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"I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time."

Anna Freud



Suggested Primary Paper

Three Key Readings

Strengths in Multi-Media


Cultural Beliefs Relating to the Strengths Approach


Clinical Applications

Educational Applications

Organisational Applications

Gaps Between Theory and Empirical Testing

Wild Uncritical Claims

Connections Between the Strengths Approach and Other Areas of Positive Psychology


Introduction to the Strengths Approach

The Strengths Approach is a branch of positive psychology which advocates that everyone possesses skills or traits in which they excel. The strengths approach believes that people ought to be aware of their strengths and in using their strengths they will find fulfilment in what they do.

Also see Marcus Buckinghams summary

Suggested Primary Paper

A primary article in this field of research is by Mitchell et al (2009) which epitomises an internet orientated, strength-based intervention in practice whilst demonstrating its effectiveness as compared to a problem solving intervention.

Enhancing well-being at a population level is explored in this introduction in the context of two relatively young disciplines, namely positive psychology and internet interventions. Three groups, including a positive psychology strengths intervention, a problem solving intervention and a placebo control group were designed. Subjects completed online assessments at pre-, post-, and 3-month follow-up, to evaluate the post-intervention outcomes and durability of change over time. The measures used to collect demographic information on well-being were:

  • The personal Well-being Index – Adult measures subjective well-being.
  • The SWLS (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) measures global cognitive judgments of one’s life.
  • The PANAS (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) measures positive and negative affect.
  • The OTH (Peterson et al., 2005) measures meaning, pleasure, and engagement.

And the measures used to test mental illness were:

  • The DASS-21 (Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995) contains three self-report scales and measures the emotional states of anxiety, depression, and stress.


To attain the scores on interventions, participants were: a) asked to complete a demographic survey and five mental health and well-being questionnaires when they first logged-in (Time 1); b) randomly allocated to one of three groups on completion of the questionnaires (Time 2); c) given 3 weeks to complete the intervention before prompted to answer the same five mental health and well-being questionnaires via a website (Time 3).


The strengths intervention involved identifying ones perceived strengths from a list of 24 signature strengths (Peterson & Park, 2004). At the end they were assigned a homework task where they should share with a friend what they had learnt about identifying personal strengths. In session two, participants provided feedback on their progress with the previous session’s offline activity and then selected three of their top ten strengths to further develop during the week (examples were provided). The final session reviewed participant progress and directed participants to the post-intervention questionnaires. Three months later a follow-up assessment questionnaire was completed.

The problem solving intervention was based on a cognitive-behavioral approach to problem solving. In the first session, participants were introduced to three steps of a six-step approach to problem solving, and were told to share what they had learnt about problem solving with a friend or family member. In the second session, participants were introduced to two more steps of the problem solving model and told to apply this information to a real life problem thus practicing using their problem solving skills during the week. In the final session subjects were introduced to step six of the model, given a summary of the whole six-step model, and directed to the post-intervention questionnaires.

The placebo group completed an abbreviated version of the problem solving intervention but were not asked to apply the problem solving information to a real life problem, nor to complete any offline tasks.


The PWI-A results show a significant increase in the cognitive component of subjective well-being for the strengths group from pre- to post-assessment and 3-month follow-up. The problem solving and placebo group demonstrated no change in well-being. There was no significance for any of the interventions regarding the SWLS, PANAS, OTH.

This indicates that the strengths intervention has the desired impact on the cognitive component of well-being but not the affective component, showing results not as definitive as Seligman et al. (2005). For mental illness, there was no change in depression, anxiety or stress scores over time or by group, as measured by the DASS-21. These results do not support the findings of Seligman et al. (2005).


This study used a small sample size, and this could explain why their results differed so largely from Seligman et al. (2005). The low levels of mental illness and high levels of well-being at baseline may have created floor and ceiling effects. The sample was also largely female and well educated which limits ecological validity. It also only analyses emotional states over a 3 month period thus neglecting the long term effects, especially considering most reports on well being show subjective changes will usually be temporary (Headey, 2008). Furthermore, the subjects were obtained from the general population. Many papers in this area of literature attempt to apply strength-based research findings to participants with mental illnesses, as opposed to the general population. This highlights an important premise behind SBA, namely that not only does the approach provide treatment for participants with mental illnesses, but it can also be utilised educationally to teach how one who does not suffer from mental illness can enhance their well-being.

