In our constant strive for success and self improvement, we find ourselves focusing on our weaknesses and comparing ourselves to our peers. This can be very demoralising. Perhaps we should stop trying so hard to be rounded individuals and work on having rounded teams instead? A strengths based approach to performance development helps us flourish and be happy. In this talk Jenny explores the psychology of flow and how celebrating our differences and individuality brings unity, cooperation and harmony to teams.
Hi I’m Jenny, I’m going to talk to you today about strengths, and how knowing your strengths, and knowing other
people’s strengths helps us all be happier and more productive.
What makes your heart sing? Have a think?
Does software development make your heart sing? Does ‘ Agile’ make you feel awesome?
despite having worked in software development for the last 25 years, I recently realised that I don’t actually care
that much about it. Agile doesn’t really make my heart sing.
What gets me out of bed every day is that feeling I get when I’m working with teams who are flourishing. When I
notice everyone’s wonderful unique qualities and how they come together to do awesome things
Once I realised this, I wanted to get more of those feelings in my life, and I took a job a year ago which actually
has ‘people potential’ in the job title. So my entire job now is about helping individuals and teams flourish, be
themselves and be happy.
I do a lot of coaching, and I tend to get involved whenever anyone is feeling a bit meh, or a bit disgruntled, or
having problems working together. and I’ve noticed that nearly everything fits into one of these 3 themes:
We’re dissatisfied with ourselves - we’re constantly trying to fix ourselves
We want to be good at everything, we compare ourselves to others and compare our team members to each
We feel easily let down or upset when other people behave in a way that doesn’t meet our expectations.
I believe we spend too much of our lives feeling dissatisfied and unmotivated and striving for perfection or some
ideal of happiness.
I believe we spend far too much energy trying to fix ourselves and have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and
If we take time to understand, accept and even embrace our differences then we can do awesome things and feel
good about ourselves.
So let’s take a look at the problem
Why are we so dissatisfied with ourselves?
We are in an age of the self obsessed – the age of the selfie.
Recent reports suggest that there are 93 Million selfies taken a day. ⅓ of all pictures are selfies. It’s reported that
young women (16-25) spend on average 5 hours a week taking selfies!!!
We’re constantly bombarded with images of perfection on social media. Perfect bodies and perfect nutritious
‘Look at my healthy breakfast oats, fresh mango, quinoa & extract of Himalayan pomegranate’
‘Feeling awesome after my dawn 2-hour hot-power yoga class’
There’s so much content on how to be a better person. I particularly like looking at posts from action families
doing wholesome activities 24/7 whilst my family are in our pyjamas playing Ratchet and Clank.
This all makes me feel kind of inadequate.
The world around us is more individualistic and competitive than ever before. Success has become about how
many likes and followers you have on social media, or how many people read your blog. It’s a popularity contest.
There’s an expectation that you have some kind of personal brand. This puts huge pressure on us. Lots of people
I talk to are struggling with feeling like they should be someone.
We’re obsessed by self-improvement.
The ‘self help’ book is a reasonably recent concept
Mostly I think because our we were more worried about general survival: the standard of living, agriculture,
industry and medicine.
The first self help book was called 'self help' by Samuel Smiles in 1859.
He he Samuel Smiles – I love names that are appropriate for jobs. My Grandma had an optician called ‘Hugh
Now it feels like you can’t move for self help books.
It’s a huge global industry feeding on our unhappiness, making us feel that we can achieve happiness through
reading a book, or taking a pill.
I’m astonished by how many people I talk to in my coaching are actively ‘working on themselves’ to the extent
that they are reading some kind of self help book.
(Ironic as my big reveal is how a particular self help book can help you)
We convince ourselves that we are inadequate, that we need something more to be happy. This prevents us from
We compare ourselves to others - we tend to pay attention to, and model ourselves on popular and successful
individuals, - and this leads to lots of unhappiness and disappointment.
We want to be good at everything. We’ve grown up with ‘ you can do anything if you out your mind to it,’
What – can I become a world class basketball player? Can I win the X Factor?
We’ve been set up for disappointment.
Despite the modern world being highly individualistic we still get compared to each other, or a predefined set of
attributes.. So our workplaces expect us to be good at everything too!
Lets look at company performance management for example, and in particular performance related pay
Have you ever had a yearly rating - like a score from 1-5?
