Why You Should Focus on Your Strengths Instead of Weaknesses

by Justin Zackal

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
Strengths and weaknesses. Everybody has them. Whether or not your supervisor is aware of yours, you know when you're leveraging your strengths to succeed at work and when you're just toiling, despite your weaknesses, toward an adequate outcome. It's also wise to list your strengths and weaknesses as you prepare for job interview questions.

For many of us, especially higher education professionals, our instinct is to analyze what's wrong and make corrections. But for our own development, this can be a waste of time.

"If you spend a majority of your time managing weaknesses, you're going to work really hard to become average," said Jay Killough, director of the Texas Tech University Career Center. "Nobody wants to work really hard to become average, versus strengths-building, which in theory, leads to success."

Texas Tech is one of more than 600 colleges and universities that uses CliftonStrengths, an online talent assessment test developed nearly 20 years ago by the Gallup Organization. Texas Tech purchases more than 4,000 CliftonStrengths access codes each year to help students identify their strengths, but the assessment is also voluntarily -- and widely -- used by Texas Tech faculty and staff.

During an hour-long assessment, participants view 177 paired statements and for each they choose which statement best describes them. Gallup then ranks, from a list of 34 themes, participants' top five themes (or strengths) based on their responses and provides them personalized insights so that participants can explain, understand, and identify their themes in their daily lives.

"It's a common language," said Killough, a certified Strengths-based educator whose themes are Woo, Activator, Positivity, Strategic and Input. "No day goes by without Strengths coming up in a staff meeting or in the classroom."

Introduced at Texas Tech by a former senior vice president, Michael Shonrock, who went on to become president at Lindenwood University, the Strengths program has become so much a part of the culture at Texas Tech that employees list their themes on their email signatures and office doors, and even on T-shirts and name plates provided by the university's Strengths Advocates Committee.

A former assistant professor at Texas Tech, Stacy Jacob brought the Strengths-based approach to Slippery Rock University (SRU) as an assistant professor of student affairs in higher education. She teaches from the book "Strengths Based Leadership" by Tom Rath and has graduate students in her higher education leadership course take the assessment. She also leads a Strengths professional development workshop each semester for SRU employees.

The workshop begins with attendees signing their name five times with their dominant hand and five times with their non-dominant hand. The exercise demonstrates how using their strengths comes naturally to people, resulting in an efficient process and a more polished product.

"That's the difference from working with a strength or a talent and working from a place that is a weakness," Jacob said. "In our work lives and in our leadership, when we work from our strengths, it's easy, but when we work from places that are harder for us, it takes more focus and time. Using strengths creates a better work product and better relationships."

The assessment provides an articulation of one's strengths that goes well beyond the binary left- or right-handedness, as 1 in 33.4 million people have the same top five themes in order. Additionally, the 34 themes are grouped into four domains: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking. People might not have any strengths from one of the four domains, which might be perceived as an area of weakness. But, using herself as an example, Jacob said that people can use their strengths from other domains to make up for a deficit from another domain.

None of Jacob's top five strengths are considered Influencing, but as the graduate coordinator for her department, she has to convince prospective students to enroll at SRU.

"As an academician, I have a strategic job, so I always feel like when people try to get me to sell ideas (as an influencer), I have to find other ways through that," said Jacob, who instead uses her Strategic Thinking and Relationship Building strengths, including her top theme, Connectedness.

"I try to work on how I connect with people (rather than a broad message). I know I'm good with the individuals when they come to our Interview Day, and I work on making personal connections, like writing notes, to show we are a personalized department and the way that we see them fitting in," continued Jacob. "It's thinking around how you might see your strengths in different ways or how you might use your strengths in conjunction with each other."

There are other ways that higher education professionals can apply their awareness of strengths. Supervisors can help their employees achieve department goals by assigning tasks based on their strengths, like Killough, whose associate director has a Responsibility theme. Employees, like those who attended the workshop at SRU, can identify new ways contribute to their organizations or advance their careers based on what they learned, whether it's an Arranger advising a student organization or a person with the Focus theme to keep an event planning committee on track.

The language used in the Strengths program is also useful when interviewing for jobs. When preparing college students for interviews, Killough said that the top responses he gets in response to questions such as "What are your strengths?" or "How are you going to be successful in this job?" are "I'm a hard-worker," "I'm a people-person," or "I'm highly organized."

"Strengths gives them more unique language," said Killough, who in his doctoral research found that students he surveyed were significantly more confident with career decision-making after taking the Strengths assessment, among other variables. "The same goes for higher ed professionals as they start interviewing at different universities. They are able to articulate themselves in a very specific way, accompanied with an example or a story based on a strength, which is very effective in confidence development and self-assuredness in an interview. That helps people get jobs."

Like many personal assessment tests, there are critics. Killough said that interpretation by an individual who buys in is important, because having a negative sense of self can have damaging effects and the intention is to discover what's right and what comes natural to someone.

"Some people complain that Strengths puts me in a box, then other people argue, Well, what other box would you rather be in?" Killough said. "Being your best self and focusing on those strengths can lead to positive outcomes if you let it be a positive tool for you."

And a tool to help you identify five new words on your email signature or name plate could very well improve the job title that goes with them.