Data collected via the Internet suffers from a number of preconceptions, but it has also been shown that Internet samples tend to be relatively diverse with regard to gender, socio-economic status, geographic region, and age, and that Internet findings generalise across presentation formats, are not adversely affected by non-serious or repeat responders, and are consistent with findings from traditional paper-and-pencil methods (Gosling et al. 2004).

3 Recommended Papers

1. Luthans, F. & Youssef, C.M. (2002). Positive organisational behaviour: Developing and managing psychological strengths.

Fred Luthans began with an education in psychology before joining the University of Nebraska's Department of Management. Fred Luthans was one of the first management scholars to apply behavioural science to better understand and effectively manage human behaviour in organisations. Since then he has pioneered much research theory and focused on techniques to improve employee effectiveness and remains a well cited key author in the literature.

This paper introduces the recent development of Positive Organisational Behaviour (POB) and how it followed the lead from the inauguration of positive psychology, driven arguably to counter the too often taken negative perspective of trying to fix what is wrong with employees as opposed to focussing on people’s strengths and psychological capabilities.

The first half helps in defining many of the key terms and takes time to help understand and appreciate the development of the POB movement over the past few years. In the second half Luthans introduces the concepts of, positive efficacy, hope, optimism, subjective well-being and emotional intelligence, three of which are directly mentioned in the VIA classification of character strengths. Luthans believes these concepts to be research based, as having valid measurement, being open to development and have performance impact. He continues to systematically interpret each concept in an unbiased and critical manner as to how they apply to POB in terms of these applications and measures.

- Associated text - Luthans, F. & Youssef, C.M. (2007). Emerging Positive Organizational Behavior.

Having provided a good grounding on the subject, Luthans (2007) has also published a more recent review journal, which if you are interested in finding out more should be followed up. This journal goes into greater depth as above, discussing the goal of an integrated theoretical framework along with a comprehensive classification of positive traits, state-like capacities (similar to 2002 but incorporating resiliency and psychological capital), organisations and behaviours and he explains the necessity of studies that test the relative contributions of each of these influences and the interactions between them, setting out recommended future research directions.

2. Linley et al (2007). Character strengths in the United Kingdom

This article is an effective empirical study which offers a general introduction into how the VAI Inventory of Strengths questionnaire is exploited in scientific research, and exactly what it means to have a specific “character strength”. It neatly highlights how one accesses and engages the VAI, which is the mainstream method for testing strengths, whilst demonstrating the differences in strengths between the sexes. Results illustrate women score higher than men on character strengths bar the top five “signature strengths” where they are equal.

Participants completed a variety of questionnaires measuring happiness, character strengths, and various other psychological constructs, with the mean scores for each of the 24 character strengths as measured by the VIA Inventory of Strengths are reported below and categorised demographically. Consistent with reported US samples (Peterson et al., 2006), analyses of gender showed women reported higher scores on strengths measures, with the exception of creativity. These effects were very small however, and four of the five signature strengths reported overall by men and women were the same (open-mindedness, fairness, curiosity, and love of learning). Strengths were generally positively associated with age, suggesting that there may be a trend for character development over the lifespan, as suggested by authors such as Erikson (1959) and Maslow (1970). Strength can be seen in this study’s accountability of variance in age and occupational status as the sample is relatively heterogeneous, and the gender representation more balanced, due to using internet data. This method accounted for large and wide samples, which contrasts with typical college student samples. Yet the implications of this are that the better educated population tend to be more responsive to these methods of testing, thus it could be argued that some stregnths, i.e. love of learning, may be unrepresentitive.

- Associated text

See suggested primary paper

3. Sousa, L., Ribeiro, C. & Rodrigues, S. (2006). Intervention with multi-problem poor clients: towards a strengths-focused perspective.

This paper offers a different approach to our primary text as it involves implementing a strengths-based approach (SBA) intervention to multi-problem poor clients as opposed to clients without mental illnesses. The paper describes a somewhat recurring theme within the literature which I feel is important as it provides another angle on some current findings on the SBA.

