Spending time focusing on your weaknesses, even if you’re trying to make improvements, may not be the most effective approach to personal growth. What about investing even more heavily in your strengths, instead?
That’s the model Meghan O’Hara uses every day with Western students looking to level up their skills. As the strengths program coordinator in the Student Experience office, she uses CliftonStrengths, an assessment and learning system created by research heavyweight Gallup.
Use of the positive psychology tool across the university – from academic orientation to student leadership training to career coaching – has earned accolades from Gallup, which awarded Western the 2023 Don Clifton Award for Student Strengths.
“By making strengths a way of life, these exceptional institutions help students turn their talents into strengths and foster greater academic achievement, engagement and wellbeing – setting them up to succeed far beyond the classroom,” Gallup wrote of its award winners.
In 2019, Western became the first Canadian university with a full-time staff position dedicated to helping students pursue personal and professional development through CliftonStrengths, according to the Student Experience office.
“The paradigm shift of the strengths-based approach is instead of looking for areas of weakness, you look for areas where you’re naturally talented,” O’Hara said.
“Instead of trying to be great at everything, what if you take what you already have, and invest in that, and try to be really exceptional. That’s where the power comes. That relieves a lot of stress for students, who often can have a tendency toward thinking about areas of weakness.”
O’Hara’s position was funded by Western’s student services committee four years ago, after learning about CliftonStrengths and the confidence it can provide students, said Leslie Gloor Duncan, Student Experience’s associate director of transition, leadership and enrichment.
“The student services committee got very excited about it being used as a tool to provide students with language about their unique talents – what they can bring to school situations and what they can bring to careers beyond university. It is about that individualized, tailored approach,” Gloor Duncan said.
Not only does the CliftonStrengths system provide a specific profile for each person who takes the assessment – made up of about 170 questions – but it helps students learn to convey their skills, and why they’re important.
The program is used among higher education institutions, and even in workplaces. At Western, it’s spread to student trainings – for orientation leaders and student work positions, for example – as well as individual courses, the residence system and some staff teams. Graduate students have used the system and leveraged the results, too.
“We really did need somebody to champion it in a full-time role. It’s very unique,” Gloor Duncan said.
Gloor Duncan and O’Hara both completed the assessment and connected with their results.
CliftonStrengths outlines a user’s top five talents, dubbed the “Talent DNA.” Gallup reports that the chances of sharing the same five strengths, in the same order, as another person are 1 in 33 million.
Gloor Duncan is an “activator,” as deduced by the CliftonStrengths model, which speaks to her work style and approach, she said.
“It’s all about the urgency that I feel all of the time to act.”
She brings energy and often acts as a catalyst to jump-start new efforts. That strength is also tempered by “leaping before having all the inputs.”
By contrast, O’Hara’s top strength is gathering and analyzing information.
“If I’m going to buy something simple, like a desk lamp, I might spend eight hours researching the best combination of factors for that desk lamp,” from price to placement to warmth of the light, O’Hara said by way of example.
Their distinct strengths make Gloor Duncan and O’Hara an effective team.
That’s another benefit that students reap from the CliftonStrengths system, they said.
Clearly understanding personal strengths can help build stronger teams, at school or in the workplace, since a group of individuals with carefully honed strengths can be more powerful than a team of people all with a wide range of moderate skills.
“Instead of striving toward being pretty good at a lot of things, what if you shifted your perspective to say, ‘I’m going to really invest in the areas where I have some natural talent, and I’m going to grow those to be exceptional?” O’Hara said.
Gallup research suggests it’s a more effective model of personal development, she added.
“Their research actually shows you can try to improve areas of weakness, but you’re likely to only get to OK, average, pretty good, by doing that, and you’re going to spend a lot more time and energy and it may be a more unsatisfying or difficult process. You’re more likely to succeed by focusing your time and energy in areas where you already have some natural talent,” she said.
With the support of the Parr Centre for Thriving, the Student Experience office is working to reach more members of the Western community with the CliftonStrengths program, constantly updating training materials and seeking ways to share its findings with students, faculty and staff.