Strengths-based Approach to Development

by Stephanie Walters

Selling the approach to your organisation

There are a number of great articles and bodies of research that can help you to explain to your organisation how and where a strengths approach can produce tangible and lasting results.

Summary of key evidence

Below is a summary of some of the best pieces of research and what you can find in them. They either focus on the link between strengths and employee performance or on how a focus on strengths can improve employee engagement, which in turn improves organisation performance.

Positive outcomes of focusing on strengths

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Govindji and Linley (2007), in a study of 214 university students, showed that people who used their strengths more reported higher levels of happiness and psychological well-being.

Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson (2005) found that people who used their strengths in a new and different way every day reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression, and this lasted over time.

Minhas (2010) showed that people who developed their realised or unrealised strengths reported higher levels of happiness and well-being over a four-week period.

Govindji and Linley (2007) also found that people who used their strengths more reported higher levels of confidence. This finding was replicated by Proctor, Maltby and Linley (2009) in a study with 135 university students.

Linley, Nielsen, Wood, Gillett and Biswas-Diener (2010) showed that people who used their strengths in striving to achieve their goals were far more likely to achieve those goals (see Capp).

Benefits for the individual include elevated vitality and motivation, a greater sense of direction and higher probability of goal attainment, not to mention increased self-confidence and productivity (Source: Clifton & Anderson, 2001-2; Hodges & Clifton, 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004.

Return on investment from focusing on strengths

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Employee engagement

Rath and Conchie describe Gallup’s analysis of years of research with over one million work teams. This showed that leaders who focus on and invest in strengths increase engagement. They found that one in 11 (nine per cent) of staff were engaged when leaders focused on weaknesses, and three in four staff (73 per cent) were engaged when leaders focused on strengths (Rath and Conchie 2008).

Employees who score low in ‘life satisfaction’, a rigorously tested and widely accepted metric, take an average of 1.25 more days a month off work, a 2008 study by Gallup Healthways shows. That translates into a decrease in productivity of 15 days a year.

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Employee performance

In a study of 19,187 employees from 34 organisations across seven industries and 29 countries, the Corporate Leadership Council (2002) found that when managers emphasised performance strengths, performance was 36 per cent higher, and when they emphasised personality strengths, performance was 21 per cent higher. In contrast, emphasising weaknesses led to a 27 per cent decline for performance weaknesses and a 6 per cent decline for personality weaknesses.

Harter, Schmidt and Hayes completed a meta-analysis of over 10,000 work units and over 300,000 employees in 51 companies. They found that work units scoring above the median on the question ‘I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day’ had 38 percent higher probability of success on productivity measures

A 2005 Corporate Leadership Council study involving data from over 90,000 employees in 135 organisations found that focusing on personality and performance strengths had one of the strongest impacts on employee performance of all line manager actions. They found that this focus reinforces performing-enhancing behaviour, increasing employee engagement and promoting stronger identification with their work. Unsurprisingly, the factor that has the most negative impact on employee performance was focusing on employee weaknesses.

A study of service departments found that employees who score high in life satisfaction are significantly more likely to receive high ratings from customers. (Jennifer George and Kenneth Bettenhausen).

In addition, researchers at Gallup found that retail stores that scored higher on employee life satisfaction generated $21 more in earnings per square foot of space than the other stores, adding $32 million in additional profits for the whole chain.

Team performance/productivity

In a research project undertaken at Toyota North American Parts Centre California involving over 400 employees on 54 work teams, a strengths-based team intervention with the objective of building effective work teams contributed a six to nine per cent increase in productivity per employee over a one-year period.

This was achieved against a backdrop of productivity improvements of less than one per cent over the previous three years. Researchers have also found that employees who experience positive moods at work are more likely to be helpful and supportive towards their colleagues. They are not only willing to put in extra effort to get their own job done to a higher standard, but are also more likely to help others out, going beyond the requirements of their job description.

The Gallup Organisation reported a 12.5 per cent increase in the productivity of teams whose managers received a strengths intervention and 14.9 per cent lower turnover rates.

