Focus on Your Team's Strengths to Build Better Teams
Most managers struggle to handle their tasks, and those of their team members, in a way that makes the most of everyone's skills and abilities. Maybe you're one of them!
For example, let's say you have to compile data for a key report, but data has never been your specialty.
Chances are, someone else in your team has precisely the skills you need – and they'd jump at the chance to put them to good use. Strengths-based leadership can help both of you to achieve your goals.
In this article, we explore how you can use this approach to develop yourself and your team members. We also examine its benefits and drawbacks, and see how it can make you a more effective leader.
What Is Strengths-Based Leadership?
Strengths-based leadership is the ability to identify and make the best use of your own and your team members' strengths.
Of course, this doesn't mean that you, or your team, should avoid learning new skills. But you should feel able to delegate tasks that you're not so good at to others who are more skilled or experienced.
In their 2009 book, "Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow," workplace consultants Tom Rath and Barry Conchie argue that the most successful teams possess a broad range of abilities. When you know each of your team members' key strengths, you can apply them in a way that benefits the team as a whole.
Why Is Strengths-Based Leadership Important?
A strengths-based approach can benefit your leadership and your team's performance in several ways.
First, admitting that you need help, and accepting it from your team members, promotes not only effective delegation, but also a consensual or "laissez-faire" leadership style. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and it enables you to concentrate on what you do best.
Sharing responsibility can also stimulate creativity, innovation, and a sense of mastery and purpose within your team. When you recognize your team members' strengths, you show them that you trust their abilities. As a result, they'll likely feel more confident to speak up and express their own ideas. They'll build expert power, which can further enhance their motivation and self-worth.
Strengths-based leadership can increase team engagement and job satisfaction. A survey by Gallup found that only one percent of employees become disengaged if their managers actively focus on their strengths, while 40 percent become disengaged if their key skills are ignored.
What's more, a strengths-based approach encourages you to hire people based on their individual abilities and aptitudes, not just because their skills and experience are similar to yours. This can lead to greater team cohesion, as team members complement one another rather than compete for the same "territory." It can also produce a more diverse team, with a wider range of strengths, skill sets, attitudes, and cultural values.
See our article on Job Crafting for more information on the benefits of tailoring jobs to individuals' skills and preferences.
The Risks of Strengths-Based Leadership
Despite the benefits outlined above, the strengths-based leadership approach does have some potential downsides.
First, encouraging people to only focus on their strengths can limit their opportunities to grow. Sometimes, pushing your team members to venture into unfamiliar territory can help to reveal skills they never knew they had. Be careful that focusing on individual talents and strengths doesn't cause you to overlook important knowledge or skills gaps.
You can also risk typecasting or "pigeonholing" your team members. As a result, your team members may become bored, frustrated, or resentful that others are developing new areas of expertise, while they aren't. Alternatively, your team members may become too comfortable, and therefore less creative and innovative.
Sometimes, strong team cohesion can lead to groupthink, where team members with dissenting views don't speak up because they don't want to go against the consensus.
This problem can extend to "hiring for fit," where you only bring in people who think like you and have similar opinions, rather than people who bring genuine cultural add.
In some cases, focusing on individual strengths may reduce team cohesion and effectiveness. If everyone "leads" in their own area, you might struggle to define the team's overall objectives.
What are the Key Strengths and Weaknesses for Teams and Leaders?
If you adopt the strengths-based leadership approach in your team, it's important to cover the full range of "soft" skills, as well as the technical and operational abilities that are required to get the job done.
Rath and Conchie identify four broad groupings that combine to produce strong leadership and effective team performance:
- Executing: the ability to get things done. A good executor is skilled at arranging and controlling tasks, events and people. They are consistent, focused, and prepared to take responsibility for jobs.
- Influencing: the strength to "sell," influence or persuade others to support ideas, projects, tasks, attitudes, or organizational approaches.
- Relationship building: the ability to encourage people to work together toward a common goal or ambition.
- Strategic thinking: a strategic thinker is skilled at analyzing information, seeing links and connections, and thinking both inside and outside the box.
How to Apply Strengths-Based Leadership
The first step to using strengths-based leadership effectively is to take a step back and assess your own strengths. What are you best at? What are your weaknesses?
The CliftonStrengths 2.0 online assessment (formerly StrengthsFinder) is another useful way to analyze and make the most of your individual strengths. CliftonStrengths 2.0 is a subscription-based assessment service accessed through the Gallup Access platform.
You also need to find out about your people's strengths. Once you have a clear idea of where the strengths lie, you can tailor their work to suit their unique skill sets. Listen carefully to what your team members talk about during performance reviews, particularly if they're keen to discuss a previously underdeveloped skill. Keep your finger on the team's pulse with Management By Wandering Around, and stay open to feedback on your own performance.
When hiring new talent, use Competency Based Interviewing to ensure that you get the perfect blend of skills and knowledge. Make sure that whoever you bring on board will cover any skill gaps in your team.
It can be daunting to manage people who have specialized knowledge, or who know more about some aspects of your work than you do. For more guidance on this, read our article, Managing a Team of Experts.
Strengths-based leadership focuses on recognizing what you and your team excel at, and delegating tasks to those who are strong in areas where you are weak.
Strengths can be grouped into four broad groups: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking.
A strengths-based leadership approach can improve your delegation skills, increase team diversity, and create a more consensual leadership style.
However, be careful not to ignore your team members' weaknesses. If left unchecked, they can undermine an otherwise cohesive team.
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