WOW 175 | Strengths-Based Approach


When building a team, every individual is often measured using the traditional strengths vs. weaknesses approach. But for Kay Bahia, there is untapped potential in leading using a strengths-based approach. In this episode, she explains why she favors exploring strengths from a positive psychological perspective rather than the typical psychometrics that only end up nowhere. Kay breaks down how encouraging individuals to focus on their unique strengths can lead to better performing and energized teams. She also talks about how a strengths-based approach can help cure procrastination, the best way to navigate the evolution of your top strengths, and how managers can cultivate cognitive trust within the team.

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A Strengths-Based Approach With Kay Bahia

Here we are with another episode of World of Work. We’ll have a fun conversation coming up. We’re speaking to a friend of a show, so it’s going to be super exciting. Jane, what are we speaking about, and who are we chatting to?

James, we’re talking to Kay Bahia, who is a strengths-based coach and a leadership consultant. She’s an EMCC Senior Practitioner. We’re going to be talking all about taking a strengths-based approach to personal development and strengths-based approaches in the workplace.

That’s a super helpful and important conversation. Let’s get into it.


WOW 175 | Strengths-Based Approach


Welcome to the main part of this episode. We have an exciting conversation lined up for this episode. A lot of you know that we’re interested in looking at the strengths that we bring to the things that we do. In this episode, we’re going to be having a conversation about strengths-based development. We’re going to be doing that with one of the friends of the show, Kay, who some of you might have seen before in some other things that we did. We’re going to spend a fair amount of time exploring some of the ways that we can think a little bit more about strengths in our approach to our work. Before we get into that, Kay, could you introduce yourself and say a little bit more to the audience about yourself and your background?

I would love to. Thank you very much for that introduction, James. My name is Kay Bahia. I’m an EMCC Senior Practitioner, strength-based coach, and leadership consultant. I’ve worked in the corporate world for about twenty years. I’ve experienced lots of different psychometrics and tests. I found some positive benefits and impacts from taking a strengths-based approach. I’ll be excited to share that with you here.

Thank you. I’m going to jump straight in and ask the big question. We’re going to be talking about strengths-based work in development. What is a strengths-based approach to our work and our development?

In the corporate world, I was used to looking at strengths and weaknesses. Strengths were always framed in that context, but I’m interested in exploring strengths from a positive psychology perspective. For those who may not be familiar with this area, positive psychology is interested in what’s great about people.

It comes from Aristotelian philosophies but also humanistic approaches. Rather than strengths versus weaknesses, it’s about the qualities that you have that energize you and make you feel that you can’t help but be successful. You may experience things like flow and be engaged. You’re probably drawn to similar strengths in others.

It’s a much more human quality of this is me. That’s how people describe it when they become more familiar with their strengths and notice how it leads them to be successful. It’s about parallel to this sports psychology, what makes you go from neutral to great rather than fixing what may be perceived as a weakness.

That was an interesting turn of phrase you used there, describing what makes you and what you bring. It feels like there’s a little bit of intrinsicness within that, which we’ll come on to explore a little bit later in terms of what these strengths are. We’re focusing on this conversation and part of the reason we’re talking about this is because it’s not always the way that we do things. We don’t always focus on strengths. It’s a different way to think about things. If I were to pick up with you now, what’s the alternative to this? If we’re not adopting a strengths-based approach, what is it that we’re doing? What are some of the challenges of doing things in that other way?

If we’re looking in a work context and also in our personal context, we often look at a goal or a desired outcome. We then frame where we are from a place of deficit. If we’re looking at fitness, we might think, “I’m not fit enough, I’m not the right weight, or I’m not at the place I’d like to be.” You evaluate yourself from the negative. Similarly, at work, at personal development programs and appraisals from a yearly perspective, you look at where the deficit is or where the gap is.

Interestingly, from my work in working with companies, companies who are successful start with what they’re great at. They don’t look at what they’re terrible at and then say, “How can we fix that?” You’re not going to be great at everything. Sadly, the alternative in the workplace is that we still take a very mechanistic perspective on where someone is, analyze the gap, and then do the opposite of energizing them, making them feel very conscious of their deficit, and hope that something will change.

In the twenty years of my corporate career, whilst I have had some positive successes, it often didn’t come from me being better and being analytical on a spreadsheet. It came from me leveraging my strengths with people and creativity. That led to the same outcome but in a much more aligned way with who I am.

The elephant in the room is I don’t think there’s enough evidence that profiling works. As a salesperson, we were taught to profile people. Are you dealing with someone who’s a director or an introvert? Is there a dispo for what might be their Myers-Briggs? When I’ve spoken to people and had honest conversations about whether profiling makes an impact, most people say it’s fun to do, but so is a star sign. The questionnaires, you can get on Facebook, but it lands in your drawer. I don’t think we’re there yet but I think the old way of the deficit approach doesn’t work. There is evidence that the strength-based approach is an improvement upon that.

