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This article will provide you with a thorough explanation about the strength-based approach, what it means, its principles and definitions, and its benefits and disadvantages.
For you to appreciate it further, real-life examples, its applications in various industries such as therapy, support, and interventions, as well as case studies, are also provided.
Tracing its roots from social work, the strengths-based approach uses a different lens to view individuals, families, and communities (Saleeby, 1996).
Developed as a response to models that focus on the deficit (Seligman, 1996), the strength-based approach seeks to view the individual holistically and explore his abilities and circumstances, rather than focusing on his weaknesses and deficits.
It is defined as an “approach to people that is primarily dependent upon positive attitudes about people’s dignity, capacities, rights, uniqueness, and commonalities” (McCashen, 2005, v). It intentionally utilizes an individual’s skills, traits, and patterns of thought and behavior that are positive for the individual’s benefit, as well the society.
As a client-led approach, it “emphasizes people’s ability to be their own agents of change” (McCashen, 2005, v). Conditions are created to empower them to identify their strengths and direct the outcomes of the change.
It enables the individual to be an active participant in the use of his strengths for his growth and improvement. The approach applies to any client, group, and interventions and can be used by any profession.
Rapp, Saleeby, and Sullivan (2008) identified six hallmarks of the strength-based practice.
Saleeby (2006a, p.10) defines strength using the acrostic “CPR.”
C: competence, capacities, and courage
P: promise, possibility and positive expectations
R: resilience, reserves, and resources
The approach is a “philosophy for working with people to bring about change” (McCashen, 2