Business Journal

The Language of Strengths

Gallup's taxonomy helps individuals recognize and express their talents

In a previous column, we described in broad terms what we mean when we use the word "talent" at Gallup. To be useful, however, those broad conceptual strokes of must be broken down into a meaningful taxonomy that is readily applicable in everyday life. But how does one arrive at such a taxonomy? Patterns of thought are to some degree continuous -- flowing naturally from one to another -- so that any groupings are to some degree artificial. However, that doesn't mean useful categories can't be derived from empirical study. Gallup's classifications are based on an extensive meta-analysis of more than 30 years of data, including thousands of interviews with successful managers, teachers, leaders, sales people, and other types of employees.

The result is a "language of strengths" which fosters the perception of talent in oneself and others, and facilitates articulation and further expression of those talents. Gallup's Strengths Management framework breaks the types of talent down into four broad domains, which contains a total of 34 distinct "themes." The four domains are Impacting themes, Relating themes, Striving themes, and Thinking themes:

  • The six Impacting themes explain how an individual moves others to action. The Developer theme, for example, describes a person's tendency to recognize and cultivate the potential of those around him or her.

  • The seven Relating themes explain how a person builds connections with others. Someone strong in Individualization, for instance, is intrigued by the unique qualities of each person, and has a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

  • The nine Striving themes explain what pushes an individual toward results. These include the Discipline theme, which describes a need for routine and structure. The world of a person strong in Discipline is best described by the order he or she creates.

  • The twelve Thinking themes explain how a person analyzes the world. For instance, the Deliberative theme is characterized by the serious care with which its holders make decisions or choices.

The categorization of personality traits is itself certainly not a new practice. Since the publication of Carl Jung's Psychological Types in 1949, marketers, psychologists and career counselors and have been developing self-assessment questionnaires (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Values, Attitudes and Life Styles test) to provide insights about people. Gallup's Strengths Management typology is different from most of these in two critical ways:

1) It allows for greater precision. Describing someone as a "people person" doesn't give you much insight into how that person thinks (it could simply mean they're afraid of dogs). Similarly, broad labels such as "intuitive" are increasingly inadequate in this age of specialization. In order to be useful, such descriptions must be fairly specific, and easily related to environments and situations in which people may find themselves. Does the person relate well to other people? Does he or she make investments in others? Gallup's system allows for 275,000 combinations of top five themes, meaning each individual categorization carries with it a lot of specific information about what distinguishes that person from everyone else.

2) It is uniformly positive. There's no value judgement attached to your particular combination of strengths because strengths are, by definition, positive. For example, a tendency to be outwardly confident and assertive in one's actions might be described as pushiness or even arrogance, terms with strongly negative connotations. However, in many positions such a trait is essential -- and should therefore be seen in a much more constructive light. Framing the quality as a strength -- in this case, the Self-Assurance theme -- allows the individual to embrace the characteristic and find ways to use it to his or her advantage.

On the surface, this approach may seem sanguine, excessively warm and fuzzy -- but think about it for a minute. Dichotomous categories like "introverted/ extroverted" tend to invite heavier weighting on one side or the other according to particular social values, but framing the categories in positive terms frees individuals to think about who they are without having to be afraid of what they might find out. There are no "bad" themes -- thus, the only negative outcome is missing the opportunity to understand and capitalize on them.

Next week: In our effort to further solidify the concepts of Strengths Management, we will examine a few case studies in which people have exploited their strengths and achieved great success. We will also examine some common obstacles that threaten to prevent the utilization of talent, and possible approaches to overcoming them.

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