How often have you been advised – or advised others – to “play to your strengths”? It sounds like common sense, but is it actually a recipe for success?

Well, there is certainly research evidence to support the value of identifying and playing to them.

Benefits for the individual include elevated vitality and motivation, a greater sense of direction and higher probability of goal attainment,. And not to mention increased self-confidence and productivity.

Focusing on strengths also improves organisational performance.

In the world of business we know that emphasising employee strengths in performance reviews increases performance. By some 36.4%. A recent (2018) Gallup Poll reported a 12.5% increase in the productivity of teams whose managers received a strengths intervention and 14.9% lower turnover rates.

It is hardly surprising that one of the key contributions of positive psychology is considered to be enabling people to identify their core strengths and use them.

So, is the strengths recipe for success as simple as “Use your strengths more!”?

Well, no, it is not quite that straightforward. Being the best me I can be is not just about operating in my gifts, it is also about meaning and enjoyment too. Back in the day, at Uni I changed my major from Maths to Geography. I was brilliant at Maths, but I loved Geography. If I hadn’t switched my academic major, one term in, from what I was good at to what I found interesting, I would have been very unhappy.

The science suggests being good at something does not necessarily mean it is a true strength. Alex Linley a renowned Positive Phychologist defines a strength as a:

“pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.”

Natural talent is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a strength. If an area of effectiveness is not energising, it is likely to be merely a “learned behaviour”, not a true strength.

So, what if we refine our recipe to, “Use your true strengths more!”?

Well think about it. Let’s take someone whose top strengths are all strengths of the intellect. If such a person were to develop only those strengths further, s/he might miss out on the social and emotional riches of life.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean is relevant here. Optimal strengths use calls for “the right strength, to the right amount, in the right way, and at the right time”.

And what about situations which call for strengths which are not in your top 5 or 10? Perhaps we need an approach which recognises their value, but also contextualises them; an approach which acknowledges that all strengths may not be equal; that, in certain contexts, some strengths may be optional whilst others are essential.

How do I use strengths in my work with executives?

Well I get my clients to consider which ones are required in the particular situation they face. Highlight the necessity of wisdom to discern which combination of strengths are likely to be most effective in a specific context.

Getting clients to see all is not lost, if their capacities do not happen to be their natural strengths. For if we embrace a mindset that is willing to learn, to put in effort and persevere in the face of challenge – in short, if we go for growth – we can grow strengths that may not be ‘natural’ talents.

Learning from our mistakes and working on our weaknesses…

Growth however, is not the easy option; it is not necessarily pleasant, indeed it may even reduce happiness in the short term.

I would suggest that here, again, wisdom holds the key. Having the wisdom to discern in which contexts to play to existing strengths and in which to go for growth. My hunch is that stress, vulnerability, attitude to risk and how high the stakes are might be factors relevant to the optimal balance between growth and strengths.

For instance, working recently with an organisation that is going through a very stressful period, I have recommended to my client (its CEO) that he finds ways for the team to play to their strengths, in order to build energy and well-being.

However, I have also advised that it would be important to consider what strengths are required in different contexts and also – when things get less stressful – to go for growth/challenge.

If that all seems more complex than you would like it to be, do not be put off!

I’ve become a “growth specialist” in the garden. Not growing flowers, learning new exercises. I am usually boggled by how much there is to think about – breathing, engaging the abdominals, posture and all the rest – not to mention doing the exercise correctly!

It might take a while for everything to slot into place, but when it does, the exercise is much more effective.

At one level, the message “my strengths are the recipe for success” may be true. On the other, their application requires a nuanced, thoughtful, context-specific approach. That can only be a good thing.