As a consultant and master trainer who specialises in assessing and developing people’s potential, clients often ask me to help them select the best tool to support their leadership or people development initiatives.
These can be high-stakes choices because the client is preparing to invest significant resources to address challenges or accelerate their future leaders. In most cases, assessment is a core component of the programme, so getting this right can be key to success. The same goes for coaches and consultants who need to stay abreast of the most effective methodologies and learn how to use them to get results for their clients.
If you are looking for an assessment that acts as a platform for ongoing development, identifying people’s strengths is a great place to start.
A strengths approach can make a critical difference to engagement and performance in people and is a powerful building block for a thriving culture. For example, a global study by the Corporate Leadership Council of almost 20,000 people found that when managers encouraged people to focus on their strengths, performance rose a massive 36%. When they focused on weaknesses, performance dropped by nearly 27%.
While everyone has strengths, not everyone is clear what their strengths are and how to capitalise on them. Critically for organisations, neither are their managers or HR leaders. Incorporating strengths assessment into leadership, coaching, performance management or recruitment can reveal untapped potential and help get the best from people.
Evaluating strengths tools
We recently reviewed the four major strengths tools, StrengthsFinder 2.0®, Values-in-Action (VIA) Inventory, Strengths Profile (Formerly R2 Strengths Profile), and Strengthscope®, which all vary in the way they define and measure strengths, their applicability for the workplace or other contexts, and the level of scientific scrutiny behind them. These are all excellent instruments, supported by positive psychology research.
So which do you use? Here’s how Strengths Profile, the most recent strengths profiling tool which integrates the latest research, stacks up against other assessments.
To review Strengths Profile we’ll apply a set of criteria that many consultants and businesses can use to evaluate assessment and development tools.
- Measurement. What does the tool measure? What does it not measure?
- Rigour. What is the reliability, validity and scientific scrutiny behind the tool?
- Context. What situation and domain is it suitable for? Work or whole life?
- Delivery. What types of reports are available?
- Cost. What costs are involved in administering and using the tool?
- Scalability. How versatile is the tool? Can it be used systemically throughout the organisation?
- Ease of use. Is it simple for participants, coaches, trainers and managers to use? What is required to support implementation within the organisation?
- Applicability. How does it fit the business needs, goals and people? Does it align with other frameworks and tools?
- Effectiveness. How effective is it in developing people? Can people easily use and recall results day to day?
- Experience. How engaging is the experience and learning?
For some, cost will be more important, for others the extent to which the tool can be used to develop people and produce results will be the biggest factor. For me, when I am evaluating assessment tools, I look first at what it is designed to measure and the science that sits behind it. This is really important because there are a lot of tools on the market that don’t stand up to scrutiny, haven’t been peer reviewed, or were designed before new data became available. Also, at the Langley Group everything we teach is based on science and we want to encourage our clients to make decisions informed by the research, so this is a decisive factor for me.
Strength Profile is a dynamic, context-sensitive tool that measures strengths across three dimensions – performance, energy and use. How well you do something, how much energy it gives you and how often you use it. In doing so, it distinguishes behaviours that yield high performance yet may in fact be draining. It also reveals strengths that are less used and can be an area of growth potential. While frequently used strengths can be easily understood as core qualities, others can emerge in different situations. These more nuanced distinctions provide a fluid set of realised strengths, unrealised strengths, learned (or de-energising) behaviours and weaknesses.
The Strengths Profile also draws from a set of 60 strengths, the most available in any tool. Earlier tools list strengths hierarchically, highlighting the top five (StrengthsFinder, VIA Inventory) or seven (Strengthscope) from a pool of 24 to 34 strengths (see the full review for more details). Results in the other tools tend to change little over contexts and time, particularly VIA Inventory, which measures character strengths, relatively stable or trait-like qualities.
I’ve found that people are really interested in the energy piece, particularly as we are increasingly under pressure to do more with less and stay motivated. Managing our energy is really critical and strengths are an authentic way to access this. Strengths Profile is the only tool that pinpoints the energy behind strengths.