The objective asks the question, “Are multi-problem poor families and practitioners able to think in a strengths focussed way?” The method comprises three open questions designed to challenge practitioners and clients to think in a SBA way in an attempt to assess the potential of a transfer from a problem-centred perspective, focusing on treating the negatives, to a strengths-centred one.

The results suggest that both the practitioners and families are capable of identifying positive aspects in the functioning and organisation of families, although there appears to be a reluctance, particularly in practitioners in identifying the expected frequencies in positive aspects of clients. however, the problem appears to lie in an inadequacy of practitioners or clients to truly believe in the effectiveness of the approach and thus hindering the potential for positive effects to be realised in SBA treatment. An interview administered to both practitioners and clients reveals that the problem-centred perspective is still dominant and that the shift in perspective is still in an incipient stage.

I feel this exemplifies how there may be a current shadow of doubt over the effectiveness of the SBA, however, the results of which can not be properly harnessed until the approach is vindicated of any negative assumptions in its effectiveness and is tested on individuals with a belief in the approach.

- Associated text - Cox, K.F. (2006). Investigating the impact of strengths-based assessment on youth with emotional or behavioural disorders.

This paper also ties in well with K. Cox (2006) who attempts to examine the impact of SBA using the Behavioural and Emotional Rating Scale (BERS) with seriously emotionally or behaviourally disturbed children and adolescents. The results were found to be similar in that child functioning outcomes were significantly better for youth who received BERS versus the usual problem-based assessment only when the treating therapist reported an orientation in survey that reflected an orientation toward service that reflects highly SB attitudes and practices. However, it should be pointed out that the experimental design houses some flaws which limit the useful extrapolation of its results. Some reasons are as follows:

· The use of therapists from 6 different levels of education/expertise.

· Therapists were crossed with the conditions, providing services to both experimental and control clients which would result in the diffusion of the treatment effect.

· 67% of pro SBA therapists shared info with parents as opposed to 58% and 40% for moderate and low, pro SBA therapists. Parents were rating levels of improvement in their children and thus may have been persuaded by the levels of feedback they received and the persuasiveness of progress depending on the how the therapist rated effectiveness of the SBA via the Clinician Survey.

Strengths approach in multi media

Recognising that everyone learns differently we have included in our Wiki page various links to information about strengths in either video or audio format. Simply click on the links throughout the page to access the information. (Although we recognise the links we have provided are not always very scientific they will offer you a starting point and ideas to think about based around the strengths based approach)

History of the Strengths Approach

Many theorists and philosophers have contributed to the Strengths approach. Key names in this area include: Maria Montessori (1870-1952), Carl Rogers (1902-1987), Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) Martin Seligman (1942-)

Carl Rogers

There is a strong link between the Humanistic branch within psychology and the strengths approach. Rogers (1902-1987) was a Humanistic psychologist who developed Person-Centred approaches within psychology. Rogers believed that people have a desire to self-actualise, develop their strengths and fulfil their potential, which leads to positive psychological well-being. Those who have trouble self-actualising or who do not want to self-actualise are likely to experience psychological problems according to Rogers. Rogers believed if people felt valued, they would be more likely to use their strengths and fulfil their potential. For Rogers it was important that people embraced their individuality and creativity, he believed people ought to use their strengths for the encouragement of other people- directly linking to the Strengths Approach.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was another pioneer of the Humanistic approach who greatly influenced the Strengths approach; however “strengths” was not a term that Maslow often used directly. Maslow was one of the first to focus on psychological wellbeing rather than psychological illness. This positive attitude is central to positive psychology generally and especially in the strengths approach. Maslow believed that people were more likely to develop positively if they were in an environment that encouraged them, in which they could discover their strengths and therefore fulfil their own potential, and self-actualise.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

Another key theorist who contributed to the Strengths Approach is Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the educational pioneer. Montessori’s work focused on children’s education and the potential of each individual child to succeed. She believed that in education children ought to be provided within an environment in which they could develop and investigate their own interests and with self responsibility in learning, work towards achieving their own goals. As a result, of working to their strengths, Montessori believed children would find fulfillment in life- a clear link to the Strengths Approach. Montessori focused on the individuality of people as learners, advocating that people should be able to select their own style of learning and working that best suits and illuminates their own strengths.