How do you get given that score? It tends to be based on ratings against a number of criteria, and then
employees get ranked against each other to see who gets the top marks and the bottom marks.
And then your mark relates to how much bonus you get.
The sinister bit is that the budget for bonuses is often worked out based on a normal distribution curve. So it’s
already rigged so that only 10% of people can get a 5.
I remember being constantly challenged when I submitted reviews for my team – ‘You can’t have more than one
five - you need a 1 & two 2s’
This is madness? This actually punishes high performing teams, and is designed to make 80% of employees feel
unappreciated & demotivated.
The third problem is that we all have our own mental filters, bias and personal constructs that make us see the
We see the world through different lenses. What do you see? (rabbit or duck)
We surround ourselves with extensions of ourselves.
We impose our own values and world view onto other people in terms of expectations. When someone’s
behaviour isn’t aligned with our expectations we get conflict, and it’s simpler to label people than it is to come up
with stories that might explain their behaviour.
Most of the coaching I do is dealing with miscommunication & misunderstanding between people.
So we’re striving for perfection, we’ve become convinced we need to compete against each other & have very
high expectations of those around us.
We’re surrounded by images of the perfect self.
What does that look like?
Dave the ‘Dev’
Let’s take our perfect Agile team member.
Hers’s Dave, he’definitely an all-rounder. we’ve gotten rid of old fashioned job titles like analyst and tester and
team lead. Now we’re all ‘Devs’ You have to be good at everything.
Dave the ‘Dev’ is a Full Stack developer, can code in multiple languages. He also does testing and analysis. He can
do automated testing too. He uses TDD practices. He’s great at developing, but also great at communicating with
the business. As well as being a super communicator, he’s also deeply analytical, a problem solver & a ‘Team
He also regularly tweets, he’s got quite a following - has his own blog. And a side project, of course a side project
… which is for a highly ethical project for good. He volunteers in his spare time and teaches kids codes clubs for
He’s also very environmentally conscious and passionate about sustainability. He carries a reusable cup wherever
he goes and doesn’t use plastic. He does triathlons in his spare time & he’s a vegan. He’s in a fulfilling relationship
based on mutual trust and respect…
And of course everyone loves Dave the fave . he has a super personality. he’s super easy to get on with, helpful,
open, assertive but tactful, confident but not tooooo confident. He has a charming and endearing vulnerable side
Why can’t we all be like Dave?
Of course we can’t be all these things.
We are all wired differently.
So let’s take a look at personality and what makes us who we are:
A brief overview of the the history of personality psychology.
A long time ago I studied Psychology at University, and it's been great fun researching this in readiness for this
Let’s start with the ancient Greeks & Hippocrates. Hippocrates identified the 4 humors (This is the horrible
histories bit) - blood, yellow bile, black bile and phloem. This was in the days when bloodletting was the cure to
Though much of the work that arose from this theory was medicinal in nature, it was also hypothesized a patient's
personality could be influenced by humoral imbalances.
Blood was the humor passion,
Yellow bile belonged to anger, Black bile was linked to a sluggish personality, and Phlegm was associated with
The Ancient Greek philosophers Plato & Aristotle proposed four categories (artistic, sensible, intuitive &
Moving from a philosophy to anatomy. Franz Gall in 1746 developed ‘Phrenology’ a practise focused on
measurements of the human skull and based on the assumption that character, thoughts and emotions related to
specific parts of the brain.
These theories were supported 50 years later by the case of Phineas Cage.
In a tragic accident in 1848 the construction worker got a piece of iron rod driven through his head, destroying
most of his frontal lobe. Although he miraculously recovered, his personality completely changed completely
changed. it is generally agreed that Phineas Gage’s demeanor went from moral and calm to irreverent, impatient
and profane. His case is one of the first to provide physical evidence that personality is linked to specific brain
Then we have the psychoanalysts of the early 19th century.
Freud believed that the human psyche consisted of three main components: the id, the ego and the superego
which control behaviour. The id being responsible for innate, often suppressed, motives for survival &
propagation of the species. The ego then reasoning about how to fulfil the desires of the Id and the superego
being kind of the reality check, the conscience.
