How should organizational leaders focus their energy and resources in order to foster greater employee engagement? A sizeable body of research collected through a Gallup project proposes that the answer lies in investing in the strengths of a leader’s followers.
Effective leaders, they found, are aware of their own strengths and those of their employees. They recruit according to the strengths needed in their organization and know their followers well enough to meet their basic needs. These conclusions stemmed from an analysis of thousands of interviews with both organizational leaders and their followers over the course of a 30-year period. Tom Rath and Barry Conchie presented the data in greater detail in their 2009 book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow.
One finding that stands out in the research is the difference between businesses with and without a strengths-based approach. An emphasis on areas other than strengths produced a 9 percent employee engagement rate, while the opposite achieved a rate of 73 percent.
Implementing a strengths-based model can help leaders transitioning their business to the top of the employee engagement scale, among other findings. Here are a few suggestions on how to start the process and what to keep in mind along the way:
1. Identify and build upon strengths
Employees should aim to demonstrate their strengths to an organization’s leaders during the interview process and after being hired. However, not all employees know their strengths to start with. Additional one-on-one meetings about competencies can help reveal a lot, including those areas in which an individual is simply interested in gaining more strength. With that knowledge, leaders have the option of investing in an individual’s potential by providing extra training or education.
Sometimes, identifying one’s strengths becomes difficult because a leader or employee might be focused on particular strengths or skills. One remedy is to start by looking a little more broadly and in more general categories, such as the four outlined by Rath and Conchie in Strengths Based Leadership:
- Executing: Executors know how to lead and are driven by results. These employees have the ability to stay focused while managing project details, and they rarely feel the need to delegate. Time management is another key feature for these types of staff members.
- Influencing: Influencers are often those with the strength to sell products or ideas. They achieve success both within the customer base and the internal organization. Self-confidence and communication are two of the biggest traits of such employees.
- Relationship building: An employee who excels in building relationships facilitates the progress of a company toward its collective goals. The ability to work with others is a strength among these people, who generally possess emotional intelligence and good listening skills.
- Strategic thinking: Strategic thinkers can often find connections and correlations where others cannot. Analysts are usually the more creative employees who are more concerned with ideas than task details.
Placing employees into one of these groups, especially in conversation together, will allow them to focus on their strengths and provide a platform for setting goals and moving forward. In addition, leaders will be able to better organize their businesses. For example, an employer might balance a team of engineers based on their strengths so that they can learn from one another and progress together.
2. Encourage employees to hold the same focus
When employees know that their leader values their strengths and wants the team to do what they do best, a natural extension is to encourage the same mindset among the entire organization. In this way, the leader motivates his employees to become leaders themselves. Recognizing and appreciating the talents and skills of others can go viral throughout a company or organization.
3. Don’t overlook areas that need improvement
A strengths-based approach is not without its weaknesses. Applying the four-group strategy for identifying individuals’ strengths can potentially lead to pigeonholing people. This happens when workers receive tasks based solely on their strengths, and yet, while they may produce at high levels, they likely miss out on opportunities for self-improvement in other areas. Flexibility with assignments, then, is a good way to help employees to stay engaged and enable them to discover or hone new strengths.
Without flexibility, a company may still succeed in some ways, but the reality is that employees can burn out without the opportunity to challenge themselves in new ways. Thus, while a strengths-based approach is a viable and functional model, organizational leaders must also seek out a healthy balance.
Another potential issue involves ignoring employees’ weaknesses. If an employee has a weakness that no one knows about, a team could be forced to improvise and potentially miss a deadline or quota. In addition, organizational leaders should be aware of skill or talent gaps, and these issues must be addressed as such.