When was the last time you were doing something at work that was so engaging and thought provoking that you totally lost track of time? If the answer is never, there’s a good chance you’re one of the 70 per cent of people that Gallup claim are working in jobs that don’t utilise their talents. And there’s also a good chance that most of the time, work is something that feels unintuitive and frustrating. So why do we do it? Mostly, it’s because we don’t pay enough attention to our strengths at work.
By the time we’re adults there is usually a long list of things in our personal lives that we know we’re just not that great at. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I can’t catch, I draw like a second grader and my cooking is generally on the wrong side of passable.
Instead of spending countless hours practicing and working at correcting these weaknesses, I’ve adapted my life to make them matter less. My friends and family know that throwing me the car keys is a bad idea, I write rather than draw and I have a long history of deals with housemates and partners that involve swapping cooking for cleaning. Because you know what? I’m awesome at cleaning.
We all do this at home, but for some reason when it comes to our professional lives we’re reluctant to put the emphasis on building our natural talents, and we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to compensate for our weaknesses.
One of the unfortunate side effects of performance-based professional culture is that we’re usually told what we need to work on, rather than what we’re good at. And then we’re shipped off to a course or a seminar or a conference to address our shortcomings and bring our new-found skill-set back to work.
But in reality, this rarely works. The fact is that working outside your natural preferences is draining, and nothing saps your enthusiasm for work more than doing something you’re not good at, or something you hate. As Peter Drucker argued in his excellent essay Managing Oneself, “It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence”.
So, instead of trying to compensate for our weaknesses, how can we invest more in our natural talents?
1. Take a deeper look
There are a number of self-assessment tests you can take to get a better idea of where your strengths are, like StrengthsFinder, Strengthscope and Action for Happiness. But an equally effective method for finding your strengths is simply to pay close attention to how you work. What do you look forward to doing most every day? Which tasks or situations keep you fully engaged and are enjoyable enough that you lose track of time? Chances are that’s where your strengths are.
2. Accept yourself
When I did the StrengthsFinder assessment (twice, just to make sure), my number one strength was competition. After spending most of my life seeing my competitiveness as a weakness that needed to be toned down at work, it was hard to start accepting it as a strength. But the fact is that I work better when I’m competing, and I’ve learnt to compete with the clock, my to do list and my own personal goals, rather than competing with other people. Accepting your talents puts you in a position where you can leverage them.
3. Put your strengths to work
Once you know what your strengths are, you can start thinking about how to apply them at work. Make your manager aware of what you enjoy working on – deliberately taking on jobs and projects that are a good fit for your talents will mean better results for you and your workplace. For me, putting my strengths to work meant asking my manager to judge me on my outcomes rather than my process. My process isn’t always pretty, but it gets results.
4. Notice strengths in others
Help others see where their strengths are, and better still, partner with people who have talents that complement yours. If fostering empathy, fairness and harmony are some of your strengths, partner with an activator or an achiever who enjoys keeping things moving. Accept that other people are just as individual as you are, and collaborate your way into greatness.
It’s a pretty simple idea when you break it down – work out what you do best and do more of it. If you do something that you’re good at, not only will you enjoy it, but there’s a good chance you’ll also do it exceptionally well.