I like the reference to modern-day astrology there with our star signs and all that. That stuff is booming as a business if not necessarily evidentially backed in any way, which is interesting. Clearly, you can hear a fair bit of your passion coming through in this. You say you’ve seen impacts, benefits, and better outcomes. It sounds like you’ve jumped quite deeply into understanding strengths-based work, and then bringing it into your coaching as well as your working practice. What was it that’s drawn you to this? You’ve alluded to it, but what is it that for you personally has made this seem an interesting place to focus and spend your time?

Personally, it was at the time twelve years ago when I was studying for my MBA. We were looking at lots of different tools that you might use in leadership and organizational behavior and development. The usual suspects came out, including Myers-Briggs, which is based on the big five personality profiles. They are based on recognized models of looking at people and how they interact.

It didn’t seem to resonate with me. My benchmark at the time was Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I remember reading that book quite early in my career, and having a visceral impact on me in terms of sharpening my soul and thinking about how I related to people. I still remember and think of quotes from that book.

WOW 174 | Strengths-Based Approach

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Nothing in my MBA that was people-related resonated with me in the sense that I can see how this would make a difference. When I spoke to other people, they found the same. On a personal level, I was languishing. I chose to do the MBA because of some personal changes I had in my life. I enjoyed studying but I wasn’t feeling happy. I came across this new field of positive psychology. I did this questionnaire and I was disappointed in my strengths.

I’m going to be candid, I wanted to have amazingly powerful strengths like courage, enthusiasm, and being analytical. They’re all soft strengths. I showed my mom and she said, “That’s just you. You are creative. You are appreciative. This is you.” My first reaction was I wanted to be this other person but then my second reaction was, “Actually, this is me.” When I look back on my career when I have been successful, it is when I’ve been able to use those strengths. Something shifted and there was something in this but I didn’t know quite what it was and where it would take me. That was twelve years ago.

Thank you. I can resonate and connect with that exploration of our strengths as sometimes not being what we hoped that they’d be. With that question, if we think about some of the things that changed for you, how you were drawn to it, and some of the things that are there, what do you think are some of the impacts from an individual or a team perspective of making that shift over to focusing on strengths? If you jump in and focus on strengths, what is it that you see as the benefits for teams and organizations overall?

When you differentiate strengths from other psychometrics, the two things that the research will indicate is they are experienced as a sense of being and doing. People describe their strengths as something that describes who they are and how they engage with the world that’s well-recognized. The second part of strengths is that it also intrinsically motivates people and it directs people toward opportunities that will lead to flow.

My layer upon that from my research in the last ten years has been that it amplifies the way we connect with others, both in a negative way and a positive way. What I’ve observed with people I’ve worked with, including teams, when two people interact, they either reflect strengths that they share or reject strengths that they don’t have.

Running a team using a strengths-based approach inspires people to either reflect the strengths they share or reject those they do not have.

On a very micro-interaction level, you have this battle between a relational style that might be comfortable for one person, so a logical introvert versus an extrovert creative type. You have this jostling. When teams are effective, they naturally, over time, find ways of creating bridges between strengths. One person may be an extrovert creative type. The other person might be an introverted logical type. Maybe they’ll find learning or evidence and perspective as a bridge between their two approaches.

The reality is that we all know how to do this. When we worked together physically in meetings in the office, we slowly adapted to getting to know each other’s strengths. The reason this is so much more pressing and important now is that the way we’re working, those micro-interactions are lost. When we are on video or Zoom calls, our first reactions not only set the tone for how we judge that person but it amplifies the degree to which we’re going to engage in that conversation.

If someone reflects my energy back to me, I’m likely to get energized by that and be more engaged and hopefully, they would be engaging back. If someone diminishes or I experience my strengths being rejected or judged, then it sets a very different tone. In the world we work in now versus ten years ago, there aren’t enough natural social factors that soften that polarity.

What you’re saying there makes a lot of sense. It also brings back some memories of the choices I’ve made and the way I’ve thought about things. I think back to myself as a line manager. I worried when I was a first-line manager, and I would have heard what you’ve described as a strengths-based approach, I think I would have said, “Isn’t that just avoiding my weaknesses? Don’t I have to?”

I’ve told you this story before. I took a job once that was everything I was no good at because I thought I had to prove that I could do those. It makes me think that maybe it’s quite hard to go into some workplaces and make this argument that they should be working on people’s strengths and supporting people. What barriers do you see when you advocate for this? When you’ve seen organizations try to do this work, do people accept it? Are they okay with it? Are they excited? What’s what happens? What’s the reaction?

