What Knowing Your Strengths Does (and Doesn’t Do) for You

A common element of leadership coaching is a 360 review. This is an assessment of a client’s leadership skills and abilities by colleagues all around the client(supervisors, peers, and direct reports), hence “360.” I have conducted, interpreted, and reviewed hundreds of 360s with leaders over the past decade, and a recurrent theme is that people pour over their areas of development while barely eyeing their strengths. 

Once when I asked a client her thoughts about the strengths identified in her 360 report, she responded, “I skipped those.” Another said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to look at those.” A third said, “what I am supposed to do with those?”

It’s biologically hard-wired into us to look for threats. We had to be on alert for wild animals that might kill us. There wasn’t a lot of time left over to smell the roses. While we no longer have tigers charging at us, we have the modern-day psychological equivalent: the criticism. The criticism is also known as the constructive feedback, the area of development, or, simply, the weakness. Regardless of its name, it can be psychologically processed as a threat.

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Some clients’ fear begins prior to opening their 360 report. They experience dread and anxiety and postpone reading it. Others open it immediately and head directly to the areas of development, combing over them like an archeologist with a tiny brush. Both are responses to the fear felt inside. The threat becomes the focus, leaving no space to take in the good. 

What do we miss by not acknowledging our strengths?

When we don’t know our strengths, we don’t know what we uniquely bring to a situation. This can limit our ability to know what we like or want to do. It can also limit our ability to impact the world around us. Both of these scenarios can create confusion, boredom, or frustration.

One client unhappy with her job started coaching with me. She felt her options were limited by her lack of formal education in her chosen field. Through our work together she learned that in addition to her technical knowledge, she had tremendous strengths in the process aspects of work: providing clear structure for teams, facilitating group discussions, and resolving issues in order to move projects forward. These abilities were so natural for her that she not only didn’t notice them, but also didn’t value them. We all know that these skills are needed and that not everyone has them. With her new awareness she was able to seek greater leadership opportunities in which to use these skills. As a result she was more fulfilled at work and contributed even more to the field she cares so much about.

Another client had innovative ideas for improving his field, but wasn’t sure how to bring those ideas to the external world. As we worked together he became not only clearer about strengths but also more confident in his leadership skills. He had the ability to organize large systems, break down complex visions into understandable actions, and build strong relationships. Now he had the realization that he could leverage these natural abilities to create great organizational change. His idea is now front and center in his organization.

The better we know our strengths the more we can experience joy in our efforts. We also become more confident in our abilities, actually “owning” our qualities, abilities, and skills. With more clarity and more confidence, we are better positioned to impact our environment. 

While knowing our strengths helps us in ways outlined above, there is at least one big misconception about what knowing our strengths can do. As much as our culture wants to counteract the inner critic (you will recognize this voice inside as the one that tells you in big and small ways how bad you are) with positive affirmations about ourselves, I have yet to experience, witness, or read about this actually working. 

Why doesn’t it work? Because the inner critic cannot be reasoned with, which is essentially what reciting our strengths to the inner critic is an attempt to do. Inner critic: “you are lazy.” Voice of reason: “I am hard-working.” Sounds logical, but please let me know if you’ve had long-lasting effects from this type of intervention. To further understand the workings of the inner critic, read here.

With that caveat, how can you take in your strengths? Here are a few ideas.

1. Notice the type of work or work activities you engage in during the day are so natural for you that you almost forget you’re doing them. 

2. When someone acknowledges your contribution (tip: they might say “thank you” or “you did that so well”), ask them what specifically you did well

3. When you or someone else identifies a strength of yours, breath it in like you would the scent of a fragrant flower or a fine wine: slowly take it in, explore it as it comes in, savor it – not simply to enjoy it, but to really know it

By the way, if you’re worried that acknowledging your strengths will make you arrogant, please heed this story. Remember the client who was unhappy with her job at the beginning of coaching? She worried that accepting her strengths would expunge her humility. In fact, humility was one of her strengths. But it was not the only one. Her inner critic was twisting her humility and using it against her (that inner critic is insidious and subversive!), saying, “if you’re really humble, you don’t have any strengths.” Not accepting her other strengths simply kept her limited (that’s the goal of the inner critic!), not humble. She was able to not only acknowledge, accept, and utilize her strengths toward a meaningful end, but also to do so with humility.