How Working With Strengths Can Improve Performance

Our strengths are those abilities we have that are hardwired into our ways of doing things. They are a combination of genetics we inherited and the environment in which we were raised. By the time we are adults some neural pathways are much more practiced than others. We have habitual ways of being and behaving that we find effortless: indeed almost irresistible. These, in essence, are our strengths. We might use them for good or evil, with or without much skill, but they are our go-to, default way of being in the world. While they can and frequently do get us into trouble when applied badly or inappropriately, they are also our greatest asset. And yet....


'This isn't development, it's damage control'

Many of us have been diligently working for years to get better at the things that we are bad at. Time after time the same things come up in the performance appraisal, 360 degree feedback or the personality profile, time after time we resolve ‘to work on our weaknesses’ In this we are in good company.


  •   87% of people believe that finding your weaknesses and fixing them is the best way to achieve outstanding performance. (Buckingham, 2007).


However as Buckingham says ‘this isn’t development, it’s damage control’. As someone with poor attention to detail, I live in fear of sending out incorrect invoices. My diligent attention to them, checking and double-checking is damage limitation indeed! And it takes me a disproportionate amount of time.


However, recent research suggests that we are wrong because:

  • Excellence is not the opposite of failure
  • Strengths are not the opposite of weaknesses
  • We will learn little about excellence by studying failure
  • We will learn little about our strengths by concentrating on our weaknesses
  • By studying our mistakes we will learn more about how we make mistakes
  • By studying our weaknesses we will learn more about ourselves at our worst
  • If we want to learn about success, we must study our successes
  • If we want to learn about our strengths we need to study ourselves at our best


Know your weaknesses

This isn’t to say that we don’t need to attend to our weaknesses, clearly we do. However we can be cleverer about how we do that. In an ideal scenario we fit the tasks to the strengths profile. My ideal bookkeeper (for my invoicing for instance) would be someone for whom attending to detail isn’t an anxiety-ridden, fraught activity where a mistake lurks undetected in every line, but is a delight, an engaging dance with perfection. While I emerge from the task with a sense of ‘fingers crossed’ they would emerge with a sense of ‘job well done’. (For those of you who are worrying about my ability to stay in business, I do now have an assistant who helps with the double-checking!). This of course is another way of dealing with weaknesses: getting help.


Invest your time where you get the best returns

With the time and emotional energy we save by not ‘working on our weaknesses’ we can concentrate on understanding and maximizing our strengths. The research demonstrates very clearly that excellence in individual and team performance is related to the awareness of, and exercise of, our strengths, on a daily basis.


  • People who get the chance to play to their strengths every day are 50% more likely to work in teams with a low turnover, 38% more likely to work in productive teams and 44% more likely to work in teams with higher customer satisfaction scores. (Buckingham and Clifton, 2002)
  • In high performing teams, people say they call on their strengths more than 75% of the time.



  • Only 17% of people use their strengths at work everyday. (Buckingham, 2007)


The jury is out – working on your strengths can help achieve great performance


More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.

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Buckingham, M. 2007 Go put your strengths to work, Simon and Schuster

Buckingham and Clifton,, 2002, Now discover your strengths. Free Press Business