A colleague recently posted a thought-provoking question to one of the online groups I’m a member of. She said:
‘My country, Lebanon, has been passing through a revolution for the past month. Many people have been asking me whether strengths react differently in crisis.’
As a career consultant (and strengths coach), I often ask myself how applicable the career theory I learned about in my professional training is applicable to countries that are less stable politically and economically than the UK. It’s all too easy to work in one’s own little cultural bubble and forget that things are very different elsewhere in the world. How would what I’ve learned about career theory and psychological strengths apply in a country that is in turmoil? Would I even be able to do the work I do if there was such severe economic and political unrest that there were no opportunities for people to find work? I myself would probably be out of a job.
My colleague’s question resonated with me, therefore, and I asked myself ‘How could an understanding of strengths help in times of social, political and economic crisis?’
One of the tools I use in my work is the CliftonStrengths assessment. This is an online psychometric tool that measures 34 themes of ‘talent’. Talents are one’s natural ways of thinking, feeling and doing. The assessment arose from several decades of research undertaken by Donald Clifton, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska and, subsequently, CEO of the Gallup Organisation.
Clifton was interested to find out what would happen if, rather than focussing on people’s weaknesses, and trying to fix them, people focussed instead on developing their strengths. His career was guided by the question: “What would happen if we studied what is right with people?”
He defined talents as ‘naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied’. They can be seen in moments in which one learns quickly; derives a sense of satisfaction from doing something; has a yearning to try out a particular activity; experiences a feeling of timelessness or being ‘in the flow’; or has a glimpse of excellence in performance and wonders “How did I do that?”
In simple terms, the 34 CliftonStrengths describe how each of our brains is ‘wired’. Coming back to my colleague’s question, I suspect that – generally speaking – people’s innate personalities won’t change hugely in significant national crisis. But the stress of the situation (like stress of any kind) could bring out either the best or the worst of their strengths.
I sensed that a further question my colleague was considering was whether, if people in her country could be taught what their strengths were, could this help them to cope more constructively with the precarious situation they find themselves in? Could greater understanding of themselves and others result in more compassion, respect and greater willingness to work together?
The principles of strengths-based development are worth mentioning here:
Principle 1: Themes are not labels.
The purpose of a strengths tool like CliftonStrengths is not to provide a method of labelling people but to generate understanding and appreciation of the diversity of people.
Principle 2: Themes are neutral.
Themes don’t make people great or terrible. It’s what people do with their themes that makes them great.
Principle 3: Differences are an advantage.
Differences are resources that can create an advantage when developed and used wisely.
Principle 4: People need one another
In relation to this principle, one might ask oneself:
• “What strengths do other people have that I appreciate and value?”
• “What strengths do I have that others might appreciate and value?”
• “How can we help each other?”
And perhaps crucially in a time of significant upheaval:
Principle 5: Lead with positive intent
How we think and feel about a person will affect our involvement and interaction with that person. If our thoughts and feelings about that person are primarily positive in nature, then our involvement and interaction will be primarily positive in nature. We can learn to think of others in terms of their strengths.
A couple of further points to keep in mind are:
- The 34 CliftonStrengths group together into four categories or ‘domains’: Relationship Building, Influencing, Strategic Thinking, and Executing. In times of conflict, it is important to ask oneself, “What is the best that my strengths could offer in this situation?” For example, the Relationship Building strength of Individualization could bring an appreciation of varying viewpoints; the Influencing Building strength of Woo could keep people connected; the Strategic Thinking strength of Context could remind us of approaches that have worked well in the past that could apply now; and the Executing strength of Discipline could help provide structure.
- The book Strengths-based Leadership (Rath, T. and Conchie, B., 2008) describes the needs of followers: Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope. In times of turmoil, we all have the capacity to nourish these needs in others using the strengths that we have. For example, the deep thinking of Intellection can help people make sense of things and build compassion while the Relationship Building strength of Includer is able to build trust by ensuring no-one feels left out of discussions.
There are of course other aspects of ourselves – in particular our core values – that influence how we behave in conflict. But our CliftonStrengths provide us with cognitive tools that can help us deal with it as constructively as we can and hopefully bring some sort of resolution and peace.
This article first appeared in Make a Difference News, 26 February 2020.