Carl Jung, Freud’s student, developed a type-based theory of personality. In his book, ‘Psychological Types’ Jung
claims individuals fall into different personality categories: sensation, intuition, thinking, feeling, each with an
introverted and an extroverted type.
This work directly resulted in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator which I’m sure we’re all familiar with
At the same time as these theories of personality, there was a branch of psychology looking at human motivation.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well known and still referred to a lot today.
at the base of the pyramid ; Physiological needs - these are biological requirements for human survival, e.g. air,
food, drink, sleep.
At level 2, safety elements, security, freedom from fear.
At 3, The for interpersonal relationships, belonging friendship and intimacy
At 4, Esteem needs, self esteem (our view of our self and our achievements and mastery ) and respect and status
based on how we are perceived by others
5 Right at the top of the Pyramid is Self-actualsation. This is about morality, personal growth – realising
In the late 1950s, Carl Rogers built off the ideas of Maslow, arguing that yes, we all strive to achieve our greatest
potential but we do so in different ways according to our personalities. He explored the co-dependent
relationship between personality and behaviour, which continues now.
In the 1940s, psychologist Hans Eysenck extendedof Jung’s categories of introversion versus extroversion. He
hypothesized that there were only 3 key personality traits, neuroticism, introversion/extroversion and
psychoticism and that you could be low or high in all three.
Raymond Cattell analysed all the language we use to describe behaviour and personality, and through factor
analysis came up with 16 Fundamental factors.
Personality psychology over the last 60 years has been focused on identifying the key, discreet personality traits
that are at play and whittling them down.
Various studies fed into the ground-breaking work of Lewis Goldberg where he identified the Big Five Primary
His findings were reconfirmed in numerous subsequent studies & The big 5 are consistently at the heart of trait
based psychology today.
The five factors Goldberg identified as primary factors of personality are:
Openness – the extent to which we are open to new ideas and experiences. This trait is strongly linked with the
arts, composers, jazz musicians, poets. Highly sensitive and open to stimulation and curiosity of the world around
Very high openness is also linked with certain mental health issues. Maybe similar bits of the brain are active in
someone who is hearing voices, or having some kind of spiritual experience as when a highly open person feels
People who score low on openness are more cautious and consistent
The extent to which you are efficient and organised versus letting things get out of control.
Introversion/Extroversion has been a thing for a long time. Introverted brains are seeking calm and quiet, to
reduce stimulation. Extroverted brains are looking for stimulation and excitement.
When I was at University (a long time ago) we did a study (on all of our friends) which demonstrated a link
between Extroversion/Introversion and their circadian rhythm and body temperature, showing that extroverts
tended to be more alert and effective in the evening, whereas introverts tended to be more alert in the morning.
Very interesting brain stuff…
Agreeableness is tied to warmth, empathy, and compassion versus those more inclined to challenge, or distance
Finally, neuroticism is linked to emotional stability. Highly neurotic, sensitive and anxious versus secure and
so why do our personalities vary? , what’s going on?
we have made huge leaps in terms of neuroscience….in particular brain imaging techniques PET scanning and
These techniques help us look at the structure & functioning of the brain in alive thinking people. So we’ve been
able to find out how brains work in general, which bits are responsible for different functions, but also to observe
differences between individuals
What makes us different? the last few years we’ve been able to measure the size & shape of particular nuclei in
the brain & track metabolic activity of brain structures as the person responds to a particular task. Research
suggests it’s very likely that personality traits are down to differences in neural structure and function across
multiple brain regions.
Behaviour geneticists have techniques for addressing this question by comparing identical and non identical twins
and adoptive or biological siblings.
These studies reliably show that about half of the variation of the big 5 personality traits is associated with genetic
variation and this can be linked to which variant forms of particular genes they are carrying.
You can actually observe differences and similarities in pairs of DNA strands responsible for the big 5 personality
Dimensions similar to the big 5 have also been found in the animal kingdom. Extroverted chimpanzees & neurotic
How do we explain the variation in personality?
Surely we should have all evolved into ‘Dave the Dev’ by now?
Animal studies are useful for this because you can observe behaviour over many generations.
Guppy fish have been observed to behave differently around predators.
In one study in Trinidad, they put Guppy fish in a tank with a Perspex divide & a pumpkinseed. Some guppies
consistently were braver & swam closer to the pumpkinseed.
