In Make Your Job a Calling, we describe how using your strengths at work is a key pathway for making your work meaningful. The first step in using strengths, of course, is to understand what they are.
There are both formal and informal strategies for assessing strengths. The formal approach involves taking a psychological assessment, such as an ability test or strengths inventory. These assessments highlight three types of strengths. One type of strength refers to ability—“capacity to perform particular physical or mental tasks,”[i] or “enduring attributes of the individual that influence performance.”[ii] Abilities are related to general intelligence (aka IQ or g), a kind of general cognitive ability “supertrait.” Abilities, though, are more specific than general intelligence; there are usually between nine and twelve areas of ability, depending on what system you use, each ability domain representing a cluster of tasks like numerical ability, verbal ability, spatial ability, and mechanical reasoning. The types of ability test we have used with career counseling clients provide a level of information that’s specific enough to help a person identify relative strengths and weaknesses, which can in turn be used to infer the types of specific skills she or he might learn with particular ease and quickness, if given sufficient training. The downside is that formal ability tests typically consist of a battery of subtests, usually timed and administered by a psychometrist (i.e., a person trained to administer and score psychological tests). The assessment might take between two and three hours to complete; it can be grueling, and is usually not cheap. Self-reflection of ability is important, too, because it can highlight areas of high confidence. However, research shows that most people are not particularly accurate in their estimates of their own ability, a fact that points to the primary advantage of a good ability test—reliable, objective data. Ability tests we’ve used in the past include the Minnesota Abilities Test Battery (MATB), the Differential Aptitudes Tests (DAT), and the O*NET’s Ability Profiler.
A second type of strength refers not to ability per se, but to character, with character strengths defined as “psychological ingredients (processes, mechanisms) that define the virtues.”[iii] The now-famous Values in Action (VIA) Classification of virtues identifies six—wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence—and specifies particular character strengths associated with each one. For example, the virtue of courage can be pursued through the strengths of bravery, persistence, honesty, and zest. A free, scientifically supported survey of character strengths is available through the VIA Institute’s website. Although character strengths have been described as more closely related to engagement than meaningfulness[iv], one recent study demonstrated that when people use their strengths at work, they are more likely to experience that work as meaningful.[v]
A third approach to conceptualizing strengths frames them as raw talents that combine with knowledge and skills, resulting in outstanding performance in a particular type of task. Donald Clifton pioneered this approach, which forms the basis of the popular Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. The StrengthsFinder was recently revised (as StrengthsFinder 2.0), and measures 34 different domains of talent; results are intended to identify areas in which the potential for developing strengths are greatest. More information is available at www.gallup.strengths.com.
Although the formal strategies for assessing strengths provide objective data that are supported by research, it can be argued that they lack comprehensiveness, and anyway can be time-consuming and expensive. We are strong advocates of these formal strategies, but also encourage more informal approaches to identifying strengths. This starts with reflection of your personal experience. For example, in chapter 4 of Make Your Job a Calling, we describe a simple exercise that prompts you to reflect on a time when you were at your best (see also here). We also encourage frequent contact with a “personal board of directors”—people who serve mentoring roles in your life, who know you well, who have your best interests in mind, and who have observed you over time and across a variety for situations. What do these folks say are your strengths? Trained career counselors also understand the critical role of strengths in living out a calling, and are equipped with both formal and informal means of assessing them.
Armed with objective assessment data, personal reflection, and honest feedback from trusted people in your life, you’ll have what you need to start playing to your strengths in your career, and making your work more meaningful as a result.
[i] Dik, B. J. (2007). Ability tests. In N. Salkind (Ed.), Encyclopedia of measurement and statistics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. p. 1.
[ii] From the Abilities portion of the Occupational Information Network’s content model.
[iii] This definition comes from the Values In Action Institute on Character website.
[iv] e.g., Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 29-651.
[v] Littman-Ovadia, H., & Steger, M. F. (2010). Character strengths and well-being among volunteers and employees: towards an integrative model. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 419-430.