Building on strengths requires you to change a deep thinking habit. The habit you will need to change to become an effective coach is the habit of seeing problems. Instead, you will need to re-orient your thinking to seeing strengths. A very few people do this naturally (or they were raised to do it), but most of us have been brainwashed to believe that critical thinking is the best and most important thinking skill. It isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong; critical thinking is a skill that everyone should work on. We don’t want to be gullible dupes for every con man out there.
When we are coaching, we must change our perception. Building on strengths requires seeing those strengths in the first place. One of my favourite sayings I learned as a kid was if a person has nine bad qualities and only one good quality, focus on the good quality. I practiced that idea. I remember consciously thinking about other kids that I didn’t like and looking for their good qualities… and finding them! That conscious practice made me a more agreeable person, I was happier, and I definitely liked people more. This has been a skill I am deeply grateful to my parents for encouraging it in me.
So, the first part of the Building on Strengths pattern is to be actively and consciously looking for people’s strengths. This might even take the form of a checklist or an electronic reminder on your devices. I recommend writing down the names of all the people you are directly coaching as well as all the people you interact with as part of your coaching work. For each name try to write down a good quality. Be specific. It can be any good quality when you are first starting out. Here are some fictional examples:
Mary: on time for meetings
Siraj: dresses extremely well
Mei: always smiling
Annette: cool fingernail designs
Return to your list on a regular basis and see if you can add something so that eventually you have several good qualities and strengths listed beside each person’s name.
At first, you might only be able to think of superficial “strengths”. As you get to know your coachees, you will gain insight into them and be able to identify more significant strengths. Your list could grow to something like:
Mary: always on time for meetings, technically creative, cautious
Siraj: dresses extremely well, cares about how things look to the customer, committed
Mei: always smiling, knows many retrospective techniques, optimistic
One word of advice. If you are having difficulty identifying strengths in any of your coachees, you should also include yourself in the list of people, and try to list out your own strengths. Sometimes recognizing strengths in yourself helps you to recognize strengths in others. Likewise, add some people that you already admire, list their strengths, and see if your coachees have any of the same strengths, even if at a lower “level”.
Of course, noticing strengths is only the first part of this coaching pattern.
The second part of the Building on Strengths pattern is to acknowledge those strengths. You must do this both privately and publicly, and both when the person is present or not. Your acknowledgement must be sincere, direct and without qualification or comparison. Here are a couple examples of things you could say that are great acknowledgements of strengths:
“Mei, you know so many retrospective techniques! I’m really impressed.”
“Mary, your caution is so important for the quality of work for this team. Thank you!”
“Hey everyone, I want to acknowledge a really important strength: Siraj really cares about how our product looks to customers.”
Never compare one person to another. This is always discouraging for the person who comes out behind in the comparison. Don’t do this publicly, don’t do this privately. If someone compares themselves to someone else, either positively or negatively, you should respond by talking about that person’s progress. For example:
Mary: “I’m really worried I’m holding the team back. Farhad is so much more courageous than me.”
You: “Mary, your caution is important for the team. Don’t lose that. Also, you have your own courage. Think about how much you participate in team discussions compared to when we first started!”
If someone insists on the path of comparison with other people, you should be prepared to deliberately stop the discussion, explain the harm of comparison, and change the topic if needed. This does not need to be complicated. You could say, “hold on! Comparisons between people are demoralizing. Let’s move on to the next topic in our agenda.”
Building on strengths isn’t only about acknowledging them…
Knowledge, Skill, Passion, Reason, Character, etc.
Before we complete the pattern, we should make sure we know what types of strengths are good ones to build upon. Simply: anything that will help the team. Let’s look at a list of types of strengths and some examples:
- Knowledge. You can get a lot out of knowledge-based strengths. Deepening knowledge, expanding knowledge, and sharing knowledge. In a marketing team, one person’s knowledge of A/B testing can be deepened to multi-variate testing, expanded to segment testing and shared to other members of the team.
- Skill. Skill-based strengths are the most obvious to many people and the easiest to build upon. If a person has skill in writing effective sales proposals, then that person can do more sales proposals, train/mentor others in writing sales proposals, and consider adding sales presentation skills to their own list of skills.
- Passion. A person with passion can accomplish great things. Passion seemingly creates energy and time from nothing. Passion is infectious. If a person absolutely loves their work, everyone around them feels the positivity.
- Reason. Careful, logical, detailed, precise reasoning about situations and problems can help with discovering deep insights, or creating unexpected solutions. If a person leverages reason in their work, then progress is faster and more effective.
- Character. This last strength is not often discussed openly in corporate environments because acknowledging it as a strength means that we might have to admit to moral judgement of people. This makes character one of the least understood strengths. If, as an Agile coach, you can recognize character strengths in people, you will have a strong, unusual tool at your disposal, where many others will not. Character includes integrity (words and actions aligned), truthfulness, generosity, courage, and many other aspects of human nature that are often also called “values” or “morals”. I strongly encourage any coaches interested in this topic to read the book “The Righteous Mind” by AUTHOR.
