In this episode, Lisa answers the question: Will a strengths approach work in different cultures and countries? She then shares how leaders can use strengths to fulfill the five different needs of humans, going beyond the typical food-water-shelter level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Will A Strengths Approach Work In Different Cultures and Countries?
A question came in from Molly about whether strengths-focused development will work across any culture or country. If you manage a team of people from around the world, or if you’re about to roll out a strengths approach across your company or university — this is an important question to ask!
The short answer is yes! A strengths-focused development will, in fact, work around the world. Let’s break the question down from a literal translation standpoint and then the conceptual.
Can You Translate Strengths Language?
Yes! And If you want to give a team of people a native language experience, I definitely recommend looking at Clifton StrengthsFinder or the VIA Character Survey. Both of them are available in more than two dozen languages, so whether your native language is Polish, Croatian, or Indonesian, they have you covered. I think that’s an important factor to know because if you’re answering questions about your natural thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (on a 20-second timer), you can’t waste time looking up vocabulary words because it would impact your results. The other good thing is that you'll also receive your reports in the native language.
Something you might find fascinating or surprising is that even after millions of people have used the CliftonStrengths tool, the data shows us that the differences are negligible when you break results down by race, gender, age, and nationality.
If you’re into the data side of things, you can also find some interesting factoids in different countries. With CliftonStrengths, the #1 talent theme in India is Responsibility, whereas you see Learner #1 in Mexico, Panama, and Argentina. And then you see Maximizer and Harmony in the #1 and #2 spots in Japan.
As you can see, different countries do have some different “typical” #1 spots, and yes, those differences by country probably tell us something about the strong effect of cultural values.
But one thing we haven’t been able to isolate with empirical research is how much of this is nature vs. nurture. Our hypothesis is that it’s both. Your environment, your upbringing, your family values, your experiences, and your DNA all play a role in how your strengths show up and what your unique lineup of talents is.
How Strengths Can Bring Understanding Across Cultures
This question about whether strengths can bring appreciation across cultures first made me think of Grace. She’s a client in Taiwan. And she was thrilled about StrengthsFinder because she works for an American manager and it gave her a way to map work conversations to her values and her natural way of thinking. It gave her an easy language to use, whereas before using a strengths-focused approach, she felt that the language and cultural barriers kept her from being understood at work.
If you’ve ever studied different cultural dimensions, you might instantly think about the potential for Grace, with her #1 Harmony and #2 Responsibility to be on a different page from her manager with #1 Individualization and #2 Competition (because Grace is from a country high on the collectivism scale and her manager is from a country high on the individualism scale). And their personal talent themes happen to reflect their country’s values pretty closely.
Using the language of strengths, it gave each of them a way to describe what they bring to the team. And to describe where they come from on issues - how they make decisions and relate to people at work. And it helped Grace find a language for talking about her potential contributions to the team without feeling like she was running against her country’s values of saving face, being humble, and showing loyalty to the team — even when it means putting her personal agenda last.
By the way, if you’ve never studied cultural dimensions, it’s totally fascinating. You can see how each country maps on a continuum across 5-6 categories. The super quick preview is that these continuums cover your relationship to people, power, certainty, and time.
My favorite resource on cultural understanding is the book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. It helps you understand each country’s government, religion, decision making values, negotiation styles, and how they tend to process information. It goes even further to help you out with gestures, gifts, and clothing so you can be sure that you know the basic expectations and keep you from making a fool of yourself.
Each expert uses different labels, yet most look something like this:
- Individualism <——> Collectivism
- Accepts Unequal Power <——> Rejects Unequal Power
- Uncertainty Avoidant <——> Accepts Unknown
- Cooperation <——> Competition
- Short-Term Orientation <——> Long-Term Orientation
To bring this back to strengths, I look at it like another layer of understanding. Cultural differences can run sooooo deep. And we don’t know where we might view a topic differently from another country.
I remember the first time I visited India and learned how uncommon it is for men to wear shorts. The more traditional view is that if they have shorts on, something must have happened to their pants! I also found it so fascinating that it’s totally normal to wear a sari to work and show your midriff. Whereas in the US, it would not be okay to show your midriff and work. Don’t even get me started on how hard I worked to tame my left-handedness. It took a few visits to work that one out.