If we’re being candid, the first reaction that most people have to any profiling is suspicion. You’re right, it’s the natural reactions to things, but I take a very positive psychology 2.0 approach to strengths. I don’t think strengths are only experienced and interacted with in a positive way. Strengths can be expressed in a negative way as well as a positive. Your weaknesses are different from your strengths. Your weaknesses may be things that don’t energize you.

I’m a responsible adult. I pay my bills. I’m responsible for my children but there are certain things that don’t energize me. I’m not interested in being overly analytical or logical. I can be those things, they just don’t energize me. I would call those things remote abilities or weaknesses perhaps, but my actual weaknesses are the same as my strengths. I’ll give you an example.

One of my key strengths, or my strongest strength, is creativity. I get this real sense of being energized by it. Whether I’m creating something for my kids to mess around and play with or I’m triangulating data, I get a kick out of it. The negative side of creativity is being a bit all over the place and a bit scatty of not having focus. I’m great at ideas but I often need people around me to say, “What’s the point here? Let’s draw it to something we can execute upon.” My weakness is the same as my strength. The only thing that impacts whether I interact in a way that delights people or ticks them off is whether I’m aware of how that strength is received and whether it’s what someone is looking for from me at that time.

It’s interesting you say that. In some senses, it reminds me of how we often talk about values at World of Work Project, which is that values are not inherently good or bad, but we have to understand they’re personal to us. We have to be able to understand how others perceive that, and also understand other’s values so that we can communicate. It’s interesting what you say about what others would talk about as a weakness. It is not a weakness. It’s just stuff we might not want to do. The weakness is where our strength shows up in a not useful place.

Rather than the individuals doing it, do you find organizations are able to embrace this? If you’re coaching someone and they’re talking through strengths with them then they go to their boss and/or they go to their team or whatever. They say, “I’ve got this whole thing. I’m going to focus on working on my strengths but also on making sure that I understand where they’re causing problems to flare.” Do they generally get a decent response? Do people know about it? Is there an awareness or is there a suspicion about it from a management point of view?

Other people around the individual who’s working on strengths notice a shift in engagement. People I’ve worked with have talked about their own confidence, ability to speak up, and ability to lean into opportunities. What the research around strengths shows is that when an individual is engaging in their strengths, it helps them to flourish, but it also has this positive contagion effect around other people. Even if you’re overusing your strengths.

My creativity example was an example of overuse. The data shows that people are typically under-using. When you are in a workplace where individuals are using their strengths, it encourages other people to react and respond more because you’re increasing the energy in the room. You’re increasing the contribution rather than everyone being quite reticent and waiting to see what the next steps are.

The negative side when I’ve seen it with a particular leadership team that I think of quite some time ago was that the leader was very different in his strengths profile to his direct reports. He was much more driven, very analytical, very research-oriented, and highly academically informed. He was dealing with individuals who related on a much more emotional level. That’s where I noticed the opportunity to think about strengths as bridges.

Rather than guiding or inviting someone to change who they are or how they relate, it’s to see whether there could be different ways of engaging and bringing people in. That’s a relatively new part of my work but I am seeing some early success around that. An example would be when someone feels more comfortable dealing with someone emotional or dealing with someone who’s a bit more reserved without diminishing the sense of who they are.

I’ve got a bit of a follow-up question. Rounding back on the strengths themselves as we’ve been speaking, I’ve been thinking a little bit about it and I would like to explore it. When we speak about strengths and when I read lists of strengths and things like that, one of the things that sometimes I’m curious about is the distinction between strengths and preferences. I wonder if you’ve got any reflections on that.

When I look at strengths and think about them and about my own, they very much align with my preferred way of doing things. It feels like I’m drawn to this as a preference. I find the word strength interesting in that space. What do you think the relationship is between strengths and preferences within this or does it matter?

From my perspective, language can be incredibly personal and important. When I work with clients, I invite them to use their own language to describe their character and what they’re experiencing in strength. I tend to describe these traits as strengths. That’s what the research originally was informed by. To Jane’s earlier point, it’s also known as values in action. It’s how we interact with and interpret the world in relation to what’s important to us.

Preferences would be expressed in your strengths. If you have a strength of the love of learning, for example. I call that strength cultivating knowledge but that might give you a preference for wanting to lean into research and literature and not take things at face value. It may direct your behavior in a certain way. The interesting thing that I discovered about preferences is that all strengths aren’t equal.

I looked at my data for the last twelve years and I initially thought that my data was wrong because there was this huge bias to a certain group of strengths. Some strengths are popular and some strengths are rare. When you come to preferences, if you happen to have a preference that speaks to a popular strength, you’re going to find more harmony and synergy with other people. If you have a preference that speaks to a more remote rare strength, then you may have a preference that makes you feel quite isolated sometimes or more confident, depending on your perspective. I think it’s deeply integral to strengths.