Martin Seligman (1942-)

More recently, Martin Seligman (1942-) has sought to popularize Positive Psychology and its associated Strengths Approach. He attempted to move psychology from a negative disease model of mental illness to a more positive model, focusing on recovering from and avoidance of mental illness through focusing on individuals’ strengths. Seligman believes that for a positive life people need to be aware of their own major strengths- that is skills and character traits. Then people need to adjust their lives to accommodate these key strengths and allow them to be utilized more. Ultimately Seligman believes that people need to use their key strengths to serve something greater than their own person for the individual to have a truly fulfilled life. Seligman, along with Peterson highlighted 24 key character strengths and various assessment tools for people to discover their own strengths rating.

Cultural beliefs relating to the Strengths Approach

In all societies around the world (and throughout time) there exist many stereotypes, which may or may not actually be true. A lot of these stereotypes can be seen to link to the foundational beliefs of the strengths approach.

General Employment Based Gender Stereotypes

Western based gender stereotypes, such that males ought to be leaders and main (or sole) breadwinners relate to the strengths approach as this stereotype is based on the view that an area in which men have greater ability than females is in leadership and employment (historically in hunter-gathering). Whilst the related stereotype that women ought to be homemakers, also connects to the strengths approach, as this stereotype proposes that a key trait and ability in which women excel over men is that of home-making and care-giving. Linked to that is the view that women ought to be the cooks in families/organisations as they are perceived to excel more in this area than men. However the increasing proportion of male celebrity chefs and rise of females in managerial/business positions, i.e. over the past 15 years in the UK, the “number of women company directors has tripled” (EOC 2002). In the USA, in 2004, women accounted for “just over 50%” of leadership or management occupations (Bureau of Labour Statistics 2005) is beginning to bring this into question.

Many more specific Western gender occupational stereotypes are based upon the Strengths approach principles’. For example the high concentration of female nurses and male business leaders or managers.

The restriction of women to certain roles in organisations such as the Armed Forces, where women are prohibited from close combat roles ( also be related to the Strengths Approach, with society believing that women lacked the skills (strengths) to be suitable for front line positions.

Educational Employment Based Gender Stereotypes

In teaching and school based employment women are more prevalent within the teaching staff of primary schools. This could be explained by the Strengths approach by arguing that women possess a greater amount of caring ability and empathy, compared to men and these are qualities required in primary school teachers. In relation to this is the higher proportion of male Headteachers compared to female Headteachers.

There is a greater proportion of males in senior levels of school leadership, throughout the school system i.e. primary through to tertiary educational establishments. (DfES 2004). The disproportional gender representation when comparing teachers to head teachers is most evident in secondary schools, although is also visible in primary schools. It is reported that 83% of primary school teachers are female but only 62% of female primary based teachers are head teachers. Whilst in secondary schools, 55% of teachers are female but only 31% of women are headteachers. (DfES 2004, reported in Coleman M in ‘Gender and Headship in the 21st Century’ , paper presented to NCSL 2005).

This relates to the Strengths approach for teaching and leadership as the role of Headteacher is a dominant leadership role more than a teaching role. As males are believed to possess greater strengths in dominance and leadership than women it is therefore possible to explain this gender division in relation to the Strengths approach.

Educational Based Gender Stereotypes

Certain academic subjects have higher concentrations of one gender compared to the other- for example Whitehead (1996) empirically found that in selecting A level subjects boys were more likely to select “masculine” subjects such as science rather than feminine subjects such as languages. The same trend was not found by Whitehead (1996) for girls.

Sport Based Gender Stereotypes

Male sports tend to have greater public following compared to female dominated sports- i.e. football is watched more and receives more funding than netball. This links to the Strengths Approach that advocates sporting ability is a strength possessed by males rather than females.

Exercises Involved in the Strength Approach

Practical exercises within the Strength Approach of positive psychology firstly include identifying what you individual strengths are and what strengths to have to work on. Within the strengths approach there are several ways to do this.

