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The Role of Strengths and Skills in Increasing Engagement, and Vice Versa

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Most companies onboard new employees with a standard review of the company handbook and policies, a tour of the facility that includes expectations of behavior and possibly opportunities available, and an introduction to some available employee who takes the new person to lunch the first day. That first day is supposed to integrate them into the business and prompt engagement.

But a study published in the MIT Sloan Review suggests that this approach has exactly the opposite effect. It leads the individual to “downplay their own identities, at least at work,” in order to fit into the existing company structure and expectations. As a result, employees are more likely to quit, feel disengaged from their work and peers, and experience stress leading to poorer performance.

The researchers recommend instead an approach they call “personal-identity socialization” to truly engage individuals at work. The approach hinges on these steps:

  • Identify each individual’s strengths and skills.
  • Allow each individual to authentically interact with others, rather than waiting until after work to be themselves.
  • Provide opportunities for your team to apply their individual strengths and skills to their job.


Identify Strengths and Skills

If you ask someone to list their strengths and skills, they will probably give you whatever answer they think will fit your preconceptions or accelerate them on their career path. You and your team may benefit from coaching and training that is specifically related to strength and skills identification. A Gallup study found that strengths training for employees improved their engagement 7.9% and reduced turnover 14.9%, while managers who received strengths training increased profitability 8.9%.

The following basic steps will help you identify the strengths and skills of team members:

  • Establish an open and trustful relationship with your team first. Then when you ask them to self-identify their strengths (or weaknesses they would like to improve), you are more likely to get quality answers.
  • Observe, listen, and share. Show emotional intelligence in assessing others, and share the SMaRT techniques for building emotional intelligence, so that your team becomes more in touch with their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Ask others. Ask the team in a group meeting to identify the strengths and skills they most admire and appreciate in each team member in turn.
  • Look at what each team member posts online. Periodically, note what organizations they join, root for, or support; and what they have added to their online profiles. You may find clues to hidden enthusiasms that can benefit your team and the company.

TIP: When you support people in their strengths and skills, you are more likely to build an open and trustful relationship that allows them to be authentic.

Allow People To Be Authentic

Allowing people to be authentic is not the same as forcing them to be behave in a way that you consider authentic. When you allow people to be authentic, you:

  • Recognize the individual. Your efforts should extend to such details as providing rewards or swag with the individual’s name on it rather than the company’s name alone; and asking the team to help with decisions and problem solving.
  • Extend praise and share credit. Sometimes people fail to recognize their own strengths until someone else mentions them. When you recognize people for specific achievements, they feel seen, appreciated, and engaged.
  • Allow conflict. If you stifle disagreements on your team, you allow them to fester and you suppress what may be important insights or points of view. As long as the conflict is respectful, it will enhance engagement, as people express their true opinions and interact with each other.
  • Give them time to unwind. Unwinding allows your team to find their emotional balance, de-stress, and concentrate on activities that bring them happiness and an opportunity to try new things. They will feel more engaged on their return if they have time away from work.
  • Give them time to settle in. Any new responsibility, new team member, new project, or new perception of themselves or you is likely to cause some discomfort initially. Most people will find a productive way to deal with the discomfort on their own and grow stronger for it if you step back. Recognize and respect the need for boundaries.

TIP: Accommodate whatever “eccentricities” you can, without undermining the team by showing favoritism.

Provide Opportunities

“Strengths” are something defined as those things a person is good at, passionate about, and develops naturally, whereas every “skill” is learned. However, neither skills nor strengths are static. A chance to exercise and improve one’s strengths and skills at work is important for feeling engaged.

Keep in mind that everyone has strengths and skills they prefer to keep private. For example, you may find that the team member who eagerly takes center stage in amateur theater resents being asked to use those skills in giving presentations or in delivering a company message to peers. An individual my consider one strength or skill out of bounds, yet be more than willing to share others at work.

To encourage individuals to apply their strengths and skills at work:

  • Build on past success. Past success is a good indicator of future success. What kinds of skills does each team member regularly contribute and is there a way for you to build on those skills or use them more often?
  • Embrace SMaRT strategies for improving communication, influencing, decision making, problem solving, and time management skills and for improving resilience, self-awareness, and team synergy, among other strengths.
  • Appreciate the gamut of strengths and skills. For example, every project requires people who think strategically, those who build relationships and influence others, and those who execute. All of those strengths are equally important—if any one of them is missing, the project will fail.
  • Once again, an authentic conversation is not only your best means to identify strengths and skills but also to find out about each team member’s personal goals. Would they like training, a mentor, a chance to lead, coaching, a chance to broaden their experience?

When you give people the opportunity to shine, they reward you with their best efforts and with enthusiasm for the next challenge that comes along.

TIP: The distinction between strengths and skills is important. Training can sharpen skills and experience can sharpen strengths; but if someone truly dislikes leading, for example, demanding leadership from them merely breeds frustration and a sense of failure—the opposite of engagement.

Key Takeaways

We succeed best and most often at what we do best. When you take the time to identify and help others identify their strengths and skills, you have a basis for improving engagement by giving them the opportunity to succeed. Engaged people act in a way that is authentic to them—rather than constantly worrying about whether they fit into the company’s expectations. Authentic people feel free to bring their strengths and skills to bear in the workplace, and therefore act more strategically, build more productive relationships, and execute more effectively.

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