My point is, when you are working across cultures, there are a million ways for people to spot their differences. Of course, the visual ones like clothing are the easiest to spot. That's why I used the example, yet the most powerful examples are below the surface level. Then there are many ways to accidentally offend colleagues during conversations. And there are some stressors when team members bring their local assumptions about how work relationships work. And they assign meaning to things differently — not just the meaning of men’s pants.
Strengths give you a language to talk about these things in a productive way. For example, Grace, with her Responsibility talent, would naturally see ways that she could jump in to help the team meet its commitments. But before having some strengths-focused conversations, she didn’t volunteer because she was used to a more hierarchical approach where she would wait to be assigned those responsibilities.
How Strengths Can Help Leaders Create Significant Meaning For Their Team
Now let’s add one more important layer: it’s that basic human needs cut across all cultures.
No matter where you live in the world, your team shares the same basic needs. Most people remember hearing something about food, water, and shelter when they think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
If you do some digging on this topic, you’ll see that there are a bunch of others that managers can impact. And these others are where you’re really helping people feel seen, heard, and appreciated in a way that gives them purpose. And strengths-focused leadership conversations make it easy and natural for that to happen. Let’s look at each of these 5 needs and how you can impact them as a manager.
1. Physiological Needs
If you look at this like the typical pyramid, you’ll see physiological needs at the bottom. Yes, that’s where you get your food, water, shelter, and sleep. This one isn't so much of a "work" thing, yet after you get past this one, the other 4 get really interesting as you layer in strengths.
2. Safety & Security Needs
The next one is safety needs. In Gallup’s extensive leadership research, Stability is one of the four primary “follower” needs. Yes, there are some safety needs that have nothing to do with work. Yet think of these: employment stability, social stability, and sometimes health (wellbeing, stress) are items that you can address through strengths.
Or, you can think about your natural talents and how they might lead you, at your default, to make your team feel un-safe. For example, my StrengthsFinder Maximizer talent theme constantly leads me to change things. Over the years, I’ve seen how that can feel unstable because people don’t know what to expect from week to week.
And strengths have given me a way to look at that with a different lens because I now see how important it is to acknowledge that people need to feel a sense of stability. Although it doesn't keep me from changing things, it certainly keeps me from presenting it in a way that seems flippant or careless or un-thought-out to those who have high stability needs.
3. Love & Belonging
Yes, there are friendships, family, and other parts of life where people fill this human need. Now switch over to work. People want to belong. They love knowing that they’re contributing to the team. They love knowing they’re doing important work — believing that the 8 (or 12) hours they spend every day is for something that matters. They love accomplishing something bigger than themselves.
So when you use strengths, you can use their talents to help them see their superpowers. You can use their strengths as a lens to help you see when to recognize them. And you can help them feel the connection between their actions and the bigger goal they are a part of. Based on each person's talents and values, you can help them match the meaning to the work they do every day.
Each week, you’ll get a strengths-focused 1x1 conversation starter and quick team meeting topic so you can keep learning more about what puts your team members at their best so that they can feel like they are a meaningful part of the team.
Moving up the scale, you have self-esteem, which includes things like feeling respected, being recognized, knowing their strengths, and achieving. Strengths help you create a culture of recognition. It helps people know what they’re great at.
And I call them your “easy buttons” to high performance. If you provide your team members an easier path to high performance, they’ll achieve more and feel better about themselves, which tends to create a virtuous circle where they feel better and better about their contributions and they continue to achieve bigger things for the team.
Finally, you have self-actualization. This includes deeper life meaning and living up to their potential. It’s all about being the best they can be. It even gets into things like innovation and creativity because their outputs reflect a unique view of the work that no one else could bring.
Now think about this in terms of strengths and workplaces. When teams are in turmoil with RIFs, re-orgs, and conflict, they revert back to safety mode. They give less because they’re trying to survive the explosion of uncertainty or despair.
But if you contrast that with a fully functional team, you can start to imagine some moments and some team members who have been way up in this self-actualization zone. And as a leader, you have the ability to move people through these categories. Of course, it’s not 100% on you. They have to take personal accountability in their lives. Yet, you have a heck of a lot of influence on helping them unlock these other categories.
