Guest Blogger: Linda Hills

Within 3 days of arriving at one of my former places of work, I was told by the president that a strengths-based approach to employee development wouldn’t work. Employees were focused on improving their weaknesses so they could perform better because that’s how they are rewarded.

Well, that was pretty definite! But it was also wrong. 

The best explanation of why a strengths approach beats a deficit approach at enabling development and performance is by Robert Biswas-Diener in his book, Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching.

Imagine you decide to spend the day sailing. You step into the boat, but you notice it has a leak. You fix the leak so that you can stay afloat. You are ready to get underway, but then you notice there is no wind. Without the wind, there is nothing to propel you forward. So much for the day of sailing.

The leak in this scenario is any development gap an employee needs to fill to meet the requirements of their job. But fixing an employee’s gaps is not the route to peak performance – that comes from them using their strengths. As the wind is to the sailboat, so are strengths to great performance:  they both provide the fuel to propel forward motion.  

Using your strengths is instinctive and effortless

Strengths are the knowledge/skills, talents and values that people naturally possess, each in their own unique combination.  They enable peak performance because using them is instinctive and effortless, so much so that people often don’t even realize they are using them.

A colleague of mine, Carolyn Meacher depicts them as concentric circles, with values at the core. Values reflect the “real” person – what’s important to them and has meaning for them. When a person acts in a way that shows the world what their values are, they are demonstrating their character strengths. Scientists have identified 24 universal character strengths that are common across cultures, religions and geography, including things such as fairness, honesty, perseverance, gratitude, and courage. Everyone has all 24 in some order, with the ones higher up on the list called signature strengths: they are defining features of a person’s character.

Working outwards from the centre, people also bring a myriad of talents to the table. Many people are familiar with Gallup/Clifton’s Strength Finders. The 34 strengths in this model, which include things such as Achiever, Relator, Includer and Developer, are people’s transferable talents – the things they naturally do well, and perhaps have developed over time with attention and practice.

The outer circle is our skills and knowledge which is what we have learned and acquired through training and experience.

By identifying what people are already good at, they can tackle their challenges through that lens: If they are a very strong Relator, how can they use that talent to find a solution to their current problem? The power of this approach is that not only are people bringing their “A” game, but they are efficiently using their energy by using strengths that they can access almost effortlessly.   

Character Strengths

Both of these strengths models are effective as development tools. Working from a person’s values, or character strengths is the most meaningful because they are simply being themselves. Using character strengths is the way people show the world who they really are at their best; it’s authentic, energizing, and creates the conditions for great performance.  You can find out more about the 24 universal character strengths and take a quick, free quiz to find out yours.

So how else can we leverage strengths in the workplace? Using them in employee development is an obvious fit: if everyone is doing their best work, the impact on organizational outcomes will be significant. But beyond that, infusing a strengths-lens into the workplace can support many areas of organizational development.  While this is not an exhaustive list, here are three areas where applying character strengths can benefit both employees and organizations.


Using their character strengths means employees feel confidence, pride, and are enthusiastic and self-motivated to do their work: the very definition of an engaged employee.   Take love of learning as an example. If this is a top strength, an employee will be intrinsically motivated/engaged in their work if they are learning new things. If someone has a strength of perspective, they will be engaged when they are able to apply a strategic, high-level lens to their work. There are many aspects to employee engagement, but engagement from being intrinsically motivated means employees are not at the mercy of external rewards to keep them involved in their work.

Think about a time when you were absolutely at the top of your game, engaged, and really proud of what you were doing. Now think about what strengths you were using during that time. Guaranteed, at least one of your signature strengths were in use.

Resilience during Change

One of the great things about strengths is that they not only propel employees forward to greater performance, they can also help them to stay engaged when things are not going well. Strengths help employees navigate difficult situations and build the resiliency to bounce back faster after setbacks. If an employee is experiencing a lot of uncertainty at work because of transformational change, with a signature strength of courage, they can keep the uncertainty from turning into anxiety. Curiosity can be applied to the unknown to stay engaged by maintaining an open and non-judgmental lens on the situation. As I wrote in the A Roadmap to Resilience during Transformational Change, using our strengths means bringing our “A” game to a tough situation. 

It’s worth noting that character strengths are part of the Penn Resiliency Program, which has been widely used by the United States Army as part of their Master Resilience Training program for Soldiers since 2009.


Much has been written on the value of authenticity in leaders. We are no more authentic than when we act in alignment with what’s important to us, show the world who we are, and that we are proud of it.  As mentioned above, using our strengths also increases our personal resiliency; essential for leaders to achieve peak performance regardless of what is happening. It also supports a positive mindset, which allows them to better support their teams, and stay focused on what’s possible regardless of obstacles they encounter.

A strengths approach is easily woven into existing talent management and other employee programs. It tells employees “what so great about you”, instead of “what’s wrong with you”.  From CEO to summer student – everyone should know their strengths and intentionally check-in with themselves that they are using them to do their best work and to be resilient. It’s easy – it’s who you already are.

So go ahead and plug those leaks, but make sure you put the wind in your sails.


Originally published on LinkedIn February 20, 2017 by Linda Hills.

Linda Hills is the Director, Learning and Leadership Development at University of Toronto.