The science of strengths is increasingly attractive to coaching professionals and organisations, spurred by scholarly research, popular books, and a growing range of strengths assessments and interventions.
The strengths approach at the heart of positive psychology represents a paradigm shift for many workplaces and people. Instead of focusing on weaknesses or what is wrong—the deficit model—focusing on strengths builds on what people do well and can do better. It is informed by an assumption that people naturally want to discover, grow and develop their potential and that their positive qualities can be harnessed to enhance performance and wellbeing.
While people often lack a clear language of strengths, many of us know to “play to our strengths”. Concepts of strengths have infused human history across many cultures. Aristotle extolled us to strive to “live in accordance with the best thing in us” if we want to attain a good life (in other words, to make best use of our strengths). Later, humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow promoted the pursuit of human potential, while early management gurus like Peter Drucker proposed that organisations identify and deploy strengths productively if they want to achieve results.
Since then, positive psychology scholars have looked at how strengths can be defined and measured as well as the benefits that using our strengths brings to individuals and workplaces (including higher performance, engagement, wellbeing and less stress). Strengths are now an integral part of the formula for human flourishing and workplace performance.
More recently, field leaders have urged practitioners to consider how strengths can be developed and used in different contexts to achieve optimal results.
This article explores the main strengths assessment and development tools that have arisen from this research, and highlights some of the themes in my upcoming book chapter, Working with Strengths in Coaching, in the SAGE Handbook of Coaching.
Our strengths can be understood as inner capabilities and resources that can be drawn on to achieve positive outcomes, or more specifically as attributes “that allow a person to perform well or at their personal best” (Wood et al., 2011).
People are often unaware of their strengths or don’t recognise them. What’s more, strengths can be latent until situations or experiences activate them (Lyons and Linley, 2008). A formal strengths assessment tool can help people identify their strengths and provide a common language to understand them. It also allows data to be easily quantified and compared across groups of people.
There is evidence that simply knowing your strengths is beneficial (e.g. Govindji and Linley, 2007). Being able to effectively use and develop them is more important.
Strengths (like our DNA and even our personality) are far less static than many people think. They evolve, changing with context and role. Understanding this helps people adopt a Growth Mindset rather than a Fixed Mindset, a concept pioneered by Carol Dweck. She found that if people believe their basic qualities like intelligence or talent are static traits they don’t spend time developing and nurturing them.
Applying a developmental and contextual lens is more nuanced than the simple interventions advocated by early strengths methods and researchers. Instead of focussing on helping people identify their strengths and use them more, find opportunities to develop and use them wisely. Consider the whole person, including emerging strengths, shadow sides and weaknesses.
Working with a coach to understand how strengths can be purposely applied within their current context can be vital. Research by Roche and Hefferon (2013) shows that when people experience a structured debrief with a qualified coach after receiving a strengths assessment and report, it significantly deepens their self-awareness and confidence, and encourages them to set goals around their strengths and achieve them.
The four strengths tools
The four major strengths assessment and development tools that are linked to the research are StrengthsFinder 2.0®, Values in Action (VIA) Inventory, Strengths Profile (previously R2 Strength Profiler) and Strengthscope®. The tools vary in terms of how they define and measure strengths, their applications, and the level of scientific scrutiny that informs them.
Another tool sometimes mistaken for a strengths assessment, Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI), is not supported by positive psychology research and instead measures conflict and how motives drive behaviour.
Clifton Strengths Finder 2.0® is used extensively in global organisations, especially in the United States. Developed in 2001 by researchers at Gallup, the tool arose from empirical interviews in workplaces and academia that pinpointed recurring patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour (talents) associated with success.
Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton saw strengths as the result of natural talents refined by knowledge and skill, defining them as “the ability to produce consistent, near-perfect performance in an activity”. Their tool reflects this focus on high performance.
Strengths Finder 2.0 measures 34 strengths across talent themes to reveal a brief set of strengths (top 5) that are applicable in a work context. While the tool arises from research, it is not peer reviewed or used in empirical studies. Practitioner certification is required.
StandOut is a more recent and basic tool, which draws on the Gallup data and contemporary concepts of strength clusters. Buckingham developed it for easy use by individuals and teams at different levels of an organisation.
The Values in Action Inventory (VIA) is the most rigorously researched model and has been a cornerstone in advancing positive psychology’s understanding of strengths. Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman, conducted extensive cross-cultural and historical research to identify a taxonomy of positive traits or “character strengths” that define human virtue. These were published in Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), providing a positive counterbalance to the diagnostic manual of mental illness, the DSM.
Peterson and Seligman observed that “signature” (or top five) strengths convey a sense of ownership, authenticity and vitality, promoting people to feel a yearning and intrinsic motivation to act in line with these strengths. While character strengths are relatively stable, they can be developed and are considered malleable over time.
