Finding Your Strengths: Tom Rath Discusses How to Engage Your Team

5 Minute Read

In America, we love the underdog—the person who will do whatever it takes to win despite the odds. But according to best-selling business author Tom Rath, you don’t always have to fight the tough fight to be victorious. Tom, whose books include How Full Is Your Bucket?, StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Strengths-Based Leadership, believes that when you concentrate on your strengths, success will naturally follow. And he has the data to back it up. Besides being an author, Tom leads workplace research and leadership consulting worldwide for Gallup (the poll people).

Recently, he visited with EntreLeadership Podcast host Chris LoCurto to discuss strengths and leadership. Here’s a sampling of their conversation.

Chris: One of our favorite books is StrengthsFinder 2.0. How did it come about?

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Tom: That was one of our earliest studies. There are so many systems in the world built around figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it. And there are a lot of times in life, it’s really appropriate to fix things that are causing problems. But if you walk into your office every day and your manager tells you 80% of the time what you are doing wrong and spends 20% on victories, things are really out of whack.

Chris: As parents, we’ve been trained to focus on the negative or weakest areas. It’s what our parents did and their parents too. Tell us why you believe the focus should be shifted.

Tom: We asked this question maybe 10 years ago around the world: If your child showed up with an A, a C and an F on their report card, which grade would get the most attention? I’m sure any parent can guess. It’s the F that gets the most attention. Of course, it’s a problem if they’re failing a class. They need to spend some time on it. But if you step back for a minute and ask: Where will my child have the most potential for growth and success 20 or 30 years down the road, when they are well into their career? It’s probably in the areas where they are already exhibiting some natural talent at a young age and getting an A. To ignore areas where someone is really doing well is a big mistake.

Chris: You did a study with three different types of managers: one who focuses on team members’ strengths; one who focuses on weaknesses; and a manager who just flat-out ignores their team. What were the results?

Tom: Being ignored by a manager is the worst-case scenario. In this situation, 4 in 10 people were actively disengaged in their jobs. Actively disengaged is a “kind” label for someone who is negative, angry, scaring off colleagues and customers, and kind of tearing the place down. So the first thing a manager needs to worry about is just paying attention.
When a manager focuses on people’s weaknesses, only 2 in 10 are disengaged in their jobs. Things are going a little bit better. Let’s call it the typical performance review—80% on your gaps and 20% on what you are doing well.

The final category is really where it makes a difference. When managers spend the majority of their time focusing on strengths, only 1 in 100 employees are actively disengaged in their jobs.

Before we did the study, I thought that maybe 10% of the workplace was disengaged—no matter what you did. They just had a little bit lower baseline level of life satisfaction. I assumed a portion of it would be out of the manager’s control. What our study suggests is that 99% of the variants may be in the manager’s control if he or she tries hard to regularly focus on people’s strengths.

Chris: I agree. It’s the leader’s job to make their team successful. And if we focus on their strengths, 99% of people will engage and work hard at their jobs. It’s that valuable. Can you back this idea up to the hiring process?

Tom: It starts with the hiring process. That’s what ensures you get the right person in the right job in the first place. If you don’t do that first, then you might be fighting against gravity, which is the person’s natural talent.

If you are running a small business or a division of a larger organization, you have to make sure you are asking objective questions in the hiring process to help you determine if someone has the natural talent.

You need to build specific questionnaires for each position in a company. If you have 10 key roles, you need 10 different interviews because the jobs are so different. Someone who’s really good in a sales role, for example, might be the exact opposite of a person who is teaching or leading sessions.

For even more of the interview with Tom Rath, download the latest EntreLeadership Podcast. In addition to the conversation with Tom, host Chris LoCurto teaches a lesson on personality styles.

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