  1. The VIA : Created by Peterson and Seligman. This is free to access online at The VIA Institute of Character has three questionnaires designed to do just this The VIA Survey of Character (VIA-IS), The VIA Brief Strengths Test and The VIA Youth Survey making it one of the easiest to use in most settings. It identifies 24 widely-valued character strengths, and organizes them under six broad virtues which are empirically proven (Biswas-Diener, 2006).According to the website of the VIA Institute of Character website the “VIA-IS is the world's most scientifically validated tool for measuring character strengths.”
  2. The Strengths Finder: Produced by Gallup you can access this by getting a code from purchasing one of their books. This identifies 5 top themes. It can be found at Validity and reliability of this instrument has been studied by Schriener 2006.
  3. Strengths can also be identified using interviews which can be self administered or administered by others. This technique is commonly used in educational settings. It involves asking about yearnings the person has, where they display rapid learning, what things they enjoy doing most. Clifton and Nelson (1992) (a similar technique has been identified by Haldane in the dependent strengths literature, Haldane emphasizes identifying ones strengths through reflection on good experiences).
  4. Also recently Alex Linley, who is a strengths approach expert, has produced his own 50 plus exercises to identify strengths. These can be accessed at but there is a fee for this

Research has shown that simply identifying your strengths is not beneficial in itself. In fact it can be counterproductive and influence one into a performance orientated mindset (Louis, 2008). Therefore strengths based exercises should also be employed which integrate this idea of strengths into the individual’s life I will outline below a few of the ways in which this can be done

· Reading the literature on your personal strengths and highlights the bits you think apply most to you as well as discussing your strengths with close friends and family allows people to affirm their strengths. (Clifton, Anderson and Scheiner (2002).

· Following that it is important to identify how your strengths apply to your everyday goals and how they can help you accomplish success. A way to envision using your strengths is in goal setting. This involves thinking of a goal you have at the moment and applying your strengths to how you will achieve this goal.

· Another well documented exercise is possible selves. This involves the person identify what their ideal possible self would be, identify what they need to do to get there and using their strengths to achieve this. (Schreiner, 2007)


- a brief video by seligman discussing the via. - an audio by Alex Linley discussing strengths and mainly how to identify ones strengths.

Clinical Applications to the Strength Approach

Due to the recently new emergence of positive psychology the proven scientific clinical applications of the ‘Strength Approach’ are few. There are many resources that support the use of knowing strengths as being beneficial to an individual; such as questionnaires, career help in the form of textbooks/courses, and a general enhanced wellbeing from being able to identify your individual strengths. Yet the introduction of strengths in a therapeutic sense is still undergoing. Although there is a relation within counselling psychology, as the emphasis on learning strengths has been used here for many years.

One of the recently adopted therapies that seems to have broken into the clinical field of positive psychology is known as ‘Strength Centred Therapy’ (ST), which is detailed and debated by Y.J. Wong (2006) in his paper ‘Strength Centred

Therapy – A Social Constructionist and virtues based Psychotherapy.’ As the title explains it is a social constructionist therapy which aims to highlight the strong/weak strengths in the individual by reviving ‘character strengths’ (or ‘Positive Individual Strengths’) and also aiming to improve on what people consider their negative strengths. Wong explains that a ‘character strength’ is defined as “any psychological process that consistently enables a person totand act as so to yield benefits to himself or herself and society.” Although we will not be concentrating on virtues in this page it should be noted the therapy however is not wholly centred on strengths as it incorporates the use of virtues from the client as well.

‘Strength Centred Therapy’ (ST) is broken into four stages; explicating, envisioning, empowering and evolving -though it should be made clear that not every individual will go through all four stages as this is not always necessary. Also the stages are not always consecutive ; they can occur in a variety of orders. The stages are briefly described below:

1) Explicating: This is simply the process of the client highlighting their own strengths and weaknesses; this can be aided by the therapist but essentially it is what the patients agrees with.

2) Envisioning: The patient is asked to envision how they can use their strengths and also how to improve on others.

3) Empowering: This is when the therapist helps the patient to use their strengths to either highlight them or to improve them through use. It may involve tasks/habits introduced by the therapist to underline them to the client.