Research papers supporting the strengths approach

Below is a summary of some key research papers that support the strengths-based approach and positive psychology in general.

Gallup reviews

  1. Clifton and Harker’s Gallup ‘White paper: Investing in strengths’ (2003) includes studies conducted in business and in education into the effect of taking a strengths approach. The paper summarises the findings in many studies showing that an increase in engagement increases customer loyalty, employee productivity, turnover, profit and so on.
  2. Wellbeing in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes’ is a review of the Gallup studies. It investigates how reducing stress and boredom and producing positive states in employees at work can lead to better business performance.

The writers found that when employees feel they have ‘opportunities to learn and grow’ and ‘opportunities to do what I do best’ – use their strengths, in other words – there is a positive correlation to turnover, customer loyalty, productivity and profit. They found that work units with high employee engagement produced between a five and 20 per cent increase in turnover compared to work units with low employee engagement.

They ultimately show how a focus on creating a positive working environment leads to higher customer loyalty, business productivity and profitability, while lowering rates of staff turnover.

The paper includes a good summary of Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden and Build’ theory.

The study included 36 different companies, 21 industries, about 8000 business departments (units) and about 200,000 respondents. The results are on pages 8 to 16 and the table on page 10 shows the link they found.

  1. Q12 meta-analysis, ‘The relationship between engagement at work and organisational outcomes’, a 2009 white paper, is a similar study to the one listed above. This study looked at 152 different organisations, 44 industries, 26 countries, about 32,000 business/work units and about 950,000 employees (page 3 gives a good overall summary).

The findings were that businesses that scored high on employee engagement doubled their odds of success against those who scored low on employee engagement.

For business units with the highest employee engagement there was, on average, a

  • 12 per cent increase in customer ratings
  • 16 per cent increase in profitability
  • 18 per cent increase in productivity
  • 25 per cent lower employee turnover
  • 49 per cent lower safety incidents
  • 27 per cent lower shrinkage
  • 37 per cent lower absenteeism
  • 41 per cent lower patient safety incidents
  • 60 per cent increase in quality.
  1. Employee engagement and earnings per share: subtitled, ‘a longitudinal study of organisational performance during the recession (2010)’, this study showed that organisations with a highly-engaged workforce exceeded the earnings per share of their competition and widened the gap with competition during the recession.

Gallup reviewed data from 649 organisations (5.8 million respondents) in Gallup’s 2009 employee engagement database.

Corporate Leadership Council article

‘Linking employee satisfaction with productivity, performance & customer satisfaction’ summarises the studies done on links between employee engagement and business outcomes. It introduces a study carried out by Sears which linked employee engagement to increased customer loyalty to increased profitability.

Sears found that a five per cent increase in employee satisfaction led to a 1.3 per cent increase in customer satisfaction, in turn leading to a 0.5 per cent increase in revenue. In money terms they found that an increased employee engagement led to an increase of $1000 per person in terms of value of productivity. (Schmidt et al 1986)

Barbara Fredrickson

An interesting article by Barbara Fredrickson in American Scientist July-August 2003, ‘The value of positive emotions’ explains how positive emotions can improve how you function as an individual or as part of a group/team, your psychological well-being and physical health.

Fredrickson proposes that ‘positive emotions broaden an individual’s momentary mindset, and by doing so help to build enduring personal resources’. She describes evidence that supports her theory, including 20 years of experiments by Isen and her colleagues, which show that when people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information.

She also did a study after 9/11 and found that a tendency to feel more positive emotions protected people from feeling depression. She also has an ‘undoing hypothesis’ that positive emotions ‘undo’ the lingering effects of negative emotions. She demonstrates the effects positive emotions can have on your physiology.

Alice M. Iseni and Johnmarshall Reeve

‘The influence of positive affect on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: facilitating enjoyment of play, responsible work behavior, and self-control’, Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 2005, shows the effect of positivity on a person’s willingness to do something for its own sake because they are interested in it and enjoy it, rather than for any other type of reward. The study also shows that positivity has an effect of the individual’s productivity, successful completion and enjoyment of work tasks.