Increase employee performance and engagement using a strengths-based approach

People who know their strengths are able to act as more effective leaders. That’s according to Don Clifton, former chairman of Gallup, creator of CliftonStrengths and — as deemed by the American Psychological Association — the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology. We’re applying some of Clifton’s research to improve the workplace and increase employee performance and engagement.

What does “strengths-based” mean?

The basis of a strengths-based approach to professional development is a focus on maximizing strengths rather than improving weaknesses. When we talk about strengths and weaknesses, we’re not referring to skills. Strengths determine our effectiveness at leading, accomplishing tasks and working with others, while weaknesses inhibit our success.

A strengths-based approach prioritizes a person’s core strengths, which Clifton categorized into the Four Domains of Leadership Strength:

Strategic thinking: People who lead through strategic thinking keep the team focused on what “could be.”
Relationship building: People who lead through relationship building act as the glue that holds the team together.
Influencing: People who lead through influencing can help their team reach a broader audience.
Executing: People who lead through executing know how to make things happen.

Regardless of which leadership domain applies to you, no one domain is better than another; you can use your strengths to learn how to best work in teams and find your place within your company. More importantly, knowing and using our strengths allows us to improve on the things we’re already good at, making us more effective leaders.

Peter Drucker, the father of management thinking and author of “Managing Oneself,” said, “It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

To be a great leader and team member in any industry, we have to consider our strengths. Being knowledgeable in a particular subject doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good leader or communicator. We must place people in roles that play on and cultivate their strengths. If you’re great at executing ideas, and your teammate is great at influencing, then you should each do what you’re great at.

In her book, “Multipliers,” Liz Wiseman advises us to identify what we’re best at and then form a “broad repertoire of practices” that will maximize those strengths and allow us to succeed. “Invest your energy wisely,” she writes, “and progress from good to great by topping off one of your strengths.”

How can knowing strengths improve employee job performance?

Sometimes the person you hire isn’t right for the job. And sometimes you hire the right person for the wrong job.

So, what can you do?

According to “Good to Great” author Jim Collins, companies go from good to great when their employees know:

1. What they can be the best in the world at.
2. What drives their economic engine.
3. What they are deeply passionate about.

In his article of the same name, “Good to Great,” Collins uses a bus driver as a metaphor. You are the driver, and the bus represents your company. The people on the bus might expect the driver to begin by telling them where they are going. But where they’re going is the wrong information to start with.

To the driver, what matters first is if the right people are on the bus. Make sure the people on the bus should be on, allow the wrong people to get off, get everyone else seated, and then head to your destination.

When you start with the right people — people who are passionate and who know their strengths — the path to your destination becomes more clear. “If you have the right people on your bus,” Collins writes, “you don’t need to worry about motivating them. The right people are self-motivated: Nothing beats being part of a team that is expected to produce great results.”

In Gallup’s 2015 Strengths Meta-Analysis, which is based on a study of more than 1 million people from nearly 50,000 businesses, utilizing strengths was found to improve business performance by up to 15 percent in employee engagement and 29 percent in profit.

Using a strengths-based approach also yielded decreases up to 59 percent in safety incidents, and companies that traditionally had high turnover — along with those that had traditionally low turnover — saw lower turnover rates.

In Gallup’s book “Strengths Based Leadership,” authors Tom Rath and Barry Conchie wrote about a survey that asked more than 10 million respondents to agree or disagree with this statement: “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” Respondents who agreed were found to be:

1. Significantly more likely to stay with their organization.
2. Rewarded with much more engaged customers.
3. Substantially more productive.
4. More profitable for the organization.

Job performance is linked to engagement, which is linked to job satisfaction, which, according to Gallup, is linked to how often we use our strengths at work. Specifically, Gallup concluded that people who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job.

How to increase engagement by focusing on strengths

Gallup surveyed 1,003 U.S. employees to see whether they agreed with the following two statements:

1. “My supervisor focuses on my strengths or positive characteristics.”
2. “My supervisor focuses on my weaknesses or negative characteristics.”

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they agreed with the first statement; 11 percent said they agreed with statement two; 25 percent of respondents agreed with neither statement and were considered “ignored.”

