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
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
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
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
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
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
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