I interviewed ten social sector leaders to discover how they go about bringing out the best in the people who work with them, and whether it has any connection to how teachers bring out the best in their students. I’m breaking down my findings into bite-size bits.  Here’s a bit.

What are you talking about?

Not actual muscle—or not necessarily actual muscle. There’s a lot of research, and a lot of controversy, about strengths. In fact people can’t even settle on what to call them: strengths, attitudes, capabilities, soft skills, virtues… There’s everything from Myers-Briggs to Aristotle, via Benjamin Franklin. And there is a lot of thinking going on around them in Psychology today. So I’ve taken Angela Duckworth’s two key strengths—grit and self-control—as an example. These have been found to contribute significantly to all-round success both at school and in life.

What is increasingly less controversial is that it is better if teachers and leaders and everyone the world over works from a strengths-based rather than a deficit-driven model. In other words, focus on what people are doing well, and build on that, rather than highlighting what they are doing badly. People are more likely to do what they do well even better, than to do what they do badly a bit better.

“I would say [these strengths and soft skills] are the most important thing to develop in life generally,” says Njoki Yaxley. “I’ve often thought it is perhaps the main thing required in life—and valued it more so than actual educational attainment—as it is what I can attribute a lot of my successes (and failures to).”

How can this be incorporated into an organisation?

A myriad of different ways. The interviewees suggested lots of good ideas:

  • review the organisation’s values: what strengths, capabilities, working styles or virtues tie in with these?
  • decide whether you want to develop a comprehensive competency model that applies to all staff, or if you want to work on an individual basis to identify, develop and assess strengths
  • when designing strategy around new strands of  work, projects or roles, include what strengths will be needed on the resource list
  • include strengths in each job spec and make time during induction to identify and focus on key strengths—this is what Kazvare Knox does
  • find ways to acknowledge strengths regularly by building them into check ins and performance reviews
  • find ways to acknowledge them ad hoc by celebrating with surprise treats and trips
  • put in writing what people are good at (and what they like doing, which is often the same thing), so that others can see it and come to them if they need help—a bit like the “one-pagers” that Ruth Marvel says the teams use at Scope

Have you got any strengths lists I could check out as starting points?

Yes.Yes I do.

Check out how KIPP schools in the United States have adopted  and assess Angela Duckworth’s seven key strengths:

Take the VIA survey, developed by Martin Seligman and others:

Or take a different tack and look at the capabilities approach, as developed by Sen and the Nussbaum. Here’s a Wikipedia entry to get you started:

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