The benefits of strengths-based leadership

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strengths-based leadership
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Focusing on strengths above shortcomings improves job satisfaction and performance, helping practices to thrive. By Angela Tufvesson

Being an effective leader in 2022 means doing away with traditional, top-down approaches that focus on areas for improvement and ‘fixing’ employees’ weaknesses. Instead, experts agree that harnessing what’s strong rather than what’s wrong empowers leaders, builds cohesive teams, boosts productivity and aids retention. This approach is dubbed ‘strengths-based leadership’, and its power lies in its ability to harness potential and promote growth.

Empowering your team

Strengths-based leadership might sound like corporate speak, but the concept is simple and practical; it is a management technique that prioritises employees’ strengths above their shortcomings. This approach focuses on what employees do well and aims to maximise opportunities to put those strengths into practice. 

“Strengths-based leadership is about helping your team to transform and be the best that they can be,” says Dr Nadine Hamilton, a psychologist at Positive Psych Solutions with a special interest in veterinary wellbeing. “It’s very different to traditional, transactional micromanagement styles of leadership where employees have little input in what they’re doing.”

The approach has its roots in positive psychology—the scientific study of human flourishing—and wellbeing is a central component. But that’s not to say harnessing strengths equates to unbridled praise or letting shortcomings slide. 

Strengths-based coach Sharyn Coughlan says the emphasis is on enjoyment and aptitude, rather than purely on natural ability. “When we’re talking about strengths, we’re not necessarily talking about skills—although it’s a fine line,” she says. “A skill is only a strength when you enjoy using it and when it brings out the best in you and others.”

Building a buffer

Dr Hamilton says people working in the veterinary industry tend to be high achievers with “perfectionistic traits” and highlighting strengths within a performance management context can aid feelings of self-worth and ward off imposter syndrome, which is driven by self-doubt. 

“Strengths-based leadership helps people feel respected and that their knowledge and expertise is warranted and needed in the practice, which helps them to feel good about themselves,” she says. 

Focusing on the things people are good at also helps to build a stronger team culture and a better buffer against the day-to-day stressors of running a practice. “Strengths-based leadership gives you a shared language that helps you know your staff better and supports culture building and goal setting,” Coughlan says. “You can talk with staff members about what their aspirations are, how they’re doing at work and if this is the right role for them.”

Veterinary management consultant Jane Bindloss from SANEVetManagement says the approach can promote transparecy and trust in larger practice environments. “The manager has a relationship with the employees that says they will listen to anything, and they’re open to any type of innovation,” she says. “Veterinary team members sometimes struggle with this concept, especially nurses who are often very task oriented.”

And it’s probably no surprise to learn that happy, fulfilled staff are more productive and more likely to be retained—an especially important benefit given the chronic shortage of veterinary staff in Australia.

“If an employee feels their superior believes in them and is going to help them use the things they’re good at, they’re more likely to want to repay that and be more loyal because it’s a two-way street,” Dr Hamilton says.

Customising to suit

Implementing strengths-based leadership can be challenging in small practices owing to the size of the teams and the practical, hands-on nature of the profession, says Bindloss. “Especially if you’ve got vets who are production-based or employed on a production basis, expected to meet a KPI or average transaction fee, or expected to see a certain number of people according to the scheduler, it’s very hard,” she says. 

“Veterinary science is a vocation, and a lot of people are very fixed on that. To ask them to step outside their comfort zone and think about something different is quite hard for a lot of people.”

Bindloss says there’s more scope for strengths-based leadership to succeed in larger practices, practices with several branches or practices operating under a corporate umbrella. “In those environments, people’s passions and their enthusiasm in some areas can develop, and they can use that to bring more interest or more clients to the practice,” she says. “There are some exciting things that people have done like puppy parties and improving traffic flow in the practice.” 

Coughlan suggests starting at the top and identifying your own strengths as a leader before looking to the strengths of your team. “A strengths-based leader manages the positive and negative impact they have on others,” she says. “They have insight into what sets them apart as a leader and how that translates into value for their team.”

Formal measures and online tools can also be helpful. Coughlan identifies four categories of strengths—thinking, doing, emotional and relational—while Dr Hamilton takes a ‘character strength’ approach, identifying perseverance, creativity, optimism and social intelligence.

“You can identify people’s strengths based on the character strengths, then look at how to use them to get the best out of their performance,” Dr Hamilton says. “If someone has a strength in communication or even something as simple as settling down anxious cats, it can be a real asset to the practice.”

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