4) Evolving: Basically letting the client understand that using and improving strengths is a never ending process even after completion of the therapy.

Limitations of this therapy include the fact that it is based widely on more Western cultured lifestyles and therefore its universal usage is questionable. Also, the patient may be subject to bad memories or painful truths when trying to uncover strengths and this may eventually cause more harm than good! In the cases of patients who may suffer from other psychological problems, such as depression, they may need to undergo this therapy in conjunction with other behavioural therapies; though this has yet to be explored much within the area. The ST is centred on the view that strengths are malleable, introduced by Seligman. Which therefore allows them to be changed and also for them to adapt to individual throughout different stages and events in their lives; this is a very important consideration when discussing strengths and should be kept in mind whenever strengths are discussed.

It has been suggested throughout positive psychology that humans generally strive to adapt for the better – therefore it would seem likely that Clinical applications of the strength approach such as ST could prove to be extremely useful in the future of positive psychology and therapies! However much more scientific research and clinical studies need to be conducted to show how effective this is and could be. If it can be shown that there are significant long term effects from treatments such as ST then we must begin to look into other possible therapies as the benefits for the individual and society could be dramatic, for example having less people out of work.

Applying strengths on Campus

The strengths philosophy has been shown to have beneficial effects in educational settings, because of this the strengths based approach has been applied in various academic settings. One example of this is Azusa Pacific a top Christian college in America where the full campus is based on the strengths philosophy.

The main text advocating the application of the strengths based approach in an educational setting is “Strengths Quest”. This book encourages the identification of student’s strengths and collaboration between student and teacher to help apply these to academic challenges. It advises the reader to “Discover, Develop and apply their strengths on campus”.

There is also empirical evidence to support the application of the strengths based approach to an academic setting and its beneficial effect on academic achievement as well as students psychological constructs. (See following for studies: (Scheirner, (2007);Rath (2002); Simpson (2008); Gillum (2005); Austin (2005);Swanson (2006); Williamson, (2002).


this is a video by Marcus Buckingham discussing strengths and the education system.

Strengths based Organizations

The strengths based approach is also applicable within organizational settings. The idea of using strengths within organizations is based on knowing your employees strengths and using these strengths for the benefit of the company. This can involve creating teams or partnerships which complement each other and making sure employees strengths are suited to their job description.

Paul Drucker a key figure in strengths application to organisations and particularly management, claims in order to be successful you must have a deep understanding of yourself which involves knowing and understanding your strengths (Drucker, 1999). Drucker also believes that “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity then to improve from first rate to excellence”. He believes it is key to success that we use our strengths in the workplace. James Critin and Richard Smith (2003) are also advocates of using ones strengths to be successful in the work place they state that “Extraordinarily successful executives lead careers that fully leverage both their strengths and their passions more than six times as often as the average employee” Using the strengths approach in a work place can also increase employee productivity, reduce employee turnover which can in turn save companies millions of pounds.

Various experiments have been carried out on using strengths within the workplace. Gallup have identified that those people who are able to answer positively to the question “I have the opportunity at work to do what I do best everyday” show better performance within their role and greater employee engagement (Harter, Schmidt and Keyes, 2002) Black (2001) also identified beneficial effects of the strengths based approach in a hospital work team and Connelly (2002) in a engineering garage.

Fred Luthans, another pioneering figure within the organisational literature is following an ongoing line of research into the concepts of, hope, optimism, self-efficacy and resiliency and how these can have implications for positive organisational behaviour. However, empirical findings suggest that these four positive psychological concepts may contribute more in combination and interaction in what is called Psychological Capital or PsyCap? (Luthans et al. 2005). PsyCap? is defined as,

An individual’s positive psychological state of development that is characterised by: having confidence (self-efficacy) to put in the necessary effort to succeed;, making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) and when beset by problems, sustaining and bouncing back and beyond (resiliency) to attain success (Luthans, Youssef et al 2007).

Through this perspective, PsyCap? is proposed to build out and add value to what you already have, for example, what you know (human capital), who you know (social capital) and challenging and promoting the development of who you are today (the actual self) into what you can become in the future (possible self).