WOW 175 | Strengths-Based Approach

Strengths-Based Approach: If you have a preference that speaks to popular strengths, you will find more harmony and synergy with other people. If you have a preference that speaks to a more remote setup, that could make you feel quite isolated.


That’s interesting to think about the segmentation of strengths based on their prevalence within a population. With that being the case, you said some are more prevalent than others, what scale or difference do we have in there? Are there some that are rare? Are there some that are more ubiquitous? What’s your sense of that distribution?

With many strengths approaches, the focus is always on the signature strengths, which are typically your top five strengths. In my data for the last twelve years, I’ve noticed a bias towards strengths, which I describe as the top five strengths. They are altruistic, so this element of kindness, curiosity, groundedness, which is being down to earth, passionate, the ability to love and be loved, and rational. Those are the five that I’ve seen.

They correlate well with data that has been done by a big study that looked at strengths across the world. Kindness, fairness, and those sorts of strengths always come up as the leading strengths. What I found fascinating was that the strengths often promoted by the self-help industry come out as the lowest or the least frequent strengths of being focused, optimistic, or enthusiastic. They are incredibly rare strengths.

When I meet someone who has some of those strengths, it’s exciting to see how they notice that as a difference. Do they positively regard it or do they see that as a difference that makes it more challenging for them to relate and engage? It’s that tension between belonging and being ourselves, and how we navigate those two polarities.

It’s fascinating when you start to look at that from a more macro level. I’m fascinated by your comment about the self-help industry versus what you see when you look at the data. That’s interesting. In many ways, it’s not a conversation for now. Some of that narrative goes contrary to some of the larger global narratives that we have as well about different parts of society and our connections. It’s interesting to see that clash or contrast in there.

In your experience, if we think about our strengths, how frequently do our top strengths change? Do they flow and evolve? Do they do that in a directionally aligned way? What shapes the genesis of strengths in us and that portfolio of key strengths that we have over time? How does that flow and change work?

In my own experience and also the research that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that typically, at least 3 of your strengths in your top 5 will pretty much stay the same over time. My 3 top strengths have stayed the same over the last ten years. My middling strengths or my 5 to 10 strengths have justled around depending on whether I was working in a corporate environment or being an entrepreneur or studying.

There might be some shifts there but the short answer is that big life events that make you reflect on yourself and your place in life and what you might want to change will invite you to consider new pathways and new opportunities. Whenever you’re learning and developing, your strengths will align with that change.

Big life events push you to reflect on yourself, your place in life, and what you might want to change. Whenever you’re learning and developing, your strengths will align to your desired change.

We’ve got some variation but it sounds like there are some pretty core levels of consistency over your lifetime for most people around your strengths. Thinking about people tuning in to this, I’m tuning in to this and maybe I haven’t come across strength space before or maybe I’ve heard of it but I’m not familiar with it. Firstly, what are the different ways I can find out a bit more about my strengths? Also, why would I do it? What’s in it for me, do you think?

I’ll give you a very relevant personal anecdote that hopefully will set the tone for how people can organically learn about their strengths. There are formal ways of doing psychometrics. The organic way is when I first met you virtually, Jane, at this session where we were learning about the Birkbeck course, I found your approach and your description of things, and your own personal journey captivating. I liked your energy and your approach. I had no idea what your strengths were but I got the sense of, “This is an interesting person. I’d love to talk to them more.” I reached out to you and we’ve spoken a few times.

Before you’ve done your profile, and the audience will get this verified by Jane, I found our conversations easy. I found them interesting. I always learned something. Because I live and breathe strength stuff, I had a suspicion that maybe we have strengths in common. You then did your profile and without sharing your profile, I shared mine. One of the strengths we have in common is this desire to learn and this hunger for knowledge. What that led to was a conversation where the time went quickly. We learned something. We wanted to carry on progressing.

If we didn’t have strengths in common, I would find that conversation a bit more dry. It would be much more outcome focused and much more transactional. That’s the experiential difference of when I meet someone that I click with, I know that I have a strength in common, which means I can be more me. In the work context, what that means is that if you’re more aware of your strengths and you notice how you react to someone, if you react to them positively, then one way of describing your strengths would be, what is it about that person you liked and enjoyed? That’s likely to be a strength that you have.

Equally, you can look back at your successes and do a very commonly known exercise, which is called the star exercise people use for interviews, situations, tasks, actions, and results. We describe successes in those terms of what you were thinking and feeling. They will also highlight to you your strengths. What we’ll highlight to your areas or opportunities to bridge would be the opposite. People you’ve connected with that you didn’t gel with or they got your backup or you found them frustrating.

