Forget the performance management approaches of old. A strengths-based leadership approach empowers employees and helps businesses thrive. By Angela Tufvesson
Traditional methods of performance management focus on weaknesses and areas for improvement, but a growing body of research reveals that focusing on what’s strong rather than what’s wrong empowers leaders and workers. The result? A positive workplace culture, increased productivity, better staff retention and, ultimately, an improved financial bottom line. This approach is what psychologists call ‘strengths-based leadership’, and it’s just as effective in smaller businesses as it is in large corporates. Here’s why strengths-based leadership works and how to implement it in your practice.
From the top
Strengths-based leadership is a management strategy that prioritises employees’ strengths above their shortcomings. It focuses on what employees do well—not what’s lacking or needs ‘fixing’—and cultivates a workplace that maximises opportunities to put those strengths into practice.
“Strengths-based leadership gives autonomy and empowerment to teams and builds a culture of trust, support and safety where everyone can thrive, as opposed to traditional leadership strategies that can be based on control and command,” says leadership consultant Nicole Toohey.
Identifying and leveraging intrinsic motivators—factors that naturally lead employees to experience high levels of engagement and satisfaction like an enjoyment of learning or sense of autonomy—is also a key focus, says business psychologist Leisa Molloy from Flourishing Minds Consulting.
“As you can imagine, these principles are significantly different from those that often underpin more traditional management approaches; for example, trying to improve performance by offering external rewards such as pay increases and promotions,” she says.
The strengths-based approach has its roots in positive psychology, the scientific study of human flourishing that seeks to identify the core components of a life well lived. Crucially, however, focusing on strengths doesn’t mean forgetting about shortcomings, especially in an organisational context. “It’s not about ignoring weaknesses, especially if these are critical or likely to make or break the success of the business,” says Molloy. Instead, she says strengths-based leadership approaches seek to find creative and non-traditional solutions to gaps in knowledge or ability.
A growing body of research shows strengths-based leadership offers a heap of benefits for employees and, by extension, employers. “One of the biggest benefits is that employees feel more valued and appreciated—not necessarily for the work they do, but for who they are at a deeper level,” says Molloy. “Being able to regularly use your strengths makes work feel more satisfying and more meaningful.”
This translates into better performance on the job and improved business outcomes. Indeed, evidence suggests teams that have the opportunity to leverage their strengths every day outperform teams that don’t.
“The impact on business is increased engagement, productivity and sustainable performance levels,” says Toohey. “For small business leaders, what’s noticeable is the development of a thriving culture and positive working relationships, and that these are fun places to work as teams are motivated and empowered to execute results.”
Dental business coach Ameena Basile from Dental Management Expertise says strengths-based leadership helps practices alleviate one the most common management bugbears: high staff turnover.
“What we find is when we focus on weaknesses performance declines and confidence diminishes, but when a leader cheers on an employee’s strengths they feel confident, excited and motivated,” she says.
“When we use a strengths-based leadership method, we create a happy work environment where everyone grows and everyone is engaged, and it really shows in the customer service that people provide and the bottom-line profitability of the practice.”
Finding your strengths
So what’s the best way to implement a strengths-based leadership approach in your practice? First, identify employees’ strengths. An annoying phenomenon called ‘negativity bias’—where we pay more attention to negative events than positive ones thanks to an evolutionary need to remain alert to danger—means they can be hard to spot, so look carefully.
Online tools like the VIA Character Strengths survey—which measures 24 different positive qualities—and the CliftonStrengths assessment, which is widely used in corporate and small business settings, can be helpful.
A less structured but simple way to focus on strengths is to begin observing and noticing how people work. “Look for times when your employees seem to be really energised or in a flow state,” says Molloy. “Notice their body language and look for those moments where they seemed really animated and excited. If whatever they’re doing is something they both enjoy and are good at, then there’s a good chance a core strength is at play.
“In contrast, pay attention to situations where people’s behaviour or body language seems a bit flat. These might be the moments when they really aren’t drawing upon any of their key strengths.”
Next, find ways for employees to use those strengths in their day-to-day activities. “If someone keeps talking about processes not being done properly but it’s not in their current role to make continuous improvement, let them make the changes in addition to their current role,” says Toohey.
Molloy says employees who enjoy independent research might enjoy searching for updates in best practice and sharing them with the team, while people who are especially empathetic could provide extra support when you’re working with difficult or upset patients.
And talking to employees about what they like doing after work or what they’ve done in previous roles outside their job description can help to identify a very broad range of strengths, says Basile.
“Someone might be a dental hygienist but then you come to know they have a really good marketing brain, so you can hone in on those skills and perhaps have them manage the practice’s social media,” she says.