Recently, a PsyCap? development intervention has been designed and tested and was found to significantly increase managers’ and employees’ PsyCap? levels in a variety of samples (Luthans, Avey et al 2006; Larson&Luthans 2006).

Although, PsyCap? is in the early stages of development, the concept is growing in popularity and it has been proposed that, synergistically integrating, human, social and psychological capital is central to actualising human potential in today’s workplace.

Multi-Media - This is a video by Chris Samba discussing using ones strengths at work. - This is a video by Marcus Buckingham discussing strengths and your career. Also see


Gaps between theory and experimental research

One can access information on the theory of the strengths based approach easily through reviews, articles, books and seminars. However access to published empirical testing of this theory is not so readily available. What I would argue is that the theory for the strengths based approach is better established than its empirical testing. However recent evidence goes someway to rectifying this problem suggesting a promising future for the strengths based approach.

How well established is the Theory?

Various books have been published on the strengths based approach, with each book comes an application of the strengths approach to a new setting, strengths for sales managers, students and congregations (Smith+ Rutigliano, 2003; Clifton, D.O., & Anderson, E. 2003; Winseman, 2007). How to implement a strengths approach is well established, however, the theory greatly outweighs the empirical evidence in the area. And therefore the area is still somewhat questionable in a number of respects. However this imbalance has been addressed recently and evidence is emerging which supports the strengths based theory. Below I have outlined several points of the strengths approach and evidence to support each point.

Strengths point 1: We each have strengths.

Allport (1961) identified that humans do have talents and strengths and Diener (2006) identified that these existed universally. Park, Peterson and Seligman (2004) have also identified relationships between ones strengths and well being.

Strengths point 2 : We can achieve excellence through our strengths.

The strengths based approach also asserts that those who are the best of the best tend to use their strengths; a study by Robles (2008) looked at elite athletes and found that they use their strengths to pursue excellence and associate their high performance with their main strengths.

Strengths point 3: We can grow and develop these strengths

A study following the 9/11 attacks by Peterson and Seligman (2003) found that the strengths of faith, hope and love were elevated among American respondents. It could be argued this occurred because these people had the opportunity to use and develop these strengths and therefore became more aware of them.

Strengths point 4: when we use our strengths we gain more than when we work on our areas of weakness.

Glock 1995 (investing in strengths) found that when given an intervention to increase reading ability it is those who are the best readers who increase their ability most. Although this was not labelled as strengths it supports this idea of a better pay back when we work on our strengths.

Strengths point 5: We can see beneficial effects when we use our strengths.

Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006) despite not deliberately looking at strengths at the time found that when disadvantaged students undertook self affirmation activities of writing about their values and strengths they narrowed their academic achievement gap by around 40%. Highlighting this idea about being aware of your strengths and spending time reflecting on them can be beneficial. Seligman also produced a study which looked at using ones strengths and subsequent decrease in depressive symptoms (Seligman, 2005) (Other examples of this can be found in applied area outlined).

A Word of Warning

However there is a cynicism surrounding the evidence supporting the strengths based approach mainly evidence which comes from the Gallup institute or researchers affiliated with the institute. The Gallup institute could be described as the founders of strengths, however, I find that somewhat inaccurate as strengths was recognised prior to this, what I would call the Gallup institute is the first group to really invest significant amounts of money into the project and the first groups to make significant monetary reward from the theory, based on books, seminars and online testing, therefore it is very beneficial for them for this theory to be successful. This should be kept in mind when reviewing the literature.

What’s Next?

Despite the support outlined above the strengths based approach could most benefit from more publication in peer reviewed journals as alot of the studies which exist at the moment are produced by Gallup Organisation and are not actually peer reviewed by the scientific community prior to publication.

Futher Reading:

For more studies of the strengths based approach and accompanying critique see A Summary and Critique of Existing Strengths-Based Educational Research Utilizing the Clifton Strengths Finder (Louis,2009)

Wild Uncritical Claims

Be cautious for overestimations concerning the power of the strength-based approach.