To describe what the qualities were that you found challenging, how would you rather they have reacted to you or what was it about them that you found challenging? You might notice two things. One, they might be diminishing a strength that you value. A client of mine has playful as a signature strength. He notices when a senior person dampens that energy or wants to move away from humor. Equally, I have to be conscious of creativity as a strength because it’s not always a high strength of people. I’ve got to be mindful that I try and retain some focus in my conversation. See what you react to because that will be a quick way of identifying what energizes you. There are formal ways of doing profiles, including mine and others, in which you can take a much more analytical view of how you’re aligned.

You’re right. That is the conversation we had and that is what showed up in my profile. I’m thinking about some of the things that when I was looking at it came up. You referred to them as remote strengths. It’s not necessarily problems caused by my strongest elements but by stuff that I hesitate to say that I don’t care about because that’s not true. I feel less passionate about it and it feels less important. At the same time, it feels less like me.

This is a slightly different question. If we think it is better to work toward our strengths from a place of giving us more time, flow, energy, and all of that, that sounds great. What if the absence or the remoteness of those strengths is problematic for someone or is creating challenges, does that matter? Do we ignore that? What’s the way that a strengths-based approach would think about something like that?

The goal of trying to correct our weaknesses or our remote strength is a fool’s errand. My approach is that we have to find ways of developing our awareness so that we can assimilate the gaps in our ability to deliver certain things either by bridging or finding strengths that we can learn or working with others who can support or give us that feedback and keep us on track. I have explored and experimented with trying to activate my lower strengths and saying, “What happened?”

What happened is I felt less energized. I felt like shoulds. I should be more focused or I should be more this. It didn’t feel energizing and also, it didn’t achieve the right result. It’s that awareness and honing and thinking how I can apply this tool better coming back to the 7 Habits approach of we engage with each other. It’s in reflection and interaction that we learn how to best contribute. It is in relation to other people rather than in individualistic pursuits. That’s how we get there in my view.

WOW 175 | Strengths-Based Approach

Strengths-Based Approach: A strengths-based approach teaches people how to contribute best in relation to other people rather than in individualistic pursuits.


Imagine you’ve got a team and they’ve heard this. They’re like, “This makes sense for us. This made sense. Maybe this is where we’ve been going on.” The manager wants to explore it more. How would they go about that as a team? What might that mean for what they might do differently in the future based on how they’re working now?

I think of three constructs. I think of me, we, and us. The we is the collective we. Without leaning into strengths, what normally happens is that when a team comes together, they reduce down to the common denominator in terms of everyone contributing less to maintain harmony. The we-approach becomes more about how I can be individualistically successful. Taking a strengths approach would invite a, “How can we define us?”

It’s very much leading into the values conversation. What it would look like from a strengths approach is, Jane, if you and I would work in a team, what strengths would be amplified? The number one probably would be learning. We would be interested. A good bridge for us is what we can learn from this situation that will support both you and me and energize us. I might need you to bring in more focus. I might invite you to explore my creativity, so we might use bridges for that.

Neither of us is hugely high on playful and neither of us is going to goof around. We’re probably going to be directional. The gap for us would be we’re not going to be great stand-up comics. It’s whether the impact of our collective deficit has an impact or whether we use other strengths to find the resources to lead to the outcome. It’s how we combine our strengths together rather than there’s a right or wrong answer.

There is a wrong answer, I must add, where there is a misnomer that you want to align opposites. Whatever your remote strengths are, the argument is that we should find someone who has those as their highest strengths and that would make a good team. In my experience, it doesn’t. It leads to conflict and both people then reduce their contribution.

That’s so interesting. I’m having flashbacks to teams that I’ve worked with because the playfulness one is particularly interesting because I’m not. I’ve worked with someone who is, and we were separate teams but working quite close together. When we were in high-stakes and high-pressure situations, playfulness would come out. It would be apoplectically wasteful to me. What was interesting is when it was just the two of us, it didn’t help.

We were working with a much larger team. We used to work with a site team of a couple of hundred. Some people needed that, and then I could see what that person brought because they picked that up when I didn’t have to deal with it. I think what you say is right. When it’s just you, it’s not like you suddenly need to plug a gap because there’s no gap. It doesn’t bother us and we don’t need it.

If there are other people in the team that need it, then you have to start thinking, “There needs to be more than one of you,” because some of you need to find that space or that person needs to be given the freedom to do it because they need it, or because they’re exhibiting their strengths and it’s where they’ll feel at their strongest and value what they’re adding to the situation. That makes total sense.

I’m going to ask you a slightly different question, which relates a little bit to a conversation you and I’ve had. It’s a conversation that James and I talked about quite a lot. It relates a little bit back to why we don’t all work like this. Also, why we don’t work like this from a slightly more critical perspective. I grew up in a world where you were meant to fix the things that you were bad at. Also, that work was not meant to be enjoyable. You could have moments of enjoyment and achievement but if there was ‘slog’ for you, that was you earning the right to do work that you also enjoyed to some extent.

