Business Journal

The Strengths Revolution

Two assumptions at the foundation of great organizations

We wrote this book to start a revolution, the strengths revolution. At the heart of this revolution is a simple decree: The great organization must not only accommodate the fact that each employee is different, it must capitalize on these differences. It must watch for clues to each employee's natural talents and then position and develop each employee so that his or her talents are transformed into bona fide strengths. By changing the way it selects, measures, develops, and channels the careers of its people, this revolutionary organization must build its entire enterprise around the strengths of each person.

And as it does, this revolutionary organization will be positioned to dramatically outperform its peers. In our latest meta-analysis The Gallup Organization asked this question of 198,000 employees working in 7,939 business units within 36 companies: At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day? We then compared the responses to the performance of the business units and discovered the following: When employees answered "strongly agree" to this question, they were 50 percent more likely to work in business units with lower employee turnover, 38 percent more likely to work in more productive business units, and 44 percent more likely to work in business units with higher customer satisfaction scores. And over time those business units that increased the number of employees who strongly agreed saw comparable increases in productivity, customer loyalty, and employee retention. Whichever way you care to slice the data, the organization whose employees feel that their strengths are used every day is more powerful and more robust.

This is very good news for the organization that wants to be on the vanguard of the strengths revolution. Why? Because most organizations remain startlingly inefficient at capitalizing on the strengths of their people. In Gallup's total database we have asked the "opportunity to do what I do best" question of more than 1.7 million employees in 101 companies from 63 countries. What percentage do you think strongly agrees that they have an opportunity to do what they do best every day? What percentage truly feels that their strengths are in play?

Twenty percent. Globally, only 20 percent of employees working in the large organizations we surveyed feel that their strengths are in play every day. Most bizarre of all, the longer an employee stays with an organization and the higher he climbs the traditional career ladder, the less likely he is to strongly agree that he is playing to his strengths.

Alarming though it is to learn that most organizations operate at 20 percent capacity, this discovery actually represents a tremendous opportunity for great organizations. To spur high-margin growth and thereby increase their value, great organizations need only focus inward to find the wealth of unrealized capacity that resides in every single employee. Imagine the increase in productivity and profitability if they doubled this number and so had 40 percent of their employees strongly agreeing that they had a chance to use their strengths every day. Or how about tripling the number? Sixty percent of employees saying "strongly agree" isn't too aggressive a goal for the greatest organizations.

How can they achieve this? Well, to begin with they need to understand why eight out of ten employees feel somewhat miscast in their role. What can explain this widespread inability to position people-in particular senior people who have had the chance to search around for interesting roles-to play to their strengths?

The simplest explanation is that most organizations' basic assumptions about people are wrong. We know this because for the last thirty years Gallup has been conducting research into the best way to maximize a person's potential. At the heart of this research are our interviews with eighty thousand managers-most excellent, some average-in hundreds of organizations around the world. Here the focus was to discover what the world's best managers (whether in Bangalore or Bangor) had in common. We described our discoveries in detail in the book First, Break All the Rules, but the most significant finding was this: Most organizations are built on two flawed assumptions about people:

  1. Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything.

  2. Each person's greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness.

Presented so baldly, these two assumptions seem too simplistic to be commonly held, so let's play them out and see where they lead. If you want to test whether or not your organization is based on these assumptions, look for these characteristics:

  • Your organization spends more money on training people once they are hired than on selecting them properly in the first place.

  • Your organization focuses the performance of its employees by legislating work style. This means a heavy emphasis on work rules, policies, procedures, and "behavioral competencies."

  • Your organization spends most of its training time and money on trying to plug the gaps in employees' skills or competencies. It calls these gaps "areas of opportunity." Your individual development plan, if you have one, is built around your "areas of opportunity," your weaknesses.

  • Your organization promotes people based on the skills or experiences they have acquired. After all, if everyone can learn to be competent in almost anything, those who have learned the most must be the most valuable. Thus, by design, your organization gives the most prestige, the most respect, and the highest salaries to the most experienced well-rounded people.

Finding an organization that doesn't have these characteristics is more difficult than finding one that does. Most organizations take their employees' strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses. They become expert in those areas where their employees struggle, delicately rename these "skill gaps" or "areas of opportunity," and then pack them off to training classes so that the weaknesses can be fixed. This approach is occasionally necessary: If an employee always alienates those around him, some sensitivity training can help; likewise, a remedial communication class can benefit an employee who happens to be smart but inarticulate. But this isn't development, it is damage control. And by itself damage control is a poor strategy for elevating either the employee or the organization to world-class performance.

As long as an organization operates under these assumptions, it will never capitalize on the strengths of each employee.

To break out of this weakness spiral and to launch the strengths revolution in your own organization, you must change your assumptions about people. Start with the right assumptions, and everything else that follows from them-how you select, measure, train, and develop your people-will be right. These are the two assumptions that guide the world's best managers:


  1. Each person's talents are enduring and unique.

  2. Each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.

These two assumptions are the foundation for everything they do with and for their people. These two assumptions explain why great managers are careful to look for talent in every role, why they focus people's performances on outcomes rather than forcing them into a stylistic mold, why they disobey the Golden Rule and treat each employee differently, and why they spend the most time with their best people. In short, these two assumptions explain why the world's best managers break all the rules of conventional management wisdom.

Marcus Buckingham is coauthor of Gallup's best-selling management books First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths.
Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. (1924-2003), was cited as the "Father of Strengths-Based Psychology" in an American Psychological Association Presidential Commendation in 2002. He was a chairman of Gallup, Inc., and he invented the Clifton StrengthsFinder, an assessment that has helped millions of people around the world discover their talents.
Gallup http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/547/the-strengths-revolution.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030