Basic Human Needs Exist Across Cultures
It may have surprised you that the question on culture led to this angle for an answer. Yet when I think about international businesses and organizations, the best ones cut across cultural differences by getting to the humanity of it all. We all have some basic needs, and strengths can give you a way to have conversations about these human needs without feeling weird.
When it comes to the cultural dimensions I brought up at the beginning, each person’s talent themes can give you a great doorway into talking about how their personal thoughts, feelings, and actions line up with cultural norms. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me, “Aha! No wonder I am a fish out of water at this company (or in this country).” And then rather than feeling bad about it, their strengths give them a way to see the good side of it — the side that brings value and compliments the other ways of operating in the world. Differences are differentiators. The world needs each person's uniqueness.
Here's A Full Transcript of the 17 Minute Episode
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 I got to tell you, it's hard to find something more energizing and productive than using your natural talents every day at work. Well, today, a question came in from Mali about whether strengths-focused development will work across any culture or country. Pretty interesting.
So, if you manage a team of people from all around the world, or you're about to roll-out a strengths approach, and you know, it's going to reach across different countries in your company or university, it's a really important question to ask. Will it even work in other places? So, the short answer is, yes. Strengths-focused development will, in fact, work all around the world.
And I think it would be useful to break the question down from a literal translation standpoint, and then go more conceptual. So literally, can you translate strengths language? Yes. And if you want to give a team of people a native language experience, which I think is really important, I definitely recommend using Clifton StrengthsFinder, or the via character survey, both of them are available in more than two dozen languages.
So, whether you're talking about a native language of Polish, or Croatian or Indonesian, basically, they have you covered. I think that's a really important factor because if you're answering questions about what your natural patterns of thoughts and feelings and behavior are, and you want to give your quick natural response, it's on a 22nd timer. So, you can't waste time looking at vocabulary words, or spending mental energy trying to understand the question, because it would obviously impact your results.
So, the other good thing is that you would also then receive your reports in the native language. Now, something you might find fascinating or surprising, is that even after millions of people have used the tool, the data shows us that the differences and the answers when you cut it across race, gender, age, or nationality, well, the differences are actually negligible. And that surprises a lot of people.
Now, if you're into the data side of things, and you're thinking, “I know, there are some things you could find out by country”. You can find some interesting factoids, when you really get into the country level data, like with Clifton Strengths.
Here's something interesting. The number one talent theme in India is Responsibility. Whereas you can see Learner as number one, if you look at Mexico, and Panama, and Argentina. So pretty interesting to see the trend in Latin America. And then you see Maximizer and Harmony in the number 1 and number 2 spots in Japan. So different countries do have some different typical top spots. And yes, those differences by country probably tell us something about the strong effect of cultural values.
But one thing we haven't been able to isolate with empirical research is how much of this, how much of the results comes from nature versus nurture. Our hypothesis is that it's both so your environment, your upbringing, your family values, your experiences and your DNA, they all play a role in how your strengths show up, and what your unique lineup of talents is.
So, this question about whether strengths can bring appreciation across cultures first made me think of grace. So, let's get into the conceptual side and away from the literal translation part. So, Grace is a client in Taiwan and she was really thrilled about StrengthsFinder because she works for an American manager. And she said, -
“Oh, she was really excited because it gave her a way to map work conversations to her values, and to her natural way of thinking.”
Now, if you've ever studied different cultural dimensions, you might instantly think about the potential for Grace with her number one, Harmony and number two, Responsibility, to be on a totally different page from her manager, who had number one Individualization and number two Competition, because she's from a country high on the collectivism scale, and her manager is from a country high on the individualism scale, and their personal talent themes happened to reflect their country's values pretty closely.
So, using the language of strengths, it gave each of them a way to describe what they bring to the team, all framed from a positive light, from a contribution standpoint. And it helped grace find a language. I found a way to talk about her potential contribution, that she could offer the team without feeling like she was running against her country's values because her country values saving face, being humble and showing loyalty to the team. So, it felt weird talking about herself in a positive way.
But with strengths, she could do this, and it could make sense of it all. In the past, part of her country value really led her to put her personal agenda last. But as she began to talk about strengths, it was really cool because she was able to put her strengths on display and get used while also serving the bigger team and the bigger group. And by the way, if you've ever studied cultural dimensions, it's totally fascinating. And you can see how each country maps on a bunch of continuum, is usually five or six categories. So super quick preview there is that these continuums cover things like your relationship to people to power to certainty to time.
