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Strengths-Based Development: What I Learned From Don Clifton

Strengths-Based Development: What I Learned From Don Clifton

by Tim Hodges
Strengths-Based Development: What I Learned From Don Clifton

Early in my Gallup career, I had the incredible privilege of serving as Don Clifton's research assistant. While I had done little to earn this role, it will undoubtedly rank as one of my life's real highlights. Don was a world-class mentor who always treated me as a respected colleague and even as a peer despite my lack of the experience and academic credentials that the role deserved -- let alone me being more than 50 years his junior.

Don and I worked closely together for nearly three years. Among the many wonderful benefits this partnership provided was an opportunity to serve as a coauthor of a book chapter that ended up being one of Don's last published writings. In fact, the official release of Positive Psychology in Practice was published after his passing and was ultimately dedicated to Don in honor of his life's work: "We dedicate this volume to the memory of Donald O. Clifton, PhD, 1924-2003. The father of strengths-based psychology and the grandfather of positive psychology."

I recently shared the chapter with a colleague who was consulting with a client organization about their strengths journey. Sharing the chapter prompted me to take time to revisit lessons that we first put together nearly 15 years ago.

In the chapter "Strengths-Based Development in Practice," we offered the idea that "strengths-based development has potential that is just beginning to be realized. There is clearly a need to educate the world about positive psychology in practice and the importance of understanding and focusing on strengths." About 1 million people had completed the Clifton StrengthsFinder at the time of the chapter's publication in 2004. Now, more than 15 million people worldwide have discovered and developed their strengths. While this rapid growth comes as a great surprise to me, I suspect that Don's Futuristic and Significance themes might have predicted as much.

The chapter reviewed some of the early theorizing about strengths development. Two of the key ideas offered were:

  1. "Rather than spending time helping their associates become well-rounded, many of the world's best managers have instead invested time in learning about the individual talents of each of their associates and managing with those unique talents in mind."
  2. "The concept applies to … all who desire to heighten their self-awareness and change their paradigm from one of becoming average in many things to excelling in a few areas."

The chapter unpacks a developmental framework first introduced in another of Don's book chapters, "Strengths Investment," which he coauthored with Jim Harter. This chapter was included in Positive Organizational Scholarship. The framework consisted of three phases: identification of talent, integration into how the individual views himself or herself, and behavioral change. Today's certified strengths coaches may recognize this progression as the forerunner to the more commonly known "Name-Claim-Aim" framework.

From the beginning, strengths research has been linked to a variety of positive outcomes across a number of domains, from education to the workplace and beyond. The chapter reviews some of the early research with college students, as well as more in-depth professional development experiences in the workplace. Some of the studies cited in the chapter were included, along with dozens more, in the recently published strengths meta-analysis.

Also covered in the book chapter was a discussion of some early linkages between strengths and employee engagement. In the years since, we have learned that having a manager who focuses on their employees' strengths can practically eliminate active disengagement in the workplace. The link between strengths and engagement is so clear that Gallup's rerelease of the international bestseller First, Break All the Rules now includes access to both CliftonStrengths as well as the Q12, Gallup's survey for measuring employee engagement, encouraging great managers to capture the synergy between these two scientific breakthroughs.

Reflecting on our early research and writings certainly brings back strong feelings of gratitude from having the opportunity to work closely with my friend and mentor. Two of my own Signature Themes help drive this emotion. My Maximizer causes me to be thrilled at the impact that the strengths science and practice have had on countless numbers of people around the world. My Belief theme drives my satisfaction for the opportunity to have played a small role in contributing to work that matters. Again drawing on Don's Futuristic talent: I can only imagine what discoveries are on the horizon.

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

Tim Hodges' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Maximizer, Relator, Belief, Woo and Positivity.

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