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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

February 2007 – Building on personal strengths

Have you ever felt misunderstood, under appreciated, frustrated with your job? The reason I ask is that a little book came through my letter box this morning, promising a way for us to overcome our frustrations and to concentrate instead on the work that best fits our natural talents and inclinations.

The book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Tom Rath, head of workplace and leadership consulting at Gallup, the polling and research company, has been updated to coincide with a new edition of Gallup’s Clifton Strengths Finder assessment questionnaire.

Cleverly the publisher has built the book around the assessment tool since you need to buy the book to find the code needed to access the web-based test. Anyone familiar with taking personality tests will feel at home with the 177 paired questions where you must select one statement in preference to another and rate it to the extent to which you support the statement.

This particular test is designed to find the qualities that we can consider to be our strengths. It works from the premise that to build on strengths is far more important than working on weaknesses.

Having completed many personality tests over the years I know probably more about myself than I should ever care to discover. It’s made for grim reading at times. But I didn’t know whether I could consider certain qualities as strengths or weaknesses.

Acting on impulse, for example; strength or weakness? It was impulsiveness that led to this column instead of the one I had planned on City bonuses. I thought I had something to say but my problem with City bonuses is that I can’t get very worked up about them.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary and prospective deputy prime minister has been moved to describe the size of bonuses as “grotesque”, suggesting that two-thirds of any bonus payment should be donated to charity.

The Sunday Telegraph followed up his remarks with a poll at the weekend, asking whether City were bonuses too high. Nearly three-quarters of the people questioned suggested that they were.

How surprising is that? Few people are going to say that investment bankers are paid too little. Had the same question been asked about the pay of professional footballers or pop stars I’m sure the results would have been very similar.

A more interesting response was the relatively high proportion of people – some 43 per cent – who said that people in the UK had grown more selfish in the past decade.

Whether or not it’s a reflection of increasing selfishness, there is evidence of greater aggression among those looking at their bonuses. A recent survey of nearly 1,000 City employees by the recruitment firm Joclin Rowe found signs of growing dissatisfaction over pay. Four out of five of those questioned said they would be leaving their jobs if they didn’t get the bonus they were seeking this year.

Like the question on City earnings, that seems a predictable response. It’s one thing presenting a bolshy demeanour to a pollster and quite another to take the same stance with your boss.

Bonus payments reflect the climate of the financial markets. Business was good in 2006. If the markets take a dive this year it won’t just be bonuses that shrink. There will be wholesale clearouts of people. The City is that kind of place. It recruits extremely well qualified young people who have shown they are highly motivated by money, expects them to sweat blood, spits out the also-rans and rewards the rest proportionately, on merit.

Some people end up earning silly money that outstrips their imagination. When you have the second home, the big car, the lavish holidays, what else is there? The danger here is that people can lose touch with reality, risking their relationships, dabbling in drugs, striving constantly for bigger and better until everything falls apart.

This is why, I suppose, I get excited by little books that try to help us find ourselves before it is too late. Too many high flyers never allow themselves to question their ambitions or their lifestyles before they have run in to trouble.

Taking a personality test is worth the effort, even if it only confirms what you already know. This one told me that I like to put things in a historical context. Having written a history book I can go with that. So putting things in context, it says, is one of my “top five strengths”. The others are something called “individualization, learner, ideation and activator”. It’s not very encouraging when you find out that your strengths are hidden in words you don’t understand.

Unfortunately this is where the mumbo jumbo really kicks in since you have to read a screed of information about each so-called strength. The book is a compilation of these explanations for the 34 separate talents covered in the questionnaire.

The one entitled “learner” is self-explanatory. It says I like learning stuff. But doesn’t everybody if it’s something they’re interested in? Apparently it’s the learning process I like but that is conditional since I hate learning languages from textbooks or in rote fashion.

Ideation, it says, is a fascination with ideas or with making connections between one thing and another. Yes, it’s true, I like doing that sort of thing. But is it a strength if some of the connections I make - as I know they are - are a bit bizarre?

Individualization is about focusing on the differences between individuals. What makes each of us special? What it is it that makes someone tick? Lastly, the “activator” theme is about an impatience to get on with things.

Each one of these characteristics is presented in a positive vein – as a strength. When dealing with personality questionnaires, however, it is important to understand that qualities described as strengths in one context can be perceived as weaknesses in others.

That is why it is so important to discover your natural inclinations and apply them in a context where, at the very least, they can do no harm. I know from experience that some of these qualities have let me down in the past. There is a fine line, for example between impatience and impetuosity. Further, the book doesn’t explain the cocktail that can result from the combination of all five strengths. Nor does it give any clues about supplementary strengths or potential weaknesses.

Perhaps my impulse was wrong. Perhaps I should have focused entirely on bonuses. But there is nothing new about salary envy. What I do know is that it manifests itself most among those who are earning such high figures. Work means more than a yearly a bonus cheque. If you don’t believe me, go test yourself.

Now, Discover Your Strengths, Strength Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath, is published by Gallup Press, $19.95.

More on Psychometric testing at

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