They were assigned into 3 groups, high wariness, medium wariness and low wariness- then they were all out in a
tank with the pumpkinseed.
Guess which Guppy fish survived the longest?
So this study showed that the presence of a predator strongly selects for wariness.
So how come low wariness guppies haven’t been weened out through natural selection?
The answer comes from a set of related Guppy fish studies from different populations in Trinidad.
Some live upstream where the channels are too narrow for predators whilst others live downstream where
predators can lurk.
If you take upstream guppies & put them with a predator they are more likely to be eaten than more wary
downstream guppies. This was true even when they were bred in tanks.
So the best explanation is that downstream, natural selection pushes wariness.
But when you’re being wary & looking for predators, you’re finding less food & spending more time mating, so in
the absence of predators it's better to NOT be wary
And guppies migrate, so the selection is constantly changing.
There’s some recent research in this country looking at herited behaviour in Great Tits. They observed more
‘extravert’ great tits that hopped around more frequently, strayed further from the nest, and were more
energetic. Through laboratory testing they were able to prove that these differences persisted even when they
were raised in the lab in similar environments.
Over 7 years they studied the correlations between their personalities and survival rates
Which survived? Well it depends…
In years when winter was harsh and food was scarce, the more extravert great tits had higher survival rates,
presumably because they explored further from the nest and were better at competing for food. However in
years when food was plentiful, the more extraverted great tits had lower survival scores, presumably because
their more aggressive style didn’t serve them well when finding a mate.
So how well we thrive depends on the environment and the situation
We’re wired differently, because we all perform best under different situations, and we need this variation to
persist in order for our species to evolve. So once we accept this – maybe we should try and understand those
situations where we perform our best.
But how do we create an environment where we can all thrive and embrace our differences?
For years, the psychological study of personality has been based on dysfunction and disorder
The positive psychology movement turned more towards a study of human happiness and flourishing.
n his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people
are happiest when they are in a state of flow—
‘a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation’
This is when you are ‘In the zone’, ‘In the groove’
The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where you are fully immersed and engaged with what
you are doing, where the task is sufficiently challenging without being too hard.
This state seems to coincide with things that you enjoy, that you feel you are good at, where you feel in control of
In Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ he talks about the differences between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic is the carrot and the stick,where you are rewarded for certain tasks, or in effect punished for not
Intrinsic motivation is more to do with the feeling of satisfaction and worth that you experience in certain
Pink identifies 3 key factors of intrinsic motivation; autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Mastery is linked with the ‘optimal experience’ and flow as just described.
His research shows that Extrinsic motivation only works when the task is repetitive and does not require any
creativity or problem solving.
He talks about a study where children were given a set of puzzles to play with and figure out - so he had 2 groups
of children . One group he rewarded with sweets for each puzzle they solved. - What he demonstrated was that
during the breaks, the children who were rewarded for completing puzzles stopped playing with them - whereas
the other children continued just for fun. This is because for the children who were paid, it turned into work.
Research shows that as long as we are fairly paid, we are much more highly motivated by things like autonomy -
purpose and mastery.
Don Clifton at the Gallup Organisation in the States argued that the two most prevalent assumptions about
human nature are flawed: that anyone can learn to be competent in almost anything, and that a person’s areas of
greatest potential for growth are in the areas of their weaknesses
Clifton argued, first, that each person’s talents are enduring and unique,
and second, that each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of their greatest strengths (Buckingham &
Clifton’s research is based on the philosophy that we are much happier and more effective when we are working
in our strengths zone. We are much more likely to be successful and motivated if we spend our energy
developing the things that we are already naturally good at rather than trying to be well rounded and imitating
In fact, brain studies reveal we grow the most new synapses in those areas where we have the most pre-existing
synapses. This is why building on our strengths has been found to help us be more engaged, more energized and
more productive at work.
But- It’s estimated two-thirds of us have no idea what our strengths are.
Here’s a way to find out, and we’ve found this a really useful tool to help us understand our strengths at Skills
What you do is go online, or read the book & you get a unique key to take a test, which takes about 20 minutes -
the questions come quite quickly and ask you about your preferences.
When you’re done you get to know your top 5 strengths, and you get a report describing them in detail. The
report (and the book) gives insights as to how your strengths might affect the way you like to work, and what you
enjoy and flourish at.
