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Realizing Transformative, Systemic Change Through Strengths

Realizing Transformative, Systemic Change Through Strengths

Webcast Details

  • Gallup Called to Coach Webcast Series
  • Season 6, Episode 44
  • Learn how to foster individual and organizational change from the inside out -- and the outside in -- via CliftonStrengths, engagement and positive psychology.

On a recent Called to Coach, we spoke with Dr. Paige Williams, lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne (Australia). Paige describes herself as a "pracademic" -- someone who is a practitioner as well as an academic, bridging the two worlds. She uses the science of well-being to improve the performance of leaders and organizations. Her expertise in the areas of positive psychology and well-being, as well as in strengths coaching (she is a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach), has broad application to organizations and individuals.

Below is a summary of the conversation. Full audio and video are posted above.

Positive psychology -- inherent in this discipline is a strengths-based approach. It takes a rigorous, scientific approach to what makes life makes living. About 20 years ago, Martin Seligman (President of the American Psychological Association) put out a "call to arms" invitation, saying we know a lot about what makes life difficult, but very little about what makes life worth living and allows people to thrive.

We now call it the science of well-being, which has application across health, business and education.

In a conversation I (Anne Lingafelter, host) had recently with Dr. Seligman, he said, "If I'm the father of positive psychology, Don Clifton is the grandfather of positive psychology." At a practical level, we can ask people, "Do you think you perform better when you're feeling well, or when you're not having a great day?" We know from our own lives, when we feel well, we do better.

There was some research done in the 2000s by Barbara Frederickson that had to be partially retracted, in terms of a ratio of positive to negative experiences (3 to 1 being the tipping point). Although that ratio was reached through problematic methodology, the principle behind it (that we need more positive than negative experiences in our lives to support well-being) has been replicated in many contexts and has been shown to be valid.

Our brains are wired for negativity -- the "negativity bias" -- in which we scan the environment, look for problems and challenges, and try to reduce or eliminate the risk. That has been helpful for our survival (as humans). So we needed to counter this, and the first few years of positive psychology were about getting the pendulum to swing the other way -- which may have overstated things. But the pendulum has come back a bit, and we have more research about how positive and negative experiences work together to bring us different types of well-being. The field, which is only 15-20 years old, is evolving and seeking to be more rigorous and careful about its findings and outcomes.

Well-being is a bit like the weather -- the weather is a construct, but many different elements make up the weather (humidity, temperature, rain, clouds). So too with well-being. Achievement and performance are part of well-being, but so are relationships, positive emotions, satisfaction with life. In the context of the workplace, we rarely get to performance without having good relationships, experiencing positive emotion, having a high level of engagement and energy, and having a feeling of meaning and purpose. So well-being and performance go hand in hand. When we are feeling well, we generally are doing well.

One criticism of Gallup's CliftonStrengths tool is that it's not peer reviewed. What does peer review mean, and why is it considered the "gold standard" for academics? Each field has its own currency; what is important in that field. In the academic field, getting published is the currency. So we conduct research and then write journal articles, which are sent around to peers who are specialists in the field. These peers review the articles in a rigorous, time-consuming way, to ensure that they meet the standards of the academy.

In terms of validity of the CliftonStrengths instrument, lack of peer review doesn't mean it's any less valid. In the academic world, I have to say it's not peer reviewed, but in the corporate world, most people don't think in those terms and peer review is not important to them. Gallup has researched the instrument well.

The next CliftonStrengths Technical Report (around 40 pages) is coming out in 2019, and gives a level of transparency to CliftonStrengths that you can't always find with other similar instruments. So this report will help people understand the behind-the-scenes information about CliftonStrengths, which has been administered to more than 19 million people. You can Google the current (2014) CliftonStrengths Technical Report and can access it and other reports via the FAQs section of the Gallup Strengths Center.

What is the core question CliftonStrengths seeks to answer? It's "What takes me toward success or near-perfect performance if I develop my talent into a strength?" Other instruments seek to answer "What does the best of human character look like?" Or "What energizes me?"

In terms of clients, in one client in which we used Gallup's Q12 ("human needs at work"), over three years, we did analysis to determine where the highest level of reported strengths-based work and what was happening in terms of them meeting their financial KPIs. And we saw the relationship Gallup reports between strengths use, engagement at work, and performance outcomes (for this client, meeting sales targets). Be well and do well!

When we think about a strengths-based approach, so many organizations struggle to operationalize this. We find that Q12 is an excellent way to "connect the dots" between strengths and performance. We know there's a relationship between the two, and engagement is a steppingstone.

When we start talking about systems, once people know about their strengths and are equipped and empowered and see themselves differently, and then put them back into their work environment (if the system hasn't changed), it is like a demolition derby. What can we do to bring about incremental change in the system?

This was the focus of my (Paige's) Ph.D. research. Bringing people who know about their strengths into a system that doesn't allow them to "live out" those broader horizons and positive expectations, we can actually risk moving their well-being back below their baseline. So how do we create these systems of strengths?

There are three areas of research at the center, and one is systems-informed positive psychology, so we're moving something that has been primarily individualistic to something more complex that involves relationships between people. When I operationalize that in my work with clients, I go back to the model I created in my research, which is "Inside Out and Outside In."

From a strengths-based perspective, when we introduce individuals to strengths, we are creating a change from the inside out. They are starting to see themselves differently, their attitudes and thinking patterns change. But if the Outside In (the system) doesn't reinforce this, as we said, we get this disconnect.

How can we create structures and systems within an organization that reinforce the Inside Out changes? I believe leadership is a critical factor in this. As we create strengths-based leadership -- as they understand their own strengths and take a strengths-based perspective with their teams -- those leaders are undergoing an Inside Out change. But the way their followers experience those (changed) leaders is an Outside In change.

So get that middle band of leaders understanding their strengths and operating in a strengths-based perspective and they will naturally change the system for you.Gallup talks a lot with organizations about "identifying the 'why.'" Why do you want to do strengths? It's not about doing strengths; it's about being a vehicle to help you achieve your goals and what you say in your mission statement.

CliftonStrengths is a self-reporting tool (as most instruments in psychology are) -- is there a possibility of bias, in which you can fool yourself or try to get the results you want to? One key is that when you first the results, what is your gut feeling? If you feel it's not you, you need to think about how you responded to the questions, and determine whether the results really reflect who you are or whether you just want it to be you. And having the timer on the CliftonStrengths assessment helps limit the "social desirability bias." So keeping the timer "on" is a help in answering the questions in a way that accurately reflects who you are.

In terms of positive psychology resources, there is a fine book called Positive Psychology in a Nutshell by Ilona Boniwell (out of print but available as a used book), plus Martin Seligman's books such as Flourishing -- these are more theoretical -- and then Applied Positive Psychology by Tim Lomas, Kate Heffernon and Itai Ivtzan, and some other books that are coming out by Dr. Peggy Kern and Michelle McQuaid (Your Wellbeing Blueprint), Michelle McQuaid and Erin Lawn (Your Strengths Blueprint) and Prof. Lea Waters (on strengths-based parenting, called The Strength Switch). Note: Gallup also has a book on strengths-based parenting.

Additional resources from Paige:

  1. Her website is
  2. The Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne:
  3. The Master of Applied Psychology course:
  4. The International Positive Psychology Association World Congress is being held in Melbourne next year. This will involve all the top names and latest research in the field.

Paige Williams' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Relator, Strategic, Futuristic, Connectedness and Maximizer.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

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