StrengthScope, a 360 tool, does measure energising strengths, yet I’m not convinced how well this can be done. In my experience, if observers such as the person’s manager or team don’t know how to spot the energy behind strengths, they are not really in a position to report on how energising the activity is to the person. Often people get it wrong.
One client came into a session I was running with a profile that showed an enormous amount of de-energising behaviours. His team said they didn’t see him this way at all. After flagging my concern later with the HR manager, she said he was on their talent programme. “He was performing really well, then we moved him into another area so we could give him more responsibility, get him to try something different and be stretched,” she said. “And now it’s just not working.“ So she was thinking of taking him off the talent pool. After a few more questions she realised that she had put him into a role that didn’t make use of his energising strengths. Later, she moved him back into his former role and he was reinvigorated, bouncing back to previous levels of performance.
Strengths Profile is supported by robust reliability and validity studies, and informed by a deep body of theoretical and empirical research. The methodology has been peer reviewed and the researchers behind Strengths Profile, Alex Linley, Robert Biswas-Diener and others, are widely respected. While VIA Inventory is more widely known and used in research contexts, Strengths Profile (available since 2009) is being used more and more in strengths intervention studies in coaching, leadership and education contexts, demonstrating some effective wellbeing and performance outcomes.
While designed for use in the workplace, Strengths Profile offers a holistic lens. People find it easy to think about how their strengths apply at work, home and other areas of life, making it the richest and most flexible tool for coaching and encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work.
StrengthsFinder and Strengthscope identify work-related strengths, so they do miss out opportunities for people to express themselves and grow in other domains. VIA is designed for multi-purpose use, and suits life and education best. Sometimes leaders in an organisation would rather not share how they want to develop their character strengths of Love or Spirituality. Strengths Profile takes a value-neutral approach. Each strength, like each person, is unique, so the focus is on how people can realise their unique strengths synergies to be the best they can be.
Strengths Profile is a self assessment conducted online. Introductory and Expert Reports are available for individuals, each detailing personal development strategies and suggestions for optimal strengths use. A Team Profile, identifying the strengths that exist across a team, can also be used to enhance team connectedness and performance and maximise opportunities for growth among individuals and collectively, the team. Tool author, Cappfinity, also offer an extended toolkit with a strengths-based platform for job seekers and other strengths recruitment tools.
StrengthsFinder only produces an individual self-report, although the new mini strengths tool StandOut, derived from Gallup research, has an online platform that can be used by individuals and their managers. Strengthscope has the broadest range with individual, 360 feedback, team, leadership and organisational reports. VIA Inventory have a variety of paid reports, including a team report.
Administering and using Strengths Profile offers value for money compared to many assessment tools. Cappfinity are a non-profit so they try to keep the tool as affordable and accessible as possible. Practitioner certification in Strengths Profile is less than half the price and time commitment of StrengthsFinder. VIA Inventory is free (although fuller reports are available at cost) and doesn’t require training, so that’s a great option if you don’t have budget, as long as you are aware of some of the limitations.
Strengths Profile really comes into its own when employed systematically across an organisation. Highly versatile, it can be used with individuals and teams and integrated in areas such as leadership development, teamwork, job crafting, recruitment, talent selection, performance management and career conversations. From identifying strengths that can help the organisation succeed, through to recruiting, onboarding and developing people from graduate level to the most senior positions, Strengths Profile can be used to unlock performance and potential. The assessment can be taken multiple times, for example every six months or every year. The dynamic nature of this tool really shows how people grow and change as they move through different contexts and career stages.
Professional certification and training of internal coaches, human capital team members and key leaders gives organisations the capability to integrate a strengths approach at all levels. This enables you to debrief the tool with individuals and teams, hold strengths-based conversations, run strengths sessions and integrate strengths approaches into areas such as performance appraisals, talent management systems and recruitment. This allows you to bring strengths to life as part of your culture and gain significant savings. With my clients I find developing a critical depth of people who know how to work with the tool ensures there is always someone available to conduct debriefs or show people how to get the most from their strengths.
