Is There Proof That Strengths Focused Development Works?

Proof StrengthsFinder Works Episode ArStrengths Focus For This Episode

In this episode Lisa clearly answers the question, “Is there proof that strengths focused development works?” First, she presents a case study. It’s research from the University of Nebraska that proves focusing on strengths yields better ROI than training yourself in your weakness zone. Second, she offers the metaphor of a fish and a cat to bring the point alive.

Resources of the Episode

You’ll find lots of StrengthsFinder, leadership, and team tools on our Strengths Resources page.

Lisa also mentions this classic book by Donald O. Clifton and Paula Nelson, Soar with Your Strengths: A Simple Yet Revolutionary Philosophy of Business and Management

Strengths Tools

One of the best ways leaders can build a strengths based culture is to offer appreciation of strengths in action. If you’ll notice what works, you’ll get more of what works because people can replicate what they’ve already done well. On our home page, you can download this awesome tool that offers you 127 easy ideas for recognizing your team. Scroll down and look for the box that says “Great Managers Notice What Works“.

Here’s a Full Transcript of The Show

You’re listening to Lead Through Strengths, where you’ll learn to apply your greatest strengths at work. I’m your host, Lisa Cummings, and today we cover the question, “Is there proof that strengths-based development works?” If you’re considering StrengthsFinder or strengths-based development, strengths based culture in your organization. This comes up pretty often. People say, “Hey, if I’m going to move away from this thing that you call a lopsided obsession with weakness fixing, I want to know is it actually going to work?” What I have for you today is 1) a proof point through a case study…some actual research…and then 2) the other is a metaphor because it’s a really clear way of thinking and making it obvious that strengths-based development is the way to amplify performance on the job. First, for your proof point, some researchers at the University of Nebraska did a study to quantify the effects of what it is like when you invest in your strengths, versus when you invest in something that you’re just average in.

They did this test with the topic of speed-reading. They brought people in off the streets and subjected them to this speed-reading test, and at the end of the speed-reading test, they divided the subjects into two groups. Group 1: they were naturally talented at it. Group 2: they were average at the skill. The average people read 90 words per minute and the naturally talented people read 350 words per minute in this is the first round with no training. Just imagine bringing you in off the street and testing you on how fast you can read. Next, after that first round: they offered the same training to all subject. What they were going to look for, of course, is the answer to the question: “Can the naturally talented people use the same training to amplify their performance at a better pace than those who didn’t have the natural talent?”

Well imagine this is very much like work. You see people come in to the same job, but they have different background, skills, talents, knowledge, experience. You see that one person really takes to the job easily. And another person – they don’t ramp up as fast, and the work is not intuitive to them. They’re slower at it and it never feels quite right for them.

045-proof-point

Now, back to the study. All the subjects were given the same training and in the second round, after this training, those average participants, who started out only being able to read 90 words per minute, made some improvements. They went up to a 150 words per minute. This is very much like what you see on the job. You bring in people from off the street. You say, “Hey, you’re going to go through the phone rep training and everybody’s going to go through the same thing, and everybody who tries hard is going to improve.”

So, as expected, these subjects got better. They made a 66% improvement in their performance. That’s great. It did something, yet the first piece of insight here is if you remember back to a minute ago…I said the naturally talented group already read 350 words per minute in their first round. So they already beat the trained (average) people right there. That’s an interesting insight because you see how your natural talents can help you perform, even when you’ve never been trained in something. Now, the real magic in this story, in this case study is what happened to the people who were naturally talented. That group improved 828%. So if you ever hear me talk about your triple-digit-performance-improvement-shortcut being strengths, this is what I’m talking about. They went from 350 words per minute to 2900 words per minute with the same training as the other people.

One group of people improved to get to 150. The other group of people improved to get to 2900. You’ve seen this in the workplace, if you’ve looked around. You have the same people with the same training exposure, and you see very different performance levels. With those performance levels, you can see high performers who try really hard, but you can also see low performers who try really hard and they’re just not getting it because it’s not in their zone of genius, so there’s the proof point for you: 828% performance improvement for that group of people who focused on what they were already naturally talented in. Now I mentioned that I would give you a proof point and then I would also offer you a metaphor that demonstrates it I think had a real guttural kind of level like, yes, this is how we should be thinking.

So there is a book put out by Donald Clifton and the Gallup organization called Soar With Your Strengths. Now this is an older book and it’s actually a fable. It has a really good metaphor in there about taking an animal and sending it to training in something that it’s not good at. I’m going to extend the metaphor and do the Lisa version of it. It’s a little bit silly, but this way if you read the book, you can still get something out of it, so imagine this. Imagine you’re going to work and at work you have a fish, and at work you have a cat, and it’s been a year into their experience at work and you say,

“Fish, it’s time for the performance review and I’ve gotta tell ya, we’ve had you on that responsibility of mouse catching and you’ve been doing a really cruddy job at catching mice. We’re going to really focus in, we’re behind you, we want you to be successful, so we’re going to spend the next year putting you through a training program so you can be really good at mouse catching. Fish, you’re going to go to mouse-catching school.”

