Embracing a strengths-based development approach 

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Do you focus on faults or strengths? One approach can help improve engagement and productivity – Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook report

When a mistake or problem arises, how do you and your organisation typically react? A common response is what we would call the “dumping a pile of bricks” approach: coming down hard on the individual responsible, focusing intensely on the weakness or difficulty, and pouring resources into solving the problem. 

Employees who use their strengths daily are six times more likely to be engaged 

While this method can effectively address critical issues, it has significant downsides. For example, a manufacturer faced a major software problem before an important product launch. A vital software component failed, threatening to delay the launch for months.  

The company formed a taskforce, involving multiple suppliers and reworking schedules, to meet the original launch deadline. This “pile of bricks” approach succeeded in saving the company thousands of pounds by adhering to the timeline. However, it had long-term ramifications, including delaying other important work and not fully addressing the flawed processes that caused the issue, not to mention the official warning the software manager received and drop in morale in her team. 

A strengths-based approach to development asks: How do we use individual strengths to our best advantage and learn for the future? This method focuses on leveraging available strengths and resources instead of solely addressing weaknesses. While a weakness-focused approach might solve immediate problems, it doesn’t fully utilise the strengths and potential within the organisation and cuts off development. 

Why focus on strengths? 

Traditional management and development methods often emphasise fixing weaknesses. However, research by Gallup shows that employees who use their strengths daily are six times more likely to be engaged. Embracing a strengths-based approach offers valuable benefits: 

  • Boosted engagement and productivity: Employees feel more motivated and productive when their unique talents are valued. 
  • Enhanced collaboration: Teams that appreciate each other’s strengths become more cohesive, leading to better problem solving and innovation. 
  • Stronger company culture: A strengths-based environment fosters a sense of belonging and purpose, reducing turnover and attracting talent. 

Applying strengths to the workplace 

A strengths-based approach can be applied in many workplace decisions, such as project teams, performance development, delegation, and problem solving. 

  • Performance development can be improved by leveraging an employee’s organisational contribution during performance reviews. For example, delegation can be facilitated by a manager with a strategic thinking strength, allowing them to focus on big-picture initiatives. 
  • Problem solving can be encouraged through brainstorming sessions that leverage individual strengths, such as analytical thinking or idea creation. 
  • By better understanding strengths and making the most of all contributions, teams can better tackle challenges and achieve better results. 

Addressing common concerns 

Such a turnaround in thinking about performance and development takes time. Here are some common questions that are likely to come up: 

  • What about weaknesses? Strengths-based approaches don’t ignore weaknesses. By focusing on strengths, employees can find ways to overcome weaknesses and improve overall performance. A balanced approach is called for and significant weaknesses must be tackled head-on. 
  • Does this abdicate responsibility? No, it involves joint discussion and ownership of issues, ensuring all tasks are completed effectively. 
  • Is this rigorous enough? Yes, a strengths-based approach systematically identifies strengths, sets goals, aligns strengths with tasks, tracks progress, and provides ongoing feedback. 

Building a strengths-based culture: A step-by-step guide 

Putting far greater emphasis on strengths is a significant shift for many organisations. Indeed, it may be too big for some. Certainly, implementing a strengths-based approach requires a solid plan.  

Here’s an organisational roadmap as a guide: 

  1. Secure leadership buy-in: Engage leaders in exploring the benefits of a strengths-based approach, emphasising its positive impact on engagement, performance and retention. Leadership support is crucial for success. This is an essential step and needs full buy-in, so may take months to achieve and involve discussions and workshops. 
  1. Develop a strengths language: People need to be much clearer about their own and others’ strengths and capabilities. Establish a common vocabulary around strengths using tools like the Strengths Deployment Inventory or CliftonStrengths to define core strengths within your organisation. 
  1. Implement a strengths framework: L&D plays a central role in establishing a strengths framework: 
  • Strengths identification: Facilitate workshops or assessments for employees to discover and articulate their strengths. 
  • Strengths appreciation: Create a culture of encouragement by recognising and celebrating strengths. 
  • Strengths development: Integrate strengths development into the full range of training programmes, providing opportunities for employees to practise and hone their strengths. 
  1. Integrate strengths into HR and L&D processes: 
  • Recruitment: Focus on identifying candidates whose strengths align with job requirements and company culture. 
  • Performance management: Incorporate strengths into performance reviews and goal setting for a more positive and productive process. 
  • Teamwork: Build teams based on individual strengths to maximise collaboration, productivity and innovation. 
  1. Maintain momentum: 
  • Regular conversations and recognition: Encourage ongoing discussions about leveraging strengths and implementing recognition programmes. 
  • Leadership development: Train leaders in strengths-based coaching and leadership practices. 
  • Consistent effort: Continuously reinforce the importance of strengths and provide ongoing support to sustain a strengths-based culture. 

Practical management actions 

L&D must support managers in tangible ways. In practical terms, managers can foster a strengths-based culture through the following activities: 


  • Strengths assessments: Use strengths assessments to understand new recruits’ capabilities and preferences, integrating them effectively into the team. 

Set an example 

  • Share stories: Share personal strengths stories and encourage team members to do the same. Normalise conversations about strengths and weaknesses. 

Align strengths with roles 

  • Task assignment: Assign tasks and projects that align with individual strengths to enhance well-being and productivity. 

Build team cohesion 

  • Recognise strengths: Identify and acknowledge the strengths of each team member to foster collaboration and team strength. 

Initiate discussions about strengths development 

  • Regular discussions: Have regular conversations about strengths development during coaching, feedback sessions, and performance reviews. 

Personal actions 

  • Seek feedback: Regularly seek feedback on your own strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Share learnings: Share your strengths stories and learning experiences with your team. 

Next steps for L&D and HR professionals  

Implementing a strengths-based approach to management and development reshapes our thinking about development and collaboration. It requires commitment, continuous effort, and a culture that values and nurtures individual strengths, ultimately driving success across the board. L&D and HR must play a proactive role in what could turn out to be a substantial and positive shift in the company. 

Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development  
Sarah Cook is MD at the Stairway Consultancy  

Steve Macaulay

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