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 1×1 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.