Why we — and those who hire us — should focus on our strengths
One of the great frustrations voiced by job-seekers in a market that supposedly favors them is that they are turned down for positions on the basis that they lack experience. When, as is often the case, they are young, this is inevitable. And it is arguably down to an over-reliance on what is known as a competency-based approach to hiring. While commendable on the part of employers and human resources professionals looking to move away from old biased approaches to recruitment, this can be overly rigorous and idealistic; we have all seen the advertisements for energetic, enthusiastic people who have a whole list of skills — from high-level IT proficiency to “communication skills” — to their names. These are, effectively, “a wish-list or profile of an ideal person, which means that no real person can ever match the competencies.”
The words are taken from a 2016 book, Strengths-Based Recruitment & Development, by Sally Bibb, an expert in the field who leads the Strengths practice at PA Consulting. But the shortcomings of this way of doing things seem particularly apposite now, at a time when trends such as the Great Resignation and the urge to work in different ways from the past are making it more difficult for organizations to build engagement with their employees. One of the problems with a competency framework that Bibb identifies is that it focuses on behaviors rather than the underlying values and motivators that create those behaviors. As she says, an emphasis on behavior “does not go deep enough.”
People are able to develop behaviors that will not just get them through the day but also lead to them advancing in their organizations. But, given that the pandemic of the past two years has led many employees to reappraise their lives, it could lead to many coming to the view that they are — in the old-fashioned terminology — “square pegs in round holes,” and should be doing something else. In other words, they are looking to do something about which they care or which plays to their strengths.
In some cases, this may lead to a complete change of career, but in others it could just be a change in role or a shift in responsibilities that makes an individual’s job more fulfilling and pleasurable and ultimately more successful. This last factor is key because Bibb, who prior to joining PA founded the consultancy Engaging Minds and worked in various corporate roles, cites plenty of evidence indicating that recruiting and promoting people according to their strengths is good business. One of the early movers in the shift to this approach was Standard Chartered Bank. The institution’s former head of HR strategy and people product management, Debbie Whitaker, relates in her foreword to Bibb’s book that “adopting a holistic strengths-based approach to recruitment, development and employee engagement” was “one factor in helping transform the bank’s performance.”
Part of the reason for this is that it means organizations are not wasting time, effort and money trying to get people to become something they are not — neurological science suggests that we are essentially the people we will be by the time we are in our mid-teens. This means that, while we can be taught, say, how to show more empathy towards colleagues we are unlikely to be as convincing at it, particularly when it really matters, as somebody who is genuinely caring by nature.
This is particularly significant for certain sectors, such as health and social care, where an over-emphasis on competencies can effectively screen out those who have the strengths that might be thought to be key to the role — such as really caring about patients and doing the right thing by them or having high standards. In a recent interview, Bibb told the story — included in the book — of how it had been assumed that one of things that made great ward sisters in the National Health Service was that they were naturally assertive. In fact, none were — although sometimes they exhibited assertive behaviour. One example was when a senior doctor entered a ward wearing a watch, when all staff were required for hygiene reasons to be bare below the elbow. The doctor initially refused but the sister stood her ground and eventually the doctor removed his watch. The sister told researchers afterwards that she had found the episode difficult and hated doing what she did, but she couldn’t not do it because of the things she really cared about. These were her strengths, but she might not have been in that position if an assessment centre was looking for assertive behaviour in candidates.
It can be seen how similar core beliefs, such as absolute honesty, integrity and probity, should be more important than competences in determining success in other fields, such as, say, financial services. While in hospitality businesses, say, employers are much more likely to see high standards of customer service — and hence financial success — if they recruit people who genuinely enjoy serving people and helping them rather than those for whom it is just a job and a stepping stone to something else. Bibb points out how Starbucks managers realised that engaged staff delivered better customer service and therefore better customer retention, and set about changing recruitment practices to a strengths-based approach.
The principles hold true further up organizations, too, with Bibb indicating how various businesses have started to introduce more of a strengths-based approach to leadership development. She acknowledges that this is not especially novel, stressing that management guru Peter Drucker wrote years ago of how organizations built on strengths offer the greatest potential for performance, growth and individual fulfilment. But she adds that at this time “progressive leaders” will understand that the way to “create wellbeing and create a culture where people want to join you is to focus on what people are really great at.”