“Now, Cat, time for your performance review. Gotta tell ya, you did great at mouse catching, but you’ve also had that responsibility of swimming and you know every time we put you near the pool…you scream…you scratch. You’ve got people in the HR office because their faces are all cut up when they’re trying to throw you in the pool. It’s been a real nightmare. We want you to be successful though. We’re going to send you through a year long training program to make you a great swimmer.”

soar with your strengths metaphor - try to get a fish to climb a tree

Ok, so got my weird HR conversation here and you can imagine how ridiculous it would be to spend a year trying to teach a fish to catch a mouse and how ridiculous it would be to get a cat to swim. But if you flip that around and send that fish to swimming school and make it the best fish on the planet, you can see what would happen. Oh yeah! That’s its natural tendency and that’s what it was made to do. Same thing with a cat. It’s made to catch a mouse.

This is something that of course it’s not as easy and clear with human beings what they were born to do and we’re a lot more complicated because we’ve probably been squashing a lot of those things out of ourselves and hiding them and it’s more difficult to make them apparent. But even the notion that you as yourself or that you as a people manager are looking for the genius in that other person that is exactly the path that’s going to unleash performance in the organization. So get your fish in fish school. That’s the big lesson.

StrengthsFinder Activity: Conversation With Your Team

Now let’s talk application. As you listen to this audio and think about yourself personally, think of a time when you learned something new and it came really easily to you…more easily than that same thing would come to most people. If you make yourself think of 5 or 10 of these types of things, you’re going to see some trends. You can extend those trends into your current role and think, “all right, if this stuff comes naturally to me, then how can I extend that into my current job?” If you want to apply the same question at a team level because you’re a people manager or you’re a strength champion (and awesomely) you are bringing this to a bigger conversation, then you can answer the question by going around the table and having a chat about it.

For example, somebody says, “OK, you know, every time we have to learn new software, it is just so easy for me. I don’t even know why user manuals exist. I don’t know why help screens exists. I can’t believe they have to be built out in such detail, because it’s just obvious to me how it’s going to work.”

Maybe another person in a sales role says, “you know, you’re doing a new initiative on storytelling,” and when that gets launched, the person is like, “Yeah! That seems easy and fun. This is how you want me to sell. Okay, no problem. Forget those other models we’ve been talking about. This is what I’ve been wishing for all along.”

Or, maybe you have someone in a project management role and they say, “you know, I can really spot the dependent tasks, I mean like nobody’s business…even when the rest of the team can’t see the connections. They’re oblivious to some of these things that are really connected to each other and are going to make the critical path, and others have to experience the whole thing to realize that some of those steps were connected and that they matter.

That’s the start of the question as a team, and then of course the magic isn’t just knowing that something in the past happened. Then, the next part of the question is:

“How do we amplify this talent? If this is something you’re naturally gifted in, how do we get you more of that? How can we get more of your genius on display at work?”

That makes a great team conversation. Based on the size of your team, you can spend however much or little time you have for this. I’d recommend allocating about 5 minutes a person, so it might be a 30 minute conversation, but if you only have 5 total minutes to spare at the beginning of a team meeting, ask people to submit the answer to you in advance. Put it in a spreadsheet. Collect it before you show up in the meeting so that you’ve done the first-level work in advance.

Then when you get in the room, it’s 5 minutes of, “Here we go. Rapid fire. How can we amplify this stuff?” And then you can take it further in the time that you’re actually in person together.

Okay, with that, you have a new question. Hopefully you have a newfound appreciation for how strengths based development really does work – how it does amplify your performance more than an obsession with weakness-fixing would. Now you have some questions to discuss as a team, and some things to think about on your own so you can amplify your own performance at work, and the performance of those around you.

So with that, I’ll leave you until next time. Thanks for listening to Lead Through Strengths. To find more strengths-focused tools, go out to our website at LeadThroughStrengths.com/resources. There’s a whole host of documents and videos and things that you can do to apply this on your team. I’ll see you next time.

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Deena Silverman is the Director of Customer Experience at Lead Through Strengths, where she helps teams improve their productivity by focusing on their natural talents. Deena helps leaders pull off seamless strengths-based events that change the culture of their company. One of her greatest joys is studying human behavior and helping others achieve their goals. When she’s not using her organizational strengths to create awesome events, you can find her running around with her two special boys and her unique dog, Ranger. Or she might be hunting for Gary, her repeat-escapee hamster with a top talent of persistence. Her Top 5 StrengthsFinder Talents are: Individualization | Achiever | Learner | Input | Activator.