The VIA Survey produces a ranked list of 24 character strengths and highlights the top five. Lesser strengths can also be developed. As each are universally valued, some consider it a goal to develop them all.
The tool is designed for multiple purposes and is typically used in life, educational and academic domains. It can be used in workplaces, although character strengths such as Love can make it harder to readily link strengths to business contexts. The basic version is free online and a more comprehensive paid report is available.
It is supported by robust reliability and validity studies and published in several languages. There is also a version for children between 12 and 14.
Strengthscope® draws on the research about the energising nature of strengths, identified by Peterson and Seligman. Developed in 2006 by James Brook and Paul Brewerton, Strengthscope identifies energising strengths and talents at work.
Brook and Brewerton define strengths as ways of thinking, feeling and expressing emotions that lead to exceptional performance and energise or strengthen us.
Strengthscope identifies underlying qualities that energise us and we are great at (or have potential to become great at), which contribute to our personal growth and lead to peak performance. Drawing from a set of 24 strengths, the assessment highlights the top 7 significant strengths as well as “bubbling under” strengths.
The only 360-degree strengths profiling tool among these, Strengthscope also offers an individual, team, leadership and organisational report.
The tool has undergone some independent testing for validity and reliability, and is not peer reviewed.
Strengths Profile (formerly R2) is a dynamic, context-sensitive strengths assessment that incorporates the latest research. Designed by Alex Linley and his team at Cappfinity in 2009, this next generation tool is unique and distinct from one-dimensional strengths tests by assessing three dimensions of energy, performance and use.
According to Linley, the energising nature of strengths is key to understanding what makes them intrinsically motivating and sustaining as some behaviours may yield high performance yet may in fact be draining. He differentiates a strength as: “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (2008). He also recognises that some strengths may be more frequently used than others, and that discovering less used or emerging strengths can reveal untapped areas of growth and potential. A further refinement is the degree to which strengths use can be regulated by “dialing up” or “dialing down” a strength to suit the situation or goal.
The Strengths Profile measures 60 strengths to provide a comprehensive set of realised strengths, unrealised strengths, learned (or de-energising) behaviours and weaknesses. The report also outlines a development framework with proactive strategies to marshal realised strengths, moderate learned behaviours, minimse weaknesses and maximise unrealised strengths.
By showing performance as well as areas of potential growth, burnout and weakness, Strengths Profile is an ideal tool for coaching, development and career transition. Highly versatile, it can be used with individuals and teams and integrated holistically by organisations at all levels in areas such as leadership development, teamwork, job crafting, recruitment, talent selection, performance management and career conversations.
Like the VIA, it is supported by robust reliability and validity studies and is increasingly used in empirical strengths intervention studies. Practitioner certification is recommended and required for those wanting to use the Team Profile.
Choosing the right strengths tool
At Langley Group we use Strengths Profile in most of our coaching and development work because it reveals the energy behind strengths and areas of potential, allowing people to have a realistic conversation about weaknesses while exploring a rich symphony of strengths and ways to change and grow. We are also the only licensed master trainer, qualified by Cappfinity, to certify practitioners across Asia-Pacific.
We also use VIA in some of our programmes as it offers simple and economical ways to work with people, especially in schools. StrengthsFinder and Strengthscope are also great tools, and can be applied with subtlety.
Whichever tools you decide to use, make sure you understand the research behind them and how to apply them.
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T.B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6: 106–18.
Brook, J., & Brewerton, P. (2006). Strengthscope Technical Manual. London: Strengths Partnership.
Francis, S. & Zarecky, A. (2016, in press). Working with Strengths in Coaching. In T. Bachkirova, D.B. Drake & G. Spence (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Coaching. SAGE.
Govindji, R., & Linley, P. A. (2007). Strengths use, self-concordance and well-being: Implications for strengths coaching and coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(2), 143–153.
Linley, P.A. (2010). Realise2: Technical Report. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.
Linley, P.A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.
Lyons, L.S., & Linley, P.A. (2008). Situational strengths: A strategic approach linking personal capability to corporate success. Organisations and People, 15: 4–11.
Niemiec, R.M. (2013). VIA Survey or StrengthsFinder? Psychology Today, December 17.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press.
Roche, B., & Hefferon, K. (2013). The assessment needs to go hand-in-hand with the debriefing: The importance of a structured coaching debriefing in understanding and applying a positive psychology strengths assessment. International Coaching Psychology Review, 8: 20–34.
Wood, A.M., Linley, P.A., Maltby, J., Kashdan, T.B., & Hurling, R. (2011). Using personal and psychological strengths leads to increases in well-being over time: A longitudinal study and the development of the strengths use questionnaire. Personality and Individual Differences, 50: 15–19.