Gallup then gauged respondents on their engagement at work; 61 percent of those who identified with statement one said they were engaged; 38 percent were not engaged, and only 1 percent responded as “actively disengaged.”

Of those who identified with the second statement, 45 percent said they were engaged in their work, 33 percent were not engaged and 22 percent were actively disengaged.

The lesson? Employees who feel their supervisors focus on their strengths or positive characteristics are more engaged than their counterparts.

Interestingly, employees who fell into the “ignored” category were found to be “twice as likely to be actively disengaged” than those who had negative experiences. In fact, only 2 percent of employees in the ignored category reported to be engaged on the job. More than half of respondents said they were disengaged, while 40 percent said they were actively disengaged.

Any attention is better than no attention at all.

Our point isn’t to dissuade you from offering your employees constructive criticism or notes to improve. But if you want your employees to be actively engaged, then be sure to tell them when they’ve performed well. When we put people in roles that play on their strengths, they’re more likely to succeed and excel. And when we offer positive feedback when it’s deserved, we remind our team how much they’re needed and appreciated.

So, how well does your organization prioritize and build strengths?

One resource you can use to measure your organization’s success at creating a workplace that cultivates strengths is Gallup’s Strengths Orientation Index.

Ask yourself if the following are true:

1. Every week, I set goals and expectations based on my strengths.
2. I can name the strengths of five people I work with.
3. In the last three months, my supervisor and I have had a meaningful discussion about my strengths.
4. My organization is committed to building the strengths of each associate.

Gallup found, from random samplings, that only 3 percent of U.S. workers strongly agreed with all four statements. When employees feel that their company cares and encourages them to make the most of their strengths, they are more likely to put forth more effort, create a stronger work ethic and respond to work with more enthusiasm and commitment.

No method is perfect

While there’s a plethora of research to back up why a strengths-based approach can improve business outcomes, you shouldn’t dismiss an employee’s weaknesses altogether.

The idea behind strengths-based leadership is that a person’s best strengths should outweigh their weaknesses, but sometimes people have weaknesses that disqualify them from a role regardless of their strengths.

To clarify, Clifton defines a weakness as something that gets in the way of success. It is a non-talent — like a strength, a weakness is not a skill. It keeps people from growing or moving forward, and thus it must be identified and eradicated so that one’s strengths can shine through.

The best way to define weaknesses is to use leadership development expert Jack Zenger’s 10 fatal flaws. These are the kind of weaknesses that need to be addressed, and, according to Zenger, most leaders who have any one of these flaws are usually unaware of it. These weaknesses include:

1. Not inspiring due to a lack of energy and enthusiasm.
2. Accepting mediocre performance in place of excellent results.
3. Lack of clear vision and direction.
4. Loss of trust stemming from perceived bad judgment and poor decisions.
5. Not a collaborative team player.
6. Not a good role model (failure to walk the talk).
7. No self-development and learning from mistakes.
8. Lacking interpersonal skills.
9. Resistant to new ideas, thus did not lead change or innovate.
10. Focus is on self, not the development of others.

These flaws don’t represent levels of intelligence, but they do reflect emotional intelligence. “The person with these flaws basically lacks the ability or discipline to initiate or get things going,” according to Zenger. If these weaknesses aren’t tackled, not only will the employee’s growth be stagnant, but the lack of progress will start to affect your other employees.

Let’s revisit Jim Collins’ bus analogy. This time, let’s say you have the right people on the bus and a few of the wrong people. At this point, the final outcome is predetermined. According to Collins, “You may be headed in the right direction, but you still won’t achieve greatness. Great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.”

We know job performance and engagement are linked to job satisfaction. If your employees feel disengaged or like they’re not working as efficiently as they could be, your organization might start to lose time and money — all due to a fatal flaw.

Cultivate each employee’s strengths. Allow them to be the best at what they’re the best at. Allow them to be passionate and utilize their best strengths.

When we focus on our strengths and when we’re in roles that use them, we’re already on track to succeed. You can create a more understanding and respectful workplace, where teams work more cohesively. In doing so, you increase job performance and overall employee satisfaction.


Rath, Tom, and Barry Conchie. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. Gallup Press, 2009.

Rath, Tom. StrengthsFinder 2.0. Gallup Press, 2007.

Wiseman, Liz. Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. HarperBusiness, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.