As I’m talking to people coming into their careers earlier, I feel like they feel a little bit differently about that. Also, I wondered how much of that is why we ended up working to a much more fixing approach versus this. I wonder whether you think it’s going to be easier for people to embrace a strengths-based approach now that maybe people are letting go of some of that.

First of all, those concerns are valid but I want to differentiate whether the deficit is more to do with an outcome in the workplace or personal goal that people want to work towards. At the beginning of the call, I talked about fitness because it’s something that’s on my mind. It’s on my should-list. It’s interesting because ten years ago, I was obsessed with running. I never felt that I should go running. I just loved it. It was something I look forward to. There has never been a should for me but now it’s a should.

I know that whilst it has moved into that headset or that mindset for me, I’m not going to want to do it because I see it as punitive or as a negative thing. For me to get to that place, I know I have to activate that strength that creates that dopamine rush and that desire again. The outcome is the same. It’s this intention to want to get fit again.

You can do it either by focusing on what you’re not doing or by engaging a strength that will create that desire or that intrinsic motivation to want to get you there. Before it used to be music or my time in nature or it might be a new route. I’d bring my creativity. I would map out a new route that I wanted to do. I would be activating a strength. What it wasn’t was the strength of self-discipline because that is not a strength of mine. It was a different strength. You can have a gap and want to move toward that achievement but you do it from a place that energizes you because you’ll get there faster by being practical.

Also, commenting on how we’ve worked in the past, we probably didn’t need strength so much because we were in the office. We were reading each other, understanding each other, and observing each other. We have less of those cues. Even though we focused on a weakness approach, humans are stubbornly resistant to change. Even if you focus on a weakness approach, people invariably use their strengths to get there, whether they knew it or not. With a spreadsheet analysis, I’ve never liked spreadsheets. I now love Excel because I can be creative with it. It’s a different way of using a tool that energizes me.

That makes a lot of sense. I almost guarantee there’s no research about this. If there is, it’s certainly not part of this topic but I’m going to ask it anyway. I’m sitting here thinking, for people who have significant issues with procrastination, there’s a narrative around if it’s not self-discipline, it’s different.

How much do you think a strength-based approach could be a solution for some people in trying to generate that desire to get things done that maybe they struggle with from a procrastination point of view? I’m conscious that there’s a huge growing market at the moment over-procrastination tools. A lot of them focus on time management and task breakdown. I was just interested and I’m speculating a little bit about whether something strengths-based approach might help.

It probably would but not so much in terms of providing a specific prescription. Unlike a lot of psychometric models, which profile you in terms of colors or types. The strengths approach is a constellation of strengths. You have some strengths that help you motivate yourself towards change and self-reliance. Some strengths are much more pro-social.

It’s thinking about how that strength could align with that goal. If it’s procrastination, maybe you’re missing out on that engagement with other people. Maybe it’s having that group accountability or there’s something else. There’s a signal around this isn’t motivating you or there’s something else you want to do instead. I think procrastination is a valuable piece of internal feedback, but it’s what you do with that information.

Procrastination is actually a valuable piece of internal feedback. However, it will only be effective if you take active action with that information.

Is it you haven’t found something that works for you? Gamification is used hugely in lots of different approaches because it invites a sense of flow. You want to achieve and get the next badge. Some people gamify better as an individual. Other people do it better in a tribe. It’s aligning with who you are before you figure out what you want to do.

Thank you. That’s a topic we’ve covered a few times, looking into that procrastination space. It’s an interesting dimension to bring into this type of conversation. If we’re going to think a little bit about our organizations and if you could wave a magic wand and have a team be fully immersed in a strengths-based approach, what would it look like? What would that greatness look like for a small-ish team, let’s say 5 to 8 people, on a strength-based approach? What would excellent be in that team? What would their strengths blend be? How would they interact? What would it do? What would they do?

I don’t think there’s an optimal profile out there for the perfect person to lead a team in innovation or customer service or other fields. If there’s one takeaway, it’s how strengths invite you to self-reflect rather than to experientially judge or feel judged at the moment and the interaction with other people. It invited this lens of I’m enjoying this conversation. Perhaps there are some strengths going on or some synergy going on. It’d be great to lean into that. Equally, this happens a lot, I’m not enjoying this conversation. I feel uncomfortable or there’s some tension here. What might be going on there? What might be a different way for me to engage rather than to be binary about it?

What I’d like to encourage people to do is to think about how they can invite other people to own their strengths more and to find a way of engaging in a way they can contribute. This comes before psychological safety. There has to be cognitive trust. I trust you’re someone who can do what they say they’re going to do because you feel motivated to do so rather than because I’ve told you to.

Find out how you can invite other people to own their strengths by building cognitive trust. Believe that they can do something because you have motivated them, not just because you have told them to do so.

