligman holds that the most fulfilled lives for human beings are ones in which we are able to use our personal strengths while serving a goal bigger than ourselves. This latter part – purpose – is hugely important but we won’t be looking at that in this blog post. Too often, we fail to recognise what our personal strengths are and, consequently, we fail to make the best use of them.
We were recruiting new facilitators for our team earlier this year. As part of that recruitment, we asked the candidates each to prepare and lead a 10-minute introductory group exercise. One young woman quickly volunteered to go first and led the group through an activity in complete silence. She held the attention of and issued instructions to the group simply through gestures and facial expressions. Her good use of eye contact and her expressive, smiling face helped put people at ease throughout the process. Suffice to say, we hired her.
A few weeks later, we were doing some development work with the team around personal strengths. Using the Values in Action (VIA) strengths tool (available free online), this same woman was surprised when her results had said that curiosity was one of her key strengths. Curiosity is about being open to new ideas, perspectives, and possibilities. It’s about seeking new experiences and getting absorbed in things. She thought this was a problem rather than a strength, as that’s the message she had often received from others (like the child who keeps asking ‘why?’). I reflected back to her about the exercise she had chosen for the recruitment day – that the idea of a silent activity would never have occurred to most people and that her complete commitment to and comfort in the activity had helped to draw other people into the action. This was her using her curiosity as a strength, even though she hadn’t realised she was doing it.
One of my personal strengths is honesty/genuineness. I hear repeatedly from other people that I’m the same in any setting. Be it at home, with colleagues, with clients, with children, I’m always just me. This is a strength because this consistency becomes something that other people can count on – they know what to expect from me. It also helps me to build trust with others as I don’t play games or wear masks. I am happy to have this as one of my strengths, in part because I know no other way to be.
However, our strengths can also be weaknesses. Take another of my strengths, perseverance. I am very good at motivating myself and keeping going, doing whatever it takes to get things done. However, what this means is that I pay scant attention to myself and my own needs, often running myself into the ground in pursuit of getting the job done. It’s not unusual for me to finish a project then to fall ill within a couple of days. I would do much better to persevere a bit less, to allow myself a bit more time and flexibility, and stay healthier.
Whether a personal quality is presently operating as a strength or as a weakness, it is invaluable for us to know our personal strengths. If I know that honesty and genuineness are strengths of mine, I can seek out opportunities that allow me to use these strengths, like building new relationships or helping to put a group at ease or bringing people together for a common cause. Being able to use the things I’m good at makes me feel useful and fulfilled, which is what Positive Psychology argues. This knowledge also helps me to look after myself. In the case of honesty and genuineness, I can be aware that putting myself so thoroughly into all situations leaves me vulnerable when people are less open or less genuine. If I know I bring perseverance to a team, I make it more likely that the team will overcome obstacles and meet its goals. But I also know I can slip into being a hard taskmaster, which can damage the team’s productivity, and I can put measures in place to avoid crossing this line.
Knowledge of my personal strengths helps me become more effective, as it enables me to focus my efforts on the areas where I can add the most value. It helps me become a better colleague and teammate, as I understand better how I can help others – and what I need to watch to make sure I don’t grate on them. It also helps my motivation and fulfilment, as knowing what I’m good at enables me to do more of what I’m good at – and this is a central part of living a mentally healthy life.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Personal Strengths’ workshop with Northern Stage in Newcastle on Thursday 21 September. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
Dr Andrew Crosbie