My favorite resource on cultural understanding is actually a book that looks at it a little differently, that is Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands is the name of the book. And it helps you understand each country's government religion, decision-making values, negotiating styles, and how they tend to process information. And then it even goes further with things like their gestures, and their gifts and their clothing, so that you can know the basic protocols and basic expectations to keep you from making a fool of yourself.
So, we'll link to all of that in the show notes, both the book and then I'll also put an example of some of those cultural dimensions in the scales, if you want to take a look at that there. And some bring that all back around to strengths. I look at strengths like another layer of understanding on top of all of that. I mean, cultural differences can run so, so deep, and we don't know where we might have a topic that we feel different on from someone or a group from another country until we get really deep with our understanding, or even at the shallow surface.
I remember the first time I visited India, and I learned how uncommon it is for men to wear shorts while it's really hot there. So, I remember being surprised. And the more traditional view is, if their shorts on, something must have happened to their pants. So, I also found it really fascinating that women would wear a sari to work, and they would show their midriff, whereas in the US, it wouldn't be okay to show your midriff. And oh my gosh, don't even get me started on my trying to take my left-handedness. It took a few visits to work that one out.
But my point is, when you're working across cultures, there are a million ways for people to spot their differences. And of course, the visual ones like clothing are the easiest ones to spot. And there are so many ways to accidentally offend colleagues during conversations. And there are a lot of stressors when team members are bringing their local assumptions about how work relationships are supposed to work. And they assign meaning to things differently. And not just the meaning of men's pants, of course.
So that's where strengths really come into play, because it helps you understand how are people assigning meaning. Strengths gives you a language to talk about these things in a really productive way. So, Grace, for example, back to her with her Responsibility talent. She would naturally see ways that she could jump in and help the team meet its commitments. But before having these strengths-focused conversations, she never volunteered. She was just used to a more hierarchical approach where she would wait to be assigned to those things. It wouldn't have been received well in her past jobs if she had done that.
So, strengths really allow them to bring out their assumptions and their interest and their contributions in a way to understand where cultural differences were even getting in the way of their productivity.
[8:41] So now let's add one more big layer, and that's basic human needs that cut across all cultures. So, no matter where you live in the world, your team shares some basic human needs. And you no matter where you are, as a listener, you share these basic human needs to. So most people remember hearing something about food, water and shelter thinking of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And if you do some more digging on that topic, you'll see there are a bunch of other things related to that pyramid that managers can impact. And these others are things that really happen when you're helping people on your team feel seen and heard and valued and appreciated in a way that gives them purpose in life. And strengths-focused conversations, make it easy and make it natural for all that to happen.
So, let's look at each of these 5 needs. At the base of the pyramid you have physiological needs. So that's the typical stuff that you're used to: your food, water, shelter, sleep. Now after you get past this one, it's really interesting when you layer in strengths.
So, in the next one: safety and security needs. Now when I heard that instantly, it didn't make me think of something that a manager or a leader would contribute to the team. But think about this, and Gallup’s Extensive Research on Leadership, stability is one of our four primary follower needs. So yeah, there are some safety needs that don't have anything to do with work. But think about this: employment stability, social stability, and sometimes health. Think about well-being. They’re items that you can address through strengths. Or you can think about your natural talents and how they might lead you at your default to make your team feel unsafe.
I know that I have breached some safety needs, but I look back at things that I've done as a manager. And now I think, “Oh my gosh, what awesome awareness to have”. I remember a time in my career where my Maximizer talent was constantly leading me to change things out still constantly leading me to change things. But over the years, I've been able to see that that can feel really unstable to people because they don't know what to expect from week to week. So, it helps me frame up change in a totally different way. And make sure that I'm listening and understanding and really feeling out the change in a way that I didn't before.
So, strengths have given me a way to look at that safety and security needs with a totally different lens, because I can now acknowledge that people need to feel a sense of stability in order to show up at their best.