There are 34 strengths, the book describes them all, and they all belong to a theme.
Each strength includes examples ‘Futuristic sounds like this’, ideas for action – to help with conversations about
personal development, and also a useful section ‘working with others who have Futuristic’
For us at Skills Matter Strengths Finder has been a very positive experience.
We launched an initiative where everyone took their strengths finder test and then met to discuss the results as
part of a coaching session. Team members were also encouraged to talk with their teams about their strengths.
We made mugs for everyone, with their avatar and strengths (a great conversation starter over a cuppa) Here are
What I like about it, is that this activity does not attempt to out you in a box. t’s not the same as Myers Briggs –
where you have a particular profile. There’s no right or wrong answer.
If anything, strengths finder celebrates the individual. There is a 1 in 33 Million chance that someone will have
the same top 5 strengths as you, in the same order.
Here’s all our mugs. It’s now part of our on-boarding process. In the second month our new team members take
the strengths finder, and when they pass their probation, they are presented with their mug. Everyone loves it
Here’s an excerpt of our company strengths. You can see how beautifully well rounded our team is, and how
wonderfully unique and diverse our team members are.
Everyone has access to this, so maybe if your team are trying to innovate & having a brainstorming session, they
might go find someone with ideation as their top strength.
Or if they want some measured input to sanity check an optimistic plan, you might ask the input from someone
Our top strength at Skills Matter is learner – Where you actively enjoy and seek out the process of learning. This
isn’t a shock as we are a community based on values of sharing and learning
You can look at teams, see how well represented the different strengths are, and this can inform decisions about
team structure and career planning.
So how has this helped us?
It’s been a very positive experience all round.
For me it was quite insightful, because I took this test right after I’d made the move from tech, and leading
delivery teams, into a completely people facing job. It was very reassuring to get what I had been feeling
confirmed back to me.
People tell me how useful it’s been to them in helping them understand themselves and embracing what they’ve
got rather than working on fixing themselves.
Setting a culture of strengths in an organisation is really valuable in terms of how valued people feel. It highlights
individuality and sets a tone of acceptance and safety.
Strengths finder has helped us structure conversations about personal
development, to get people to take time for themselves to consider what they’re good at, and how they can
inject more of that good stuff into their time at work.
It helps us move away from the toxic yearly performance appraisals which we all hate, and instead focuses on
people achieving their potential and contributing to the business in the most useful way they can.
A strengths based approach helps us look at ‘weaknesses’ in a more positive light. Rather than ‘weaknesses’
Clifton suggests that each strength has a dark side, a kind of inevitable side effect of the strength. He refers to
these as our ‘blind-spots’ – we should be aware of them and make sure that they don’t get us fired or upset
anyone, but we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to overcome them.
For example, I am a ‘
relationship builder. That makes me very trusting and agreeable, but it has down sides - I’m not a detail person
either, so don’t ever give me a contract to review. I’d be like, “well you seem nice, I should think it’s OK” - I’m not
going to waste my time trying to have better attention to detail, trying to be good at this stuff. I’m just going to
ask someone who’s good at that to help me.
This is a much better way to guide regular conversations about performance rather than comparing people
against each other.
And it helps us understand each other - this has been one of the most powerful results of strengths finder.
It helps us recognise that we are all wired differently. These strengths are linked strongly to our personalities, as
we’ve explored. We know that some of these key personality traits are hard wired in our genes we can’t actually
do much about them.
Our traits are central to our value system, our personal constructs and how we see the world.
Let me give you an example. Imagine a person who’s top strength is discipline, followed by command, and then
Imagine their team member’s top strength is relator, followed by harmony and empathy.
What happens when the team member spends a bit too long out with her friends having fun and rolls into work a
bit late the next morning?
Strength finder helps us frame the behaviour of each person based on their world view, and it feels less personal
to reflect on it.
So in summary,
Let’s stop trying to fix ourselves, pursuing some vision of future happiness
Let’s stop trying to be good at everything and comparing ourselves to others
Instead lets make the most out of what we’ve got.
Take time trying to understand yourself and each other.
Appreciate all of each others wonderful uniqueness.
Find out what your strengths are, what makes your heart sing, & try and inject more of that stuff into your life.
Hi, I’m Jenny – I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about user stories and I’ve