This cognitive trust comes from having alignment with strengths and the sense of we see the world through similar mental models. When people experience strength synergy, that’s the feeling of I trust this person to do what they’re going to say they do. This might be controversial to say but psychological safety emerges from that cognitive trust because I get why this person is doing things this way and I trust them to deliver for me. That permeates between two people into a team and into a division. We lose some of that emotional synergy as you diffuse but it does create a more positive sense of engagement because of contribution.

If we unpick that creation of a cognitive trust in the early stages and get that real framework, what are some specific practical things that maybe a manager and a team could do to bring to life more opportunities to create or be aware of the existence of cognitive trust?

One of the biggest things is looking at how employees feel valued and recognized in the workplace. Gallup, who is a big proponent of strengths-based engagement in the workplace, found that one of the biggest predictors of employee retention and satisfaction was using their top strengths at work. Also, their manager recognized their strengths. It’s that recognition that almost amplifies our experience of our value at work.

Sadly, the data showed that only 20% of people feel that. If you think back to people you’ve managed or been managed by, there probably were moments where you felt, “This person gets me. They value my contribution and that motivates me more.” If we can foster that awareness of seeing the difference in someone as being valuable, then that will invite strength as being a way of supporting diversity and inclusion in all those facets.

It’s not just ED&I in the workplace but seeing difference as a valuable contributor and finding ways to connect with bridges. It’s that feeling of recognizing opportunities to use your top strengths but also seeing that they are valuable. An example for me would be a manager who recognizes my creativity and invite me to solve a problem. I would feel energized by that and I would feel valued by the fact that my manager sees me as someone who’s good at doing that.

That makes a whole amount of sense. Again, there’s a space in there for intentionality and observation from the leaders and managers around there to step into that and realize that part of the role is to bring this interpretation of the world around them to light and to assess and reflect and give that positivity back. That’s great. In terms of thinking about maybe activities or anything like that, are there things that leaders could do to aid their reflection on this or to get them thinking about things they could do in their team to bring this to life for them?

Another good way is to think about how people interact in pairs, especially in a team. You’ll have different qualities come up when you have two people working together, then that same person working with someone else brings up a different dynamic. It is in the interactions where those strengths are amplified. That is when you notice the most. Jane, to your point earlier, when you notice in a group someone who had humor as a signature strength and they were perhaps interacting with someone else, it got amplified. With someone like you and me, it probably wouldn’t get amplified quite so much.

WOW 175 | Strengths-Based Approach

Strengths-Based Approach: There is a different dynamic when people interact with pairs. There are different qualities that come up when two individuals work closely together.


It is noticing the difference and looking at how you bring that in. In times of change, where you might want to lean into resilience, you might move towards those pro-social strengths that some people have more than others and invite that person to perhaps lead that conversation more. It’s managing that dynamic between finding a sense of belonging and recognizing the difference. Studies show that we want to feel moderately to highly similar to other people but have sufficient differences. This desire to be different is important to us as well. It’s holding that tension of belonging and being different.

Thank you. In the interest of time, I’m going to bring our conversation to a close. I think we’ve talked about a whole range of interesting aspects of focusing on our strengths. Before we go though, could you say a little how people can learn more about you and the work that you do?

I’d be delighted to. You can find me on LinkedIn, Kay Bahia. You can also go to I invite you to do a profile, and I’ll be happy to talk to you about that. On a more personal level after this, if you’ve enjoyed this conversation, I invite you to call someone up who knows you well and ask them on the spot, “What do you notice about me at my best and what energizes you?” Make a note of it and see if you can find an opportunity to use that in the next few weeks. The studies show that if you can start that practice, the well-being and positivity surrounding that will benefit you for six months to a year beyond that exercise. I hope it’s useful to you and your team.

That’s a great invitation. Thank you very much, Kay.

Thank you.

You are back in the room with us. That was our conversation with Kay all about our strengths, taking a strength-based approach to our personal development and our experience in the workplace as individuals and leaders. We covered a good range of stuff in there. Jane, is there anything that stood out for you that you want to reflect back on a little bit?

For me, it’s always an interesting thing because I spent the first part of my career pretty much obsessing over my weaknesses and spending my whole time thinking about how to fix them. I wonder what would have been different if I’d spent more time thinking about what I was good at and even improving on that. I don’t know what comes first. I don’t know whether it’s that I’m a bit of a jack of all trades but a master of none, generally. Therefore, I’m attracted to that and to learning new things and therefore, I’m looking at spaces where I’m not already competent, or whether that absence of thinking about strengths didn’t give me time or focus to focus on being good at something.

It’s made me think about how we approach our personal development on a big scale. I come down on the side of you need to do enough work on your weaknesses. Let me rephrase, where things create problematic situations for others, then you need to think about those things. You know I love Hertzberg’s motivation theory. For me, it’s almost figuring out what the hygiene factors are and what is not relevant.