Okay, the next human need is love and belonging. So yeah, of course, there are friendships and family and other parts of life where other people feel this human need. But if you switch back over to work, people want to belong. They love knowing they're contributing to the team. They love knowing they're doing important work. They love knowing that the 8 or 12 hours they spend every day is for something that matters, not that it's just time wasted. They love accomplishing something bigger than themselves. So, when you use strengths, you can use their talents to help them see their superpowers and use their strength as a lens to help you see when to recognize them, so that they can feel the connection between their actions, and the bigger cause they're part of.
So, if you want to help your team members feel this bigger sense of belonging by connecting to their strengths and the contributions, they offer the team, just be sure to get that conversation starter in your 12-week activation series we've started to offer you. So, each week you'll get a strengths-focused one-on-one conversation starter and a quick team meeting topic, so you can keep learning more and more about what puts your team members at their best, so they can feel like they're a meaningful part of the team.
So to get it just go to leadthroughstrengths.com/manager activation course, and just tell us the address where you want to receive it.
On the last two, moving up the scale, self-esteem. If you have self-esteem, this includes feeling things like feeling respected, being recognized, knowing strengths, achieving, strengths, can actually help you do that. They can help you create a culture of recognition. And that recognition doesn't just come from you because once you've created a movement, a culture of recognition, it becomes the way people interact with each other. So, it also becomes a self-supporting system where it's happening from peers and others around. ‘Helps people know what they're great at. And since I call your talents, your easy buttons to high performance, imagine, if you provide your team members the ability to see that they have an easier path to get to their high performance. Then they're going to achieve more and feel better about themselves.
And then it creates this virtuous… then it creates this virtuous circle, where they feel better and better and better and better about their contributions. And they continue then to achieve bigger and bigger and bigger things for the team.
Finally, you have self-actualization. Of course, you're probably familiar with this as the tip of the pyramid. It includes the deeper life meaning stuff, living up to potential. It's all about being the best they can be. And it even gets into things like innovation and creativity that some of us wouldn't expect, because their outputs then are able to reflect a unique view of the work that no one else could bring.
So, if you think about this in terms of strengths and workplaces, when teams are in turmoil, when they're having rifts and rewards and conflict, imagine there's no way they're going to live up here in self-actualization. They're going to revert back to safety mode. And when they're reverting back to safety mode, they're going to give less, because they're just trying to survive.
[14:29] So then, if you think about a contrasting team, where you have a fully functional team, you can start to imagine the moments that you can create when team members have been able to move way up here into the self-actualization zone. I can think back to teams I've been a part of, certain moments and certain people when they've really been alive in their careers, and I can imagine some things that I did to contribute to allowing them to bring out their best.
So as a leader, you have the ability to move people through those categories. Of course, it's not 100% on you, and they have to take personal accountability in their lives. Yet you do have a heck of a lot of influence on helping them unlock those other categories. So, it may have surprised you to bring this all together that the question on culture led to this angle for the answer. Yet, when I think about international businesses and organizations, the best ones cut across cultural differences. By getting to the humanity of it all.
We all have these basic human needs and strengths can give you a way to have conversations about these human needs without feeling all weird. It's pretty awkward kind of thing to talk about basic human needs, but it's not when it's couched through the lens of strengths. And when it comes to that idea of cultural dimensions that I brought up at the beginning, each person's talent themes can give you a great doorway into talking about how their personal thoughts and feelings and actions line up with or even rub against their cultural norms. And that can be company or country culture.
I can't tell you how many times someone has said to me, “oh, no wonder I'm a fish out of water at this company”, “oh, no wonder I’m a fish out of water in my country”. And then rather than feeling bad about it, and thinking that they are incorrectly weird in some way, then they can own their weird in a great way and see that there's another side of it. There's a value that that brings.
So, remember to grab the strengths-focused one-on-one and team meeting resource to get your 12 weeks of conversation starters, that's going to help you start to apply these conversations to your cross-culture understanding. It's going to help you open up the topics like their ideal work culture, their untapped strengths, and even get them to fess up about some of the soul-sucking elements of their job.
So, each week, it gives you one question to ask in a one-on-one and one question for the team. And that way you can spend your time having these conversations rather than spending a bunch of time trying to come up with these conversations.
So, with that, thanks for listening to Lead Through Strengths. Remember, using your strengths will strengthen your performance on your team. If you're putting a lopsided focus on fixing what's broken about your team members, you're choosing the path of most resistance. So, use your talents to build cross cultural collaboration and share them with the world.