Ease of use
Participants, coaches and managers find the information Strengths Profile produces a rich resource. Some tools are simpler to understand and use at the start, yet may not provide much ongoing insight and therefore lose traction. Results of individual and team profiles need to be explored during a structured debrief to help people understand their strengths and apply them to achieve their goals. The great news is that each subsequent conversation produces deeper insights and people find opportunities to use their strengths in different situations to become more effective.
If you are rolling out Strengths Profile in an organisation it’s also really important to teach managers how to hold strengths-based conversations. A strengths approach is very different from the usual way of managing people around their performance and development. Usually managers say, “Here are your strengths, here are your development opportunities, now let’s focus on the development opportunities.” Using a strengths approach informed by Strengths Profile, managers say, “Here are your strengths, here are your weaknesses. If those weaknesses pose a risk in your role, let’s minimise that and get you to improve a bit in that area. The rest of the time, let’s focus on your strengths!”
As with all assessment tools, it’s the quality of those conversations and connecting people to new ways of applying their learning every day that makes the difference.
It’s important to consider how well a particular strengths tool fits the needs of the business and people and aligns with other frameworks. Our clients find Strengths Profile flexible in that respect. As people’s profiles are so individualised, it doesn’t really clash with leadership frameworks. People are encouraged to use their core strengths to develop desired competencies or behaviours, allowing them to tap into more authentic and intrinsic capacities to that end.
Clients are often keen to get strengths-based feedback from managers, peers and direct reports through a 360 degree process, such as Strengthscope. Sometimes they also want to measure feedback through another tool, and in this case two 360 tools may be overkill, especially if several surveys are being conducted in the organisation. Informal feedback, especially when people know how to spot strengths in others, can be as effective when combined with Strengths Profile assessment at an individual, and perhaps team level.
The other thing to consider goes back to context. Will the language of the strengths suit participants? Generally our clients love Strengths Profile for this reason. In some contexts, such as when you are working with children, people from diverse cultures or non-English speaking backgrounds, or where a formal assessment isn’t appropriate, VIA can be more accessible. In schools we often mix both tools: Strengths Profile to help schools leaders, teachers and staff work at their best together, and VIA to help students and parents develop character.
It can depend on your objectives. Do you want your future leaders to become more versatile and accelerate to the next level? Do you know people are experiencing burnout and need to be re-engaged with more work they love? In both cases Strengths Profile is the tool for you.
Perhaps the ultimate question is how well a strengths tool helps people develop, as awareness is only the first step. Again, Strengths Profile is designed with development and a growth mindset in mind. The Strengths Profile development model guides people to marshal realised strengths by using them appropriately for your situation and context, use learned behaviours in moderation and only when you need to, minimise the impact and risk of weaknesses and use them only where necessary, and find opportunities to maximise unrealised strengths and use them more.
It can be tempting for people to think of their strengths as fixed qualities and therefore not amenable to change. Yet we know from recent developments in neuroscience and psychology that our brains, personalities and identities are potentially more fluid than we thought. Strengths Profile is very effective at helping people identify and work with their potential at a granular level.
Our clients and the coaches and consultants we teach say they love using Strengths Profile. Of all the tools I have evaluated across many spectrums, I would say it is the most positive and engaging. Aside from all the wonderful things people feel when discovering and talking about their strengths (a benefit that can be gained from any good strengths tool), they really appreciate that it doesn’t label people. They don’t feel put in a box, such as some personality profiles or those that use coloured quadrants. And, instead of focussing on a few key strengths, they can explore a full spectrum of attributes and find creative ways to play to them every day.
When we work with teams, learning about other people’s strengths can be eye-opening and fun. When the whole room brings their strengths together to plan how they will achieve a shared goal, allocating tasks based on strengths, and building complementary partnerships, the energy is truly remarkable. And so are the results.
If you would like to use Strengths Profile or become certified, find out about our suite of offerings. For a more detailed comparison of the four strengths tools see our previous article.