The playfulness thing that we were talking about in the episode might not be an issue for a lot of teams. I don’t need to do anything about it, but I do need to understand where things are problematic because then I need to be able to do enough to take that issue off the table and allow me to focus on my strengths. Does that make sense?

That makes sense. Like you, for us focusing on our strengths is a key part. Similarly, that hygiene metaphor is pretty helpful when it comes to thinking about some of our lesser strengths as well. That’s a good way to think about it. Building on that, all this stuff changes and evolves a bit over time. That journey piece is helpful in learning to navigate in a world where we’ve got strengths and lesser strengths. Learning how to be that person who balances both of those in our interactions, in our own lives, and the workplace is important.

With that, something that came up in there that I very much agree with is quite often our strengths and maybe our weaknesses are two sides of a coin. They just are. I don’t think we can be all things to all people. I don’t think we can be all things to ourselves. The things that make us excellent at one thing make us a little bit less good at other things.

The energy and creativity and inspiration on one hand might mean less attention to detail on another. We have these pairs and we can’t be all these things. It’s hard to be all those different things. That’s relevant. One thing also that stood out for me a little bit was the role of observation in managers. How do we observe and reflect in that space to step back and notice what’s going on around us and to be intentional and to think about how things are in our team?

It came up for me. It jumped into my mind when Kay spoke about how one pair of people work and create an experience compared to another pair of people in your team. The role of a manager to be intentionally observing in that space and seeing what their skills and capabilities are, and helping navigate that nuance to bring out the best and give everyone an opportunity to bring their skills to strength stood out for me. What do you reflect on that, Jane? Anything to build on that?

Your point about the role of the people around you and the way that we interact is valid. If I was going to push it even further if we forget the contractual obligations for a minute, and I know we can’t. I know managers have to do all sorts of things, and people have to do all sorts of things in their job. I can’t believe I’m going to say this. I feel like it comes back to open conversations and feedback. I was listening to someone or it was someone on Twitter or something. It was a while back and someone I respected.

They were talking about difficult conversations and they were saying, “Everyone keeps talking about how we need to have difficult conversations. Sometimes the conversation isn’t the answer. Sometimes we need to get on and do the work.” I remember thinking at the time that I agreed with him. You know I love a workshop on difficult conversations. I remember thinking at the time, “I agree with you,” and I’m sitting here now several years on and I’m like, “I’m not sure that having difficult conversations solves every problem, but I am sure that it can move you forward to a better resolution in pretty much every case.”

It’s not going to fix my inability to proofread but it is going to fix the choices we make as a business about whether we let me be put in a position where I need to proofread. We talk about this, James, sometimes about how much you should work on strengths and skills and weaknesses. There are some that are problematic and are fixable. I would argue it is probably a poor investment of our time and money to improve my proofreading at this stage.

I’m nodding, by the way.

I realized you’re nodding and no one can see that. James is nodding vociferously on screen. There’s a little part of me that thinks honest conversations about what is likely to be improved and where there is an appetite for improvement and what isn’t and there isn’t help people move on to an honest conversation about, is this still the right fit? Do we change what fits for you or do we change the person or do we need to find something different?

I’m going some with this, I promise. That takes me always to the point of I never understand why organizations are so desperate to keep people. I’ve always said that I don’t understand it from an organizational perspective because I’ve been in small organizations and there are no jobs for them. I’m going to go back on all of that. I don’t understand it. Surely, the best thing is always if the fit is not right, whatever the costs are, the best is to lovingly and helpfully support them when they want to move on.

I’m with you on that. It’s trying to create a space where people are using their strengths in this example or fulfilling the dream. It’s the right thing to aim towards.

I’m not saying that there are problematic issues with strengths that we don’t need to address. I get that, and I know you do too. We talked about that before. I’m just saying that having an honest conversation about whether there’s an appetite to improve is probably a good place to go.

Doing one or bringing it to team meetings and stuff like that feels like such a wonderful starting point. Have conversations about strengths, the impact of using them, reflecting on our own, speaking about others, speaking about how that fits with our roles, and crafting our roles to become more of those. All of that seems like a no-brainer to me.

Can I leave you with one question that I think is cool? I was thinking about this, and I think we’ve done this in our work. We asked a question which was, how confident would you be to describe other people’s strengths in your team? How confident would you be to predict how others would describe your strengths in the team? I was thinking about it. That is for me has got to be one aspect of a high-performing team. That’s what James had written all over. I’ll chuck it over to James quickly. It’s got to be helpful from an efficiency perspective.

I agree, and as you said, it’s a question we sometimes use in workshops. I think that’s a great question to leave people reflecting on and working toward. With that, it’s time for us to say goodbye. It is goodbye for me.

It’s goodbye for me.


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