In order to understand these categories and use them in this coaching pattern, you could expand your list of your coachees to a grid, and try to fill in every cell with a specific strength you have observed:
Now that you have a list of the strengths of your coachees, you can start to build upon them.
Building on Strengths
Building on strengths, fundamentally, is about identifying learning opportunities for your coachees. Either to learn more themselves, or to learn from each other. Like with everything in an Agile environment, this learning process is largely self-directed. Getting each team member to now take the same steps you have taken to notice and acknowledge each other’s strengths concludes this pattern.
By noticing and acknowledging strengths, your coachees will become attracted to each other in a new, non-superficial way. Each team member will start to be motivated to learn to advance their own strengths or leverage others’ strengths. And, while doing work, when encountering challenges, each team member will know to which other team members to turn for help.
People change. Therefore, this process of noticing and acknowledging strengths must continue. Your team aught to make this a regular part of the retrospective or other improvement meeting. Your coachees should learn to do this about themselves and their colleagues on a regular basis.
To set this up with your team, you should:
- Go through the exercise personally first, including practicing private and public acknowledgement of strengths.
- Introduce the exercise to your coachees from a pragmatic perspective: knowing what are each other’s strengths helps everyone to work more effectively.
- Ensure that everyone understands there is no room for criticism in this process of building on strengths.
- Start each person with a private list. By private, not even you as coach should see their list unless they proactively ask you to review it. Don’t offer.
- Expand to the grid with the types of strengths. You don’t need to insist that every cell is filled in. However, your coachee should try to identify at least one strength for each person, and at least one in each of the five categories. More is better, but the exercise should not be onerous.
- Use the retrospective or some similar meeting to include an “appreciations” or “acknowledgements” portion on the agenda in which everyone shares a strength they have identified in someone else.
- Create space for an open discussion about how to build on these strengths.
Do this exercise or something similar (e.g. Agile Skills Matrix) at least once a quarter with your coachees, wether in a team or not. If your coachees are not all part of one team (and may not even know each other), each coachee does the exercise about their immediate colleagues and you may have to facilitate an acknowledgements session separately for each coachee and their colleagues.
Avoiding Criticism (At All Costs?)
In this pattern, at least, you must avoid criticism. You must never even hint at a deficit in knowledge, skill, passion, reason, or character. Only discuss the positive, only focus on the strength.
Any hint of criticism will almost certainly lead to one of the following:
- someone taking offence,
- someone feeling discouraged,
- someone feeling angry,
- someone feeling devalued, or
This pattern is simple, but can be hard without the right mindset and preparation. Your own inner critic must be completely silenced when following this pattern.
But at all costs? Well, the pattern itself has aspects of both active engagement and discussion with your coachee(s) as well as passive thought or reflection. Clearly, if the passive period is more than a few minutes, there might be events that deserve some criticism.
Imagine the following scenario where you are coaching a whole team, one of the members of which is Farhad. Farhad has a strong negative reaction to the team making a decision without him. You ask him to consider how the team working agreement might be updated to avoid this situation. He goes back to arguing about the decision. You call attention to his behaviour of changing the subject when you ask him about the team working agreement. That is definitely a criticism. It’s relatively gentle, but still a criticism. Farhad doesn’t take it well in the moment.
Could there be a better way of handling that situation without resorting to a criticism? Probably not. Although the story is fictional, the approach you use there is appropriate because you are not just coaching Farhad, you are also coaching the whole team. Part of your job is to protect the team. You risk a small crisis with Farhad in order to avoid a larger more serious crisis at the team level.
This type of mild, momentary, tactical criticism should be rare. As a coach, being non-judgemental or being positively judgemental are far more appropriate in almost every situation.
I must add a final comment about criticism. One must also be able to discern bad qualities and behaviours as well as the strengths. The Building on Strengths pattern is not about putting on the proverbial rose-coloured glasses and being in denial about bad stuff. That leads to you being easily manipulated. I found that out through hard personal experience in my early twenties when I went through about ten months of being skillfully manipulated to my great detriment. I kept trying to go beyond just “focus on the good” all the way to “see only the good and ignore the bad”. I did it, and I got badly hurt in the process.
There are people who will try to take advantage of you, particularly if you are obviously focussing on the positive. You must respond quickly and decisively to any bullying, lying or misappropriation.
If You Can’t See Strengths in Someone…
Get help. Seriously. Everyone has strengths. Everyone. There are no exceptions to this statement. If you truly can’t see any strengths in someone, it means that you likely have one or more of these major problems:
- Your relationship with that person is poisoned to the point of no return. Get HR involved.
- Your own powers of perception are disabled due to trauma or brain injury. Get therapy.
- Your own powers of perception are disabled due to prejudice or bias. Get coaching.
Of course, while you are working with a team and having this struggle, you want to make sure that you avoid using this pattern until you can use it equally with all team members. The worst thing you can do is to acknowledge strengths in most of your team members but not in one or two. Those who are left out will absolutely notice what is happening and it will destroy your team.