June 27, 2011 at 8:00am
At the core of a healthy organization is the idea that people are respected and valued for their different gifts/strengths/talents. This is where true diversity is found, as well, as it is these innate abilities which create our worldview and varied perspectives. The goal of this hack is to generate a sustainable strengths-based environment in the culture of an organization.
Most of our organizations reflect society at large in that we focus most of our energy on fixing weakness instead of building on natural strengths and talents. This relentless minimizing of human effort is demotivational at its best and completely dehumanizing at its worst -- and is always counterproductive to real, long-term business success.
To a large degree, this is not the “fault” of business -- but our corporate systems are also not doing anything to “fix” the problem by continuing to use outdated behavioral science in a feeble attempt to motivate people (more on this can be found in the books Drive and Get Rid of the Performance Review).
In a typical organization, people are constantly trying to "defend their position" and prove that their perspective is valuable/right/true. This is dangerous and damaging game, both in regards to organizational productivity and human satisfaction/employee engagement.
This problem can be subverted entirely by building a strengths-based environment.
The language of the community needs to shift towards appreciating each other's strengths. As Ken Wilber, the founder of the Integral Institute notes in the book Tribal Leadership: “Two parts of a human being—her psychology/worldview/spirituality and her conversations—tend to advance in stages together.” Therefore, we can measure internal progress accurately and effectively simply by monitoring change in language.
This language transformation can occur through many venues and methods, depending on the learning style of the participants. Throughout an organization, perhaps the most effective way is to initiate team-level conversations (workshops) around a strengths assessment (StrengthsFinder, Strengthscope, etc.), facilitated by someone who already an expert at “speaking the language" and facilitating learning sessions around it. These sessions will help individuals talk about each other in a more positive, affirming way, organically beginning to recognize that each person brings different gifts and talents to the group.
Another suggestion is to create a training/illustration exercise where people are given a specific task which requires divergent skills to successfully complete. Create a few groups -- one with superstars in Strength X, another with superstars with Strength Y, and a third with a mix of good (but not superb) Strengths in X, Y and Z (Strength Z could be the facilitation of other people’s strengths, like strategy or orchestration). When the task is complete, bring everyone together to look at the solutions developed and see if the X and Y teams can appreciate the breadth of the solution developed by the XYZ team. This exercise can also be used to illustrate the fact that all strengths inherently carry “blind spots” with them -- again illustrating the why collaboration is essential for success.
To scale a strengths-based culture beyond a small number of people, each person must be able to easily find those with strengths in various areas. One practical way to do this is to deploy social networking software where people's StrengthsFinder or Strengthscope themes (and other identifiers like Myers Briggs personality type as well as technical and other skillsets) can be publicly shared throughout the organization. When people want to put together a team with various strengths/skillsets, they can search for this information more readily. Also, these systems should make it easy for people to comment on each other's strengths/skills, so that webs of reputation can be built and evolve organically.
There are perhaps an infinite number of both small and large ways that a strengths-based philosophy can be promoted within an organization. What is most important is that the methods resonate deeply with the culture and history of the organization/tribe.
It should be noted that a strengths-based philosophy in no way ignores people's weaknesses. In fact, it does just the opposite. By recognizing that we are naturally good at certain things, we are gently led into the understanding that we are not as good at other things. This is simply a reality of life, although this fact is rarely acknowledged, and less often leveraged, in business. Knowing -- and owning -- what we are good at AND what we are bad at is essential to building a strengths-based culture.
It is also important that leaders do not make the mistake of thinking all components that will contribute to the transformation will be mind-blowingly large, sweeping changes. Many changes will be small things, like policy changes or procedures that simplify bureaucracy. Leaders should not underestimate the power of these “simple” changes. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to do what they are good at all the time -- in most organizations there are many tiny roadblocks that will need to be cleared for this to happen.
If a tribe can adopt a mindset which truly helps people see each other as unique, special, individuals that have gifts and strengths, and that these talents provide important variety and valuable differing perspectives to the team, an almost magical level of trust and collaboration forms.
Trust is an important component of a healthy, thriving business. People who trust each other are more able and willing to recognize each other's strengths. And the more that they see each other's strengths, the more they can trust each other. This virtuous circle needs to be encouraged at every opportunity.
On the flip side, people who do not trust each other can easily mistake those who have complementary skills as being incompetent or fundamentally wrong. The less that they value each other's skills, the lower the level of trust. This vicious cycle needs to be interrupted at every opportunity.
A strengths-based culture helps people love themselves for who they are (and just as importantly, who they are not) -- while at the same time providing an architecture to help support them in the kind of work they are most passionate about.
While a strengths-affirming culture is not easy to achieve, it is an essential goal for companies who wish to remain competitive in the new hyperconnected, collaborative economy. Furthermore, these communities already exist in real life. A few of the best descriptions of these special tribes can be found in the stories about “Stage 4” and “Stage 5” tribes in the book Tribal Leadership.
For an organization that wishes to implement this hack, recommended first steps include:
- Educating the senior leadership about the reasons for and benefits of a strengths-based business philosophy -- and making sure they are ALL on board 110% before beginning the intervention.
- Depending on the previous culture, the leadership should be prepared for things to get worse before they get much, much better -- in all likelihood, this transformational project will “encourage” the wrong people “to get off the bus” (while not easy, this is a very good thing; more on this idea can be found in Good To Great).
- Partnering with an external resource/expert who can validate and confirm this new approach and help it spread across the organization. (External consultants can also more easily take on the role of being a “great disruptor.”)
- Appoint an internal “strengths champion” to spearhead the effort within the organization (preferably a person at the C-level; this may require the creation of an entirely new position).
- Have each team regularly appraise each other on their best individual contributions. Each team should have a monthly or quarterly review of how they are doing, what they have learned from each other, and how they are being supported by each person in the team. This process is the opposite of a typical “performance review” -- it is explicitly designed to focus entirely on what people do well and to brainstorm ways to do more of that. This builds the foundation of trust and collaboration within the team.
- Hiring of new recruits is also done at the team level, since they know best what skills/talents are in in short supply and also every current team members’ strength.
- While this intervention is ideally led from the most senior leadership level, HR also can play a large role in supporting the effort. To do this, HR processes must be redesigned to shift from "building skills from weak to mediocre" to a relentless focus on building each person’s strengths. To do this, it is recommended that HR get rid of performance reviews as they are and instead implement individual development plans. In this way, HR can support the larger change effort by keeping track of each person’s passions, skills, and by building on their strengths.
Special thanks to the MIX Hackathon Pilot team for supporting this project. Also many thanks to the wonderful researchers in the world of behavioral economics (The Gallup Organization, Marcus Buckingham, the authors of the books mentioned below, etc.) who have devoted an astounding amount of time, money and energy to understand the real motivators of human behavior at work.