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Recently I was invited to deliver a workshop for a new client organisation, “Using Your Strengths in Your Professional Development”, to stimulate a group of staff to engage differently and more deeply with their careers. I was recommended for this work following a workshop I gave for independent coaches “Using your Strengths to Attract the Work You Love”, earlier in the year.

Although I was working with my love of strengths and a significant expertise using strengths with individuals, I found a lot more challenge in the delivery of the in-house workshop. This got me thinking. What was different? How did the context alter things? What else was going on? How did the fact that the people in the room were connected to each other influence the learning and the outcomes?

On reflection, I noticed there were many factors at play in the organisational setting. In this particular case, there was a climate of worthwhile purpose, public service and duty. There was a high proportion of long serving members of staff, some nearing the end of their careers. There was a high emphasis on fitting in and being part of a team. The usual pressure and impact on morale from cuts and reduction in headcount was present. Also a strong culture of command and control. I found it quite hard to get them to engage with the idea of what energised them and brought them alive at work. It took time.

This got me thinking about the range of organisations I have worked with in recent years, and some of the current management challenges. How we say we want the best from people, for them to be able to bring their best selves to work, believing this to be the route to achieve performance at work. Yet sometimes we damp down and press people into a standard fit, or standard product. The reasons for this may vary – treating people as individuals is too time consuming, or, we are under so much pressure we don’t have the time to get to know our staff very well, or, we know they are only temporary, or, we believe they will never change.

I wonder though, if the most common reason that we press people into a standard fit is that our own experience lacks having had a manager who has truly asked us about our strengths, in a way that clearly wants to value them. We have lacked the experience of a manager who has actively spotted and ignited our strengths, encouraged us to use them within our roles – in fact, demanded that our strengths show up at work. Without having been on the receiving end of such positive role modelling, it can be hard to behave this way with those we influence each day.

I can think of examples where the prevailing management culture discourages the use of strengths or limits their use. Cultures where if as an individual, you decide to go for the strengths approach, it’s seen as a career limiting choice. These examples include public service organisations where bureaucracy and rule following have interfered with using the strengths of creativity and initiative.  NGOs which often have a huge commitment to fairness and equality having difficulty seemingly compromising these strengths with authority requirements from stakeholders – not only funders but tribe leaders they need to influence and engage with. Commercial organisations which discourage staff from taking the time to work collaboratively and truly create win:win solutions with clients, to meet their own profitability targets faster. Learning institutions where adherence to the structure interferes with encouraging the joy of learning for its own sake, dumbing down the experience for everyone.

There are also other more positive examples, where managers and leaders actually do encourage the use of strengths, role model the way and give permission for individual differences to show up – and to show up in how goals are accomplished. Railways where requirements for safety are met in an explicit and honest way, and yet there is also an encouragement of using individual strengths as part of customer service and innovation. Headteachers who visibly role model active learning, as “Head Learners”, accepting feedback and giving permission for a non-linear, imperfect and yet authentic process. Senior leaders in technology companies demonstrating their own uniqueness in the use of their own strengths in storytelling and humour when communicating the company vision, their way. Recruitment of administrative assistants where the very weaknesses of the manager are sought as strengths from the member of staff – making it an explicit requirement to complement each other.

If the second set of examples appeal more to you, here’s a question to for you to consider:

How can you influence things so that people feel good about and permitted to use their strengths at work?

Given how much management culture can influence things, how can you work with your own power and hierarchy in the organisation, to encourage others to use their strengths effectively at work? You have more influence than you might think. And given that we all have power to influence things negatively, even if we are not senior, this is truly a question for us all.

In both the in-house workshops I described, what I found was, when I held the space for long enough and asked them what brought them alive, what they most liked to do, what they could not resist doing at work (all the typical strengths based questions) – shift did happen. With support and encouragement, they could tell me. They could “switch on”, ignite and be energised at work. It was exciting to see and to feel the mounting energy in the room. So it may be slow, and it may need active role modelling with real examples, but ignition is possible!

Which leads to another question:

When it’s necessary, how do you find the courage to go against the flow, to step outside of the safety of conformity and bring your own unique and powerful strengths to work?

To me this is really important, because when we do things in our own unique way, in my own experience, initially at least – it can feel exposing as well exhilarating and effective. So to have the courage to do it, it’s essential to know it’s truly valued, welcomed and wanted by those in charge – wanting the best both for you and from you – as well as the best results for the organisation.

So for me, the bottom line is this. I believe it is only when we, as managers, leaders and professionals, walk the talk – role model, employ and take some risks in the use of our strengths at work – that others will be truly believe it is safe to join in and ignite their strengths too.

Then we might all look as alive at work, as the beautiful flowers in the photo.

I’m curious – let me know your stories of walking the talk – of igniting, encouraging and role modelling strengths at work, and maybe even outside of work too!

Gill How

Helping leaders grow, step up and deliver outstanding results

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