All too often we approach career development with a negative mindset. Why? Because we tend to lean into what we ‘can’t do’ or ‘haven’t done’ yet; focusing on learning something new, plugging a gap in our knowledge or changing a behaviour that isn’t serving us well. As a result, our professional development can feel like a bit of a drag…but it doesn’t have to.
Sure, there will always be new things to learn - being adaptable and willing to change is how we continue to thrive. But, taking a strengths based approach to our development, rather than trying to fix our perceived weaknesses, has a far better outcome and can put the spring back into our career development steps.
Why so negative?
Why are we so often drawn to the negative? Why does the interview question, ‘tell me about your strengths’ induce such panic? When asked, why can’t we think of a SINGLE THING we are good at but we can recall at least ten mistakes we made just last Tuesday?
It’s probably deeply rooted in our psychology. Our brain’s primary function is to keep us safe and so storing up easily accessible information about anything that hurts us is, theoretically, extremely useful. The trouble is that social pain - often the result of the perceived mistakes we make - can be just as excruciating as physical pain. More so in some cases. So, we remember and recall those moments easily because we need to keep ourselves safe from future harm.
It goes without saying that there are individual differences here. Some people have a more positive outlook than others but, generally speaking, we all have what behavioural psychologists call a ‘negativity bias’. We get used to the idea that we need to work towards a ‘better’ version of ourselves and, as a result, can become oblivious to our own achievements.
A more positive outlook
It takes a bit of practice, but reflecting on our strengths before we embark on personal, professional or career development, can have a positive and motivating effect. It’s much easier to build on the things we find easy and are good at, than to slog away trying to get to grips with something that gives us no pleasure and makes us feel lacking.
Of course, we can’t just ignore the things we aren’t good at and pretend they don’t exist. It might be that an important part of our job, or the next career move we want to make, requires us to be better at something we consider a personal weakness. In this instance, there are three questions we can ask ourselves:
1. What strengths can I use to help me with this? It might not be easy to answer at first, but our strengths will almost certainly be wide-ranging and diverse enough to accommodate this.
2. How often do I get to use my strengths? Putting the requirements of work into perspective can help to make activities that don’t play to our strengths more palatable.
3. Am I in the right job / striving for the right career move? If our future happiness is dependent on a lot of time spent doing something that actively makes us unhappy, then perhaps it’s not quite the right path.
Tuning into our strengths will give us important information about the kind of work that suits us best, the environments we thrive in and even the kind of people we work best with. When harnessed, our strengths can fuel our career trajectory and give us the confidence we need to get more of what we want from our working lives.
The trouble is, working out what our strengths are isn’t always easy. We all adapt to the work environment we find ourselves in and it can be hard to extricate our true strengths from our learnt behaviours. Just because we are good at something, doesn’t mean it is a strength we should pursue.
Not everything we find easy will be enjoyable to us. We might be great at presenting, for example, but absolutely hate it. Doing something just because we are good at it won’t give us the career satisfaction we crave. A true strength is something that we both enjoy and find easy. When we are working to this kind of strength we often find ourselves in what some psychologists call a ‘flow’ state. When we are in the ‘flow’ we are at our most motivated and will have the highest levels of satisfaction in our work.
It’s also helpful to think about the things we find easy and enjoyable that we don’t have the opportunity to use as much as we would like: our ‘unrealised strengths’. Tapping into these can open up a world of opportunity and potential. It may not be possible to immediately bring these unrealised strengths to our current role but, taking them into consideration when thinking about our career development can be extremely powerful.
The best way to identify strengths is to pay close attention to how you feel while undertaking specific aspects of your work. What do you enjoy doing? When do you find yourself in that ‘flow’ state? Where and when do you do your best work?
The best way to identify unrealised strengths is to ask for feedback and pay attention to the feedback we are getting. Feedback isn’t always formal; if colleagues come to us for something specific or if we have been given responsibilities that aren’t in the job description but we find easy to do and enjoy doing, then we can probably assume that this is a strength area.
Finding people who can help us to unpack our working life and think carefully about what we are great at is hugely beneficial to our development and career advancement. When we have the support of other people - especially if those people share similar or complementary strengths - we can be bolder about pursuing the work that makes us happy.
At Voco we match people with peers who have complementary strengths and support them to have strengths based career conversations. And to find out more about your strengths, check out our friends at Strengthscope who can help you identify what you're really great at!