There are undeniably fruitful gains that can be established in many areas of humanity when one applies a strength-based model, and although most well established literature accounts for the role of personal weaknesses, throughout the literature there are some who begin to move away from a realistic understanding of the strengths behind these models as based on empirical evidence, and move towards arguments suggesting that development can stop once strengths are assessed. One might want to bear this in mind when reading the vast literature from researchers such as Gallup. Attitudes of this sort neglect many of the positive outcomes that manifest from deficit-based programs (examples of studies showing strength in deficit-based models and no difference between these and a strength-based approaches are Bickman et al., 1997 and Weisz et al., 1992). Realistically, it is impossible to go through life without once acknowledging ones weaknesses. For example, in a marriage, past a certain point it would be impossible to ignore a partner’s repeated act of infidelity, no matter how intensely the couple focused on the strong points of their relationship. Rashid and Ostermann (2009) caution towards writing of this sort, explaining some clinicians have become concerned that assessment of strengths may either reinforce narcissistic attitudes for some clients or distract them from serious problems that need immediate attention.

The more thorough explanations don't neglect the credibility which some deficit-based models deserve, and credible arguments of this sort (like Rashid’s and Ostermann’s, 2009) believe a compromise is necessary to attain the maximal benefit of a strength-based approach, arguing models should account for strengths as well as weaknesses in a hybrid endeavour. Strength-based assessment is not only about strengths, but also understanding the client in an integrated way so that strengths can be marshalled to undo troubles. Ones strengths are used to help ones weaknesses. Saleebey (1996) agrees, claiming the integrative models such as these help clients find psychotherapy as affirming, empowering, and even motivating.

Connections Between the Strengths Approach and Other Areas of Positive Psychology


Snyder (2000) defined Hope as the ability to identify our capabilities and goals combined with motivation and the identification of ways to get to the desired goal. This is linked to the Strength Approach as an understanding of our individual strengths is a key component of Hope. Luthans and Jensen (2002) reviewed the use of Hope training interventions in an organisational setting. These interventions focus on allowing individuals to identify their own strengths and to build on them (Synder, 2000). Luthans and Jensen note that Hope, whether within an organisation or on an individual level, leads to more success and greater well being. Cooperrider (1990) stated that to build a culture of Hope, processes that help identify existing strengths is key.

As previousily mentioned Park, Peterson and Seligman (2004) identified 24 key character strengths, one of which included Hope. So Hope is considered a character strength in itself, while also giving you greater abiity to identify your other strengths.


Gratitude simpily means to acknowledge and be thankful for the thing we value. In the area of positive paychology it is suggested that expressing gratitude to those you are thankful for helps increase happiness and well being. Similar to Hope, Gratitude was included in Park et al (2004) list of character strengths. Gratitude itself is thought to be a source of character strength.


There is a clear and obvious link between optimism and the strengths approach. The strength approach is all about looking for the talents, skills and characteristics that you have and using them in a positive way. Personal optimism, which means being optimistic about your own abilties is particularly relevant. Those who have high levels of personal and ability optimism would be able to more readily identify their strengths and apply them to everyday life.


Csikszentmihalyi (1975) described Flow as ‘ holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.’ Nine factors are identified with the Flow state, with one of the main factors being that the perceived level of challenge has to match the perceived level of skill (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi (1992) also stated that when both skills and challenges are above average, a more positive experience emerges. Therefore if strengths are already identified, challenges that match can be sought out to increase the likelihood of experiencing a Flow state.


Carol Dweck (1999) identified two types of mindsets in relation to learning, namely The Fixed Mindset and The Growth Mindset. The Fixed mindset is when people focus on one strength, that they believe to be fixed and not open to change. For example, people are arty or they are not, there is no room for learning. On the other hand, The Growth Theory has plenty of room for growth and development. It identifys two extremes of ability: geniuses and those with learning difficulties, but states that the majority of the population are in between these two poles and can, with the right attitude, develop skills beyond those of their obvious talents. Simply this theory suggests that anyone can become good at anything.

These theories clearly incorporate the Strengths approach, but in a rather negative manner. Dweck suggests that the identification of our strengths could actually inhibit us by forcing us into a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset are tend to stress about possible failures, feel the need to validate how clever they are and take criticism badly.


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