Image of Donald Clifton, Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA. Father of Strengths Psychology, Grandfather of Positive Psychology, Creator of CliftonStrengths® Assessment.

Introducing strengths-based development

Career development professionals (aka ‘career coaches’) who have gone through a rigorous programme of training usually find that their approach to career guidance and coaching is informed by particular theories of development. My own practice is influenced by the theory of strengths-based development (along with a few other theories) and the broader field of positive psychology. In this article I provide a brief introduction to positive psychology and strengths-based development and the benefits associated with using these theories for career development purposes.

The origins of positive psychology

Psychology emerged as a scientific discipline in the mid-twentieth century and sought to understand the causes, effects and treatment of mental illness.  

However, towards the end of the 20th century, an alternative approach to ‘fixing’ emerged which focused on prevention.  This new approach sought to understand and strengthen the qualities that make people flourish, such as kindness, courage, honesty, teamwork, creativity. The expression of these personal qualities has been shown to enhance wellbeing. 

Two key figures in the field, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, spearheaded the work on character, and their approach to understanding the human psyche has expanded to become known as the field of positive psychology. 

What is strengths-based development?

The theory of strengths-based development lies within the sub-discipline of positive psychology. It stems from the work of Donald Clifton who, in 2002, was formally recognised by the American Psychological Society as the father of strengths psychology and grandfather of positive psychology. 

Clifton’s research focussed on identifying and developing people’s natural talents rather than trying to fix their weaknesses. After years of research, he developed the CliftonStrengths® assessment.

The strengths-based approach to development that emerged from his work is based on the following principles:

Principle 1: Themes are not labels

The purpose of the CliftonStrengths assessment is not to provide a method of labelling people but to provide a tool to help us understand and appreciate the diversity of people.  The assessment is not telling people whether or not they’re talented, but rather what they’re talented at.

Principle 2: Themes are neutral

The themes of talent identified through the assessment don’t make people great or terrible. It’s what people do with their talents that makes them great.

Principle 3: Differences are an advantage

The differences between individuals are resources that create an advantage when developed and used wisely.

Principle 4: People need one another

Trying to be a well-rounded individual results in mediocrity. Doing more of what one is good at results in excellence and gives others the space to do more of what they’re best at. An individual shouldn’t be well-rounded but a team should.

Principle 5: Lead with positive intent 

How we think and feel about a person will affect our involvement and interaction with them. If our thoughts and feelings about that person are primarily appreciative & positive in nature, then our involvement and interaction will be primarily positive as well.

Benefits of strengths-based development

Focussing on strengths can be seen as a system for making things happen, i.e. identify what needs to be done and do it in a way that works best for you and others. 

Research by the Gallup Organisation has shown that:

  • people who use their strengths every day are three times more likely to say that they have an excellent quality of life.
  • people who use their strengths every day at work are six times more likely to be engaged on the job.

Of course, there is a lot more to satisfaction at work than simply strengths: for example, interests, values, motivated skills, environment, colleagues, all play their part. 

But given the positive outcomes identified by Gallup, it makes sense to gain some insight into what your strengths are so that you can direct your efforts and attention towards activities that bring greater satisfaction. 

If you think you might help with making changes to your career, get in touch to arrange an initial session. We can explore where you are now, what you’re hoping to achieve and the type of support that may help you get there. 

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