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Alex Linley's views on strengths

Alex Linley, the founder of Positive Psychology Centre CAPP and international expert on strengths, has brought together research findings on strengths and their applications in his recent book 'Average to A+'. In the book, Linley outlines his unique approach to identifying and nurturing strengths.

The crux of Linley's argument is that there are lots of different strengths which people can learn to listen for, and spot, in themselves and others. Average to A+ guides people on how they can identify strengths in themselves and others, and how they can bring out and grow these potentials. It also looks at the possible barriers to using strengths such as the fixed mindset and not knowing or correcting weaknesses. This book aims to give a deeper understanding of what strengths are, and to provide a way of bringing out the best in yourself and others. It also shows that doing this may have a positive effect on individuals and organisations.  Linley makes great claims for a strength based approach and tells the reader: 'Using strengths is smallest thing that people can do to make the biggest difference'.

What are strengths?

'A strength is 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'

Strengths are things which we are naturally good at, and which, when we apply them produces optimal outcomes.   For example, people may have a strength for planning and making the most of their time while someone else may have a preference for coming up with new ways of doing things rather than following established rules.  When either of these people are allowed to develop these strengths and apply them in their working, and everyday, life then they will not only feel good but their perfromance will improve too.

For Linley strengths are inbuilt preferences, which are also flexible and changeable.  Unlike other strength approaches such as the VIA Signature Strengths or the Clifton Strengths Finder, which assert a clearly defined few strengths, Linley's approach acknowledges that there are many strengths, rather than a small number, and that these might change in any given context.  'We all have a symphony of strengths that advance into the foreground or recede into the background as the situation requires' , he writes.

According to Linley, some of the most successful people put their good outcomes down to applying their strengths in different situations. Research has shown that those who are able to use their strengths everyday at work are significantly more engaged and their customers more satisfied.  The findings showed that productivity and profitability increased too.  Other research reveals that when employers focus on performance strengths there is a large and significant improvement in performance of the company, compared to focusing on weaknesses which showed a decline.

Despite the evidence that strengths enable optimal functioning and performance, only a third of people in the UK, from a sample of a 1000 people, were able to give a meaningful answer to what their strengths were. According to Linley this is an important point as many people will not reach their potential if they do not know what their strengths are, and if they do not grow this potential.


How can we identify strengths?

The hallmark of strengths is that they are energising.  People feel vital and engaged when they talk about and apply their strengths.  This is different from talking about weaknesses which are de-energising. Using strengths makes people feel authentic and are being their true self.

Linley says that approaches such as VIA Signature Strengths and the Clifton Strengths Finder which give a clearly defined number of strengths e.g. 34 in the case of Clifton Strengths Finder and 24 in the case of VIA may be a good starting point for identifying strengths.  However, using these approaches alone can be limiting and could even be disempowering as they are less able to fully capture and identify strengths as they naturally exist. Also, unlike Linley's approach, the VIA for example does not claim to predict performance outcomes at work.

Rather than trying to fit people into neat categories Linley's approach is flexible and malleable. The team at CAPP have developed a tool, Realise 2 which assesses a large number of strengths according to energy, performance and the use of those strengths.  This tool not only builds on the VIA and Clifton Strengths Finder but also on previous work by CAPP.  The main aim is to measure unrealised and realised strengths and weaknesses in people and to allow them to gain a more comprehensive account of their strengths and weaknesses as well as an action plan for taking this forward.  You can find out more about this at www.realise2.com


Should we focus on top strengths?

Average to A+ addresses whether people should  focus on their top strengths and Linley warns that paying close attention to top strengths needs to be qualified with the understanding that:

1. That there is not any fixed number of 'top strengths' that people may have
2. That strengths may recede into the background, or advance into the foreground, depending on context and need so that;
3. Strengths need to be understood in context,
4. The number of strengths that we should focus on at any one time depends on the requirements of the situation, some situations may require wider combinations of strengths, other situations may require just one or two.'


What's more strengths can be overdone and underdone thereby undermining motivation and performance.  This is why Linley urges us to adopt an approach which teaches people to use: 'The right strength, to the right amount, in the right way, and at the right time'.

Linley suggests adopting a golden mean approach to strengths. This means using strengths so that the best overall result is achieved. This might mean tuning the strength up or down according to the situation.


Blockers to applying strengths

There are certain 'blockers' which interfere with the knowing and growing of strengths and some of these are: our tendency to not take on board positive feedback, comparing ourselves to others in a way which undermines our well-being and performance, the fixed mindset, failure to practice and refine our strengths and failing to create habits or rituals . According to Linley we can overcome these 'blockers' by:

1. Giving positive feedback which is specific, targeted and with evidence
2. Using positive roles models who inspire people to believe that 'I could be like that' 
3. Adopting a growth mindset; believing that you can grow and improve strengths
4. Know your strengths; people are  far more likely to be able to talk authentically about their weaknesses if they have also been able to talk authentically about their strengths
5. Recognise your strengths and play to them and find your niche where the strength can be applied
6. Practice your strengths and create rituals: 'the worlds top performers have in place rituals for practice and performance that systematically take them beyond their comfort zone in order to build capacity and capabitlity.'

Controversies

Linley presents strong evidence to support his strengths based approach but there are several question marks surrounding how it will be applied in business and education. The past shows us that new theories are often applied in a different way than originally intended; often becoming a one size fits all initiative. The potential dangers of the strengths approach is that it will encourage the idea of fixed traits which may, paradoxically, undermine optimal performance and well-being.  For example, people may view themselves, or others, as being good at certain things and not others. This may encourage stereotyping and encourage people to write off trying new things. This may stunt growth and undermine performance. In addition, this could encourage people to avoid working on their weaknesses and avoid tasks because it is not their strength. Though Linley addresses these issues he still believes that those adopting a strengths based approach will do it in a sophisticated way and avoid the dangers of stereotyping. Our research into how psychological ideas are transmitted makes us fearful that if a strengths based approach becomes fashionable and  used widely by inadequately trained people (including parents) it is likely to encourage stereotyping ('Math isn't your strength so just do the minimum and concentrate on English')

Having said that, focusing on what people find energizing and engaging is important. Encouraging people to stop being focused on deficits is a vital activity for human beings as it is very easy for us to pay attention to the negative. Average to A + is a great, easy to read, tour of the strengths based approach. It has some useful insights and research which shifts the focus away from weaknesses and fixing things to focusing on strengths and what's working well.

 
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