There has never been a better time to unleash the power of team strengths.

Written on the 12 June 2013 by Paul Brewerton

The power of the team is in its strengths!

Paul Brewerton, co-disigner of Strengthscope, explains how teams can identify and use members' strengths to improve performance.

Employees are suffering survivor syndrome or 'change fatigue', some are unsure of the future and of how they can best, or even continue to, contribute in a rapidly changing continuously uncertain environment.
More, doing more with less, increasing engagement and productivity are key drivers of synergistic teamwork aimed at creating a sense of control and autonomy for individuals, deploying the collective strengths of the team and providing a sense of group identity, purpose and meaning - widely regarded as being the single most important component in high-performing teams.

Whether you have the luxury of establishing a brand new team to deliver on a particular project or task, a restructured team, with some team members who know each other, have a so-called 'dysfunctional' teams, who are performing at a lower-than-acceptable standard, or a team wanting to take the step from good to great, whatever the status of the team, the development of individual and team strengths
tends to be an area that has been under-explored and unexploited.

When taking teams through this process of developing strength and versatility, we use our 4As model:

  • Awareness,
  • Action,
  • Agility and
  • Achievement.

We feel that it's important for teams to follow a semi-structured process for their development to ensure that they can take in productive habits that last over time and become part of the team's normal 'way of doing things'.

Without this semi-structured approach, we've found that many team development interventions start and finish with initial self-disclosure; with team members talking about their aspirations, motivations, their strengths and development areas; with some practical activities that see the team starting to work in a more open and trusting way. However, unless these initial activities are followed up with action and then built on over time, it is most often the case that initial positive steps go no further and the team retreats into old habits and behaviours.

Strengthscope Team Reports and training at Talent ToolsOur recommended approach starts with the initial 'Awareness' stage of strengths discovery, as well as discussions around the team's purpose and individual roles and responsibilities.

The aims, at this stage, are to help the team understand individual strengths: what energises and excites members about work; when they are at their best and approaching a 'flow' state; which strengths they would like other members of the team to 'call on them' for.

To facilitate this discussion, we ask individuals to complete our strengths assessment psychometric tool first, to provide a common language and understanding around their individual strengths. During the workshop that follows this, the team explore their most significant individual strengths and 'showcase' these, asking the rest of the team to 'call on them' for particular strengths they possess that can benefit other team members.

Using the team report, members explore the strengths that define the team, those that they value the most and those that they may be taking for granted, as well as finding out which strengths they lack and whether this may present a risk to the team's performance.
This set of discussions ends with a definition of the team's core purpose based on strengths and a set of actions (moving into the second 'A' of our model: Action) for the team to start using individual and collective strengths in a more deliberate way.

Initially, this may mean reallocation of work based on strengths, closer working between people with complementary strengths, and people undertaking to use others' stand-out strengths to help them in their work.

What we are looking for here, are some 'quick wins' that can help the team gain value from the strengths approach to increase the chances of it embedding at this early stage. This is most often based on increasing the connections between individual team members so they can gain a hands-on appreciation of how other people's strengths could be useful to them, and how their strengths could be useful to others, in the team context.

Action: building connections between colleagues and applying team strengths

The second 'Action' stage of the model is typically covered during a second workshop, perhaps a month or two after the first workshop. We start with a review discussion to help the team establish what has changed since the first meeting, what has worked well, what they have learned about themselves and others within the team and how
this learning has shaped their behaviour.

So, by this stage, the team will have gained a clearer vision of their purpose and core strengths; a better understanding of how they can achieve their objectives using those strengths; and some practical guidance about how team members would like to contribute to their team's goals using their own strengths and energies. However, the team will also have experienced challenges since the first workshop - members may have become more aware of elements of the work environment that are holding them back from being as productive as they can be; for some people, being busy may have prevented them from using the knowledge they gained at the first workshop to make much of a difference to their approach in the team context. So, at this stage, we encourage teams to introduce disciplines into their core processes to ensure that the strengths approach becomes embedded.

As with any approach to change, new knowledge and new behaviour needs to be reinforced and embedded using a variety of levers. These can include, for example, performance management/appraisal conversations, project/task allocation, discussions of strengths at team meetings, visual representations to remind team members of each others' strengths, reviewing positive experiences (as well as negative ones) and the role that strengths had to play in achieving positive outcomes.

