Why focus on strengths?

When you see a report card from school with 1 A+, 2 As, 2 Bs and a C, what are you drawn to comment on?  For most of us, the answer is “Why did you get a C?”

We may comment on the A+ in passing, but it is often glossed over as an area we don’t need to worry about, rather than one in which that student might really build some outstanding strengths.

What about a performance review or a survey on your presentation or reviews of a paper you wrote?  What sticks with you?  Research shows that the negative or critical information is where we tend to focus our attention and is what sticks in our minds.

This focus on “problems” or weaknesses is called negativity bias, and it’s a common human trait.  In fact, it seems to be how our brains are wired, and may be there to protect us from harm and ensure the survival of the species.  Imagine a brain wiring rule like, “100 good things in the environment and 1 bad = focus on the bad so that it doesn’t wipe you out”.  As a survival mechanism, this is pretty powerful.  In our modern lives, however, it has some consequences that are not always so helpful.

One of these consequences is that we focus disproportionately on negative information even when it is not particularly helpful to do so.  When you give or receive feedback on performance, you may notice that even if more than half of the feedback is positive, the overall impression is often negative.  Whether focusing on yourself or others, you will tend to look for “what I need to work on”.  This may lead you to focus on improving some perceived weakness or shortfall, but the overall result is often to feel worse about your performance than is truly justified, and to feel compelled to continue to “try harder” to do things that are very difficult for you.  You may take a class, find a mentor, read a book or implement a new system for getting better at your weak areas.  With lots of effort, you will get better at it, but if it doesn’t come naturally to you, you are unlikely to ever be truly great at it.

The cost of this kind of negativity bias is nothing short of our long-term results and happiness.  We are most productive, creative and satisfied in our work and lives when we have a “positive experience” ratio of 3:1.  If our natural inclination is to accentuate the “negative”, we can have a hard time reaching that ratio.

The value of the strengths movement and a focus on your talents as an individual is to change the focus of your energy and attention to what is already working well, and to find ways to leverage those talents to make them more and more relevant and powerful.  Conscious practices that shift your focus to “what’s right” and from your “to do” list to an “I did it” list help balance out your tendency to only see what remains to be done, what needs improvement and what isn’t working very well.

The purpose is not to ignore very real challenges, or to reframe them in a positive light, but rather to balance your perception by appreciating real progress, real effort, and real successes, even when incomplete.  By taking note of what does work and where your efforts are met with success, you recharge your mental batteries and are better able to take positive action in all areas – including those in which there is still significant work to be done.

In fact, the seeds of success in challenging areas are often hiding in plain sight in the areas in which you have been successful.  Your personal areas of talent can often be leveraged to bring about improved results in new areas of your life.  Take time management, for example.  If this is an area of weakness for you (it is for me!), but you do have a need to achieve something each day, leveraging that need to achieve by putting some time-management tasks in your daily routine as tasks to be achieved may be your route to success.

Everyone desires to reach goals, achieve meaningful results and feel successful.  The way in which you do this varies greatly, and you will have higher levels of success when you find the strategies that leverage your innate talents.  You can get better at many things, but you will make the most improvement in areas where you are already naturally talented.

Think of the star athlete.  If you are a great pro football player, no doubt you worked very hard at perfecting your game, your physical condition, your skills.  But you also were born with some gifts that made it possible for you to not only be reasonably proficient, but truly world-class.  In contrast, the player with below average natural ability can improve significantly with hard work, but can only aim for about average – not world-class.  The difference is the level of natural ability or innate talent.

Each of us has similar natural gifts and talents, innate tendencies of thought and behavior that give us power, make us feel great and where we can excel naturally and without great effort.  If we discover those natural talents and invest in growing them, nurturing them, and applying them to as many situations as possible, we begin to grow into our potential.  For example, if you are an introvert, you can learn to network like a pro, but you will never be energized by it. In contrast, an extrovert may never love putting together reports or analyzing data all alone.  Our introvert can focus on leveraging a few close relationships to build networks of contacts, and our extrovert can build teams to work together to create reports or analysis.  They could even swap specific tasks and still get the work done, but in a way that allowed each of them to do what played to their strengths.   When you begin to create space to focus on those things you do well and enjoy, you can begin to truly shine and stand out as a star in that area.

While it is not possible for most of us to change our daily work overnight to cater to our unique talents, it is certainly possible for each of us to begin to skew our work to include more activities that let us shine, that allow us to grow and begin to see how unique talents and a diversity of talents in a team can be leveraged to overcome individual weaknesses.

If you want to improve your results, or build a high-performing team, one of the keys is to consciously shift your focus from what isn’t working well and try to figure out what is working well and how you can build on that to improve results.   Great analysts can delve into data and discover new trends, phenomena and theories to improve results.  Great motivational speakers can bring the message to more people and get involvement from partners, customers and colleagues to improve results.  Great project managers can marshal and organize the resources to get things moving.  Regardless of the talents you bring to the picture, you can still achieve the needed results, you will just do it in your own way – and differently from someone who brings other talents to the team.

By focusing on your innate talents, your daily accomplishments and small victories, you can increase your “positive experiences” at a conscious level and build strategies that will allow you to build real and lasting strengths.

What will you do to notice your own talents and achievements today?  How about those of your team?