Tracking the Development of the Strengths Movement (Part 1 of 3))

I have really enjoyed and learned from books authored and coauthored by Marcus Buckingham. His early career included work at Gallup, which is famous for their Surveys and Polls. There he coauthored First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently
in 1999 and he just recently authored StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution. There were three books in between, with a few significant offshoots, that I want to mention.

 First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently was a significant book for a number of reasons and in rereading it recently I was amazed at the good counsel it provided. I like that the book is based on the results of a Management Survey that was done by Gallup where hundreds of questions were asked of millions of employees of thousands of companies and divisions to discover the factors most closely associated with highly productive teams. After lots of tweaking of questions and iterative analysis, they found that the most productive teams could be isolated by getting a positive response from 12 specific questions. The questions were:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to do quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

That is it. Now there can be a lot of analysis that can be done just on what those questions mean. I believe that it is possible to make bad assumptions when looking at successful companies, as explained in The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.  I believe that Gallup avoided those pitfalls when coming up with these questions.
Buckingham points out that the first two questions are like the base camp of this quest for productivity, and are really the bare minimum to get someone working along the right path. Questions 3-6 are the next camp where the worker finds out if he can contribute to the group. Questions 7-10 ask “Do I belong here?” and Questions 11 and 12 ask “How can we all grow?”

Obviously there is a lot here that is influenced by the culture of the workplace, but Buckingham makes the case that the success of an enterprise, as highlighted by the first six questions, depends on the Manager. The Manager can have a direct influence on how that worker will answer questions 1-6.
His goal, to achieve a productive workplace, would be for the worker strongly answer yes to each question.

The remainder of the book is based on interviews with thousands of great managers and determining how they get to be great. Buckingham concludes that underlying their best practices is the creed:

People don’t change that much.
Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.
Try to draw out what was left in.
That is hard enough.

It is not particularly catchy, but it is the basis of what has become the strengths movement. Being a manager myself, I know that it is tempting to think in terms of what people need to do to improve and throw efforts at turning their weaknesses into strengths. This movement says that you find ways to make weakness less of a liability, but spend the efforts on building on the strengths. Even when we were all reading these books at work and talking about our strengths, we came upon our semi annual performance appraisal and returned to talking about weaknesses and how to turn them into strengths.

We all have different strengths because from womb we have developed differently. Our brain has developed by laying out billions of neuron connections. Over time some of the connections get beefed up, while others atrophy and die away. Some individuals have an eight lane superhighway running between areas of the brain, while others in the same area have dirt roads. We can waste our efforts when we try to rebuild a superhighway in a given place instead of relying on the one that is supporting different abilities. He emphasizes that lots of people have talents, it is not rare, it is just individual predisposition to see and filter their view of the world according to their unique cranial wiring.

Great managers get the right person in the right role (based on their talents), give them the tools that they need to succeed and help them build on the personality traits that will make them shine in their position.

One of the key changes suggested by Buckingham is that we need to make sure that salaries and perks do not push people into career paths that are a mismatch to their talents. A good sales person should be rewarded for being really good at sales by being fairly (or highly) compensated and having opportunities to further develop their talents, instead of feeling the need to move into management because that is where the high salaries are. We should not under appreciate the talents that allow a worker to excel in any position. We should not neglect to get specifically talented people into even the most apparently basic positions. Buckingham talks about the attributes of the most talented hotel housekeeping workers.

He explains that it is a temptation to believe that you can make anyone the right employee by giving a checklist that they follow. He gives the history of Madelaine Hunter’s attempt to make teaching as simple as following a short list of steps. Ultimately it failed because “the essence of great teaching is to treat every child as an individual.”

He goes into some detail about the importance of choosing the right outcomes, so that workers can be given a loose rein.

Marcus goes on to give more counsel about Focusing on Strengths. It would take too long to mention all of his suggestions, but one that is particularly interesting is the idea that we should spend most of our time with our best people. This is definitely different than normal procedure. We are used to spending time with our lower performers, because we feel that fixing their problems will see a greater improvement in productivity. Marcus believes that you are better off helping the individual with the natural talents for success be even better. I would have to think about that some more to see if I believe it, but his arguments are compelling.

Another good section talks about how to hire for talent.

I enjoyed reading this book again, and intend to apply some principles in my managing.

Next I will  review  Now, Discover Your Strengths.

Let me know what you thought of any of Marcus’ books!

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