We also explore work environment enablers and blockers of the productive use of team members' strengths, identified in our team report at the first workshop. It may be that the team feels that, for example, workload, business processes, senior leadership approach, level of collaboration, or any other number of factors are either inhibiting the team from achieving its goals, or are supporting the team in this regard. We encourage the team to be realistic in formulating plans for change as a result of organisational constraints and also organisational strengths. Where aspects of the work environment are outside the team's control, we ask them what they can do to effect changes at a local level.

At the end of the second workshop, the team will have a clear, simple action plan to help them overcome some of their challenges and to leverage those aspects of work that enable or empower them. This action plan is designed to embed strengths by using the approach through core team processes, such as task allocation, appraisal/coaching conversations, objective setting, etc. The team is typically tasked with putting this plan into action before the third workshop and collecting information on the successful implementation of the plan.

Agility: learning to 'curb team enthusiasm' and get the best from strengths

At the third stage of the 4As process, the idea of 'Agility' is introduced. In order to remain relevant and successful, we have found that teams need to learn how to be flexible and keep pace with their changing environment, as well as how to take advantage of new opportunities that arise.Build your Strong Team with Talent Tools

Questions we pose to the team at this stage include:

  • is the team sufficiently responsive to changes in customer/stakeholder requirements?
  • are team processes and tools designed to aid effective communication and decision-making?
  • to what extent is the team always looking for opportunities to 'stretch' and improve ts performance?
Through understanding current trends and future scenarios, we help teams realise how they can make best use of their strengths, skills and knowledge to manage change in a way that promotes sustainable success and growth. This may take various forms but typically involves some scenario-planning activities, exploring various possible futures and planning how the team can use their core strengths, individual strengths and brand to remain successful in any situation.

Part of this conversation relates to agile use of strengths, specifically ensuring that strengths do not go into overdrive (for example, a Collaboration strength in overdrive leads to over-consultation and delayed decision-making, or a Results-focus strength in overdrive leads to people not feeling bought-in or involved in the delivery of a project but railroaded into delivering short-term results).

In addition, the team may need to ensure that limiting weaknesses are explored and addressed, at both individual and team levels. For example, the team may lack a member with an Efficiency strength and recognise this as an area that needs attention and for which they may need external support, otherwise they may risk not developing, or valuing, the core processes needed to deliver their objectives.
Achievement: reinforcing success and maintaining momentum

The final of the 4As - or at least the final stage of the first cycle of the model - is 'Achievement'. This stage represents the importance of recognising and acknowledging where achievements have been made as a result of using strengths differently, and particularly having conversations about these successes and achievements to maximise the learning and the benefit that the team can derive as a whole.

What we have found is that productive teams monitor progress habitually and build strong learning and feedback loops into everyday work practices to ensure constant improvement. At this stage of the 4As process, we help teams identify and implement success strategies and practices that will ensure continuous improvement and maintain high levels of positive energy over the long run, as well as delivering short-term results.

In addition, we help teams formalise what success looks like, how to spot it and how to mark it. Most often, this relates to the perspective of the team's customers/stakeholders and whether they agree that the team is delivering real value to them.Of course, the cycle doesn't end here - with the team's knowledge and self-awareness growing all the time and the strengths philosophy becoming more embedded, an enhanced level of awareness emerges and the 4As cycle starts again, this time taking individual and team strengths to the next level of performance.

Strengths: a silver bullet for team performance?

What we have found in applying the strengths approach is that teams that follow the cycle through in a disciplined way report a number of important benefits. These include:
  •  clarity around team purpose, priorities and roles
  •  a more collaborative team culture in which strengths are truly used by the team and for the team
  •  a positive, energised team environment
  •  a genuine appreciation of diversity
  •  more open, authentic communication and feedback
  •  improved confidence, resilience and resourcefulness in the team
  •  improved team productivity and results.

So, is the identification and use of a team's strengths the 'silver bullet' to developing high-performing teams? It may not be the only answer but it can certainly provide teams with a sense of control and a renewed sense of identity and meaning in an otherwise unpredictable environment. We would encourage teams to understand their strengths and talents and to drive up team performance by using them more effectively.

Reference 1  Csíkszentmihályi M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row (1990)

Talent Tools provides Strengthscope Reports, Accreditation and in-house strengths-based team workshops. Enquire Here.

Author:Paul Brewerton
About: Co-founer and director of the Strengths Partnership, UK. Co-creator of Strengthscope