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Introducing the CliftonStrengths® Assessment

The CliftonStrengths® assessment is beneficial to take if you’re thinking about changing career and want to understand where your strengths lie. I use the tool with career changers but also with people who want to develop or pivot in their existing career path and/or improve their job applications and interviews.  This article provides some background to the assessment so that you can decide whether you’d like to try it for yourself.  

What is the CliftonStrengths® assessment?

We’re all naturally good at some things and not others. This is because we have ways of responding to the environment that come naturally to us. These instinctive patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving can be described as ‘talent’. CliftonStrengths® is an online assessment tool that enables you to identify what your talents are. This in turn helps you to understand where your potential for success lies.

Who created CliftonStrengths®?

The assessment arose from several decades of research undertaken by Donald Clifton, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska, and Director of Selection Research International (which merged with the Gallup Organisation).  

Clifton was interested to find out what would happen if, rather than focussing on 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?”

Two ideas informed Clifton’s research: 

  • First, he believed that talents could be studied, operationalised, and capitalised on in work and academic settings.  
  • Second, he believed that success was closely associated with personal talents and strengths.

What are strengths and talents?

Clifton described 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?!”

Clifton believed that talents are trait-like ‘raw materials’ which are ‘the products of normal healthy development and successful experiences over childhood and adolescence’. He viewed ‘strengths’ as an extension of talent and observed that innate talent only becomes strength when practised and combined with acquired knowledge and skills.  Clifton defined ‘strength’ as 

‘the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific task’.  

Donald Clifton

Though labeled CliftonStrengths®, the instrument actually measures 34 themes of talent.  It’s this talent that serves as the foundation for the development of strengths.

Where did the 34 CliftonStrengths® come from?

Clifton and his colleagues at Gallup constructed empirically-based, semi-structured interviews to explore the talents that individuals have.

When developing the interviews, Clifton examined the prescribed role of a person within a setting (e.g., student, salesperson, administrator) and identified outstanding performers in those roles and settings.

He and his colleagues determined what thoughts, feelings, and behaviours were typically associated with peoples’ success. It became evident that talents grouped together in certain categories or ‘themes’.

Over time, semi-structured interviews were administered by Gallup analysts to more than two million individuals. In the mid-1990s, Clifton and his colleagues reviewed these interviews and the data they generated with a view to creating a tool to measure the talent themes in individuals. 

Is StrengthsFinder® the same as CliftonStrengths®?

CliftonStrengths® was launched online in 1999 under the name ‘Clifton StrengthsFinder’. Initially, the assessment consisted of 180 pairs of statements (known as ‘items’) but was subsequently revised slightly – most notably going from an inventory of 35 themes to one of 34 themes. Several of the theme names were changed as well in order to more accurately describe the construct being measured, but the descriptions themselves did not change. The assessment now consists of 177 paired statements and has been rebranded as CliftonStrengths®.

What is psychometric assessment?

Psychologists have been developing techniques to measure and assess psychological traits since the early 1900s. Psychological traits are the distinguishable, relatively enduring ways in which one person varies from another. ‘Psychometrics’ is the name given to the scientific discipline of psychological testing and assessment. 

The technical quality of a psychometric test is measured against internationally agreed psychometric standards. A ‘good’ test is one that is valid and reliable, i.e. it measures what it purports to measure and it does so consistently. 

How accurate is the CliftonStrengths® assessment?

CliftonStrengths® has been repeatedly subjected to psychometric examination. A summary of reliability and validity evidence is provided in the assessment’s technical report which is made available to those who get trained in the use of the tool. 

One criticism of the assessment is that it hasn’t been subject to academic peer review in the same way as some other types of psychometric assessment. Gallup’s explanation for this is that the construction of the tool is commercially sensitive and the organisation needs to protect its intellectual property.

Nonetheless, the tool was developed by professional psychologists who themselves have gone through rigorous academic training. 

Furthermore, it’s important to note that the validity of a psychometric assessment is evaluated with respect to its intended purpose or application. CliftonStrengths’ intended purpose is to facilitate personal growth and development and it achieves that aim very successfully.

What is CliftonStrengths® used for?

The assessment’s main application has been in the work domain. It’s used in organisational development across the world to develop employees, teams, managers and leaders. But it has also been used with students, families, couples, community groups and for personal development.

By identifying an individual’s top themes of talent, CliftonStrengths® provides a starting point in the identification of specific personal talents.  Additional exercises and reflective materials help individuals discover how to build on their talents to develop strengths within their roles.  

Because CliftonStrengths® helps individuals understand what they’re best at, the tool naturally lends itself for use in careers work, specifically in relation to developing self-awareness, evaluating career options, and communicating one’s ‘offer’ to prospective employers in job applications and interviews.

Crucially, the tool gives people a language with which to describe what it is that they do best – something which most people find surprisingly hard to do. And although the report that one receives after taking the assessment is based on input by the test taker, most people find it helpful to have a way of identifying their strengths that feels more objective instead of simply having friends, colleagues and relatives saying ‘Oh, you’re great at…x and y.’

How to take the assessment

If you’re interested in taking the assessment, it’s advisable first to speak to someone who is trained in the tool so that you can discuss what it is you’re hoping to achieve. There is a directory of Gallup Certified Strengths Coaches here. (I’m one of them…).

Yes, it’s possible to just go ahead and take the test yourself, and yes, there are careers professionals (and other types of coach) who use the tool with clients and haven’t been formally trained in it, but you might prefer to work with someone who has gone through the training and is obliged to renew their certification with Gallup every three years to maintain professional standards.

One final point to make in relation to using the tool for career purposes is that strengths are just one aspect of professional identity and if you’re thinking of making changes to your career, you’ll need to look at the other facets as well.

If you’d like to explore this further, feel free to get in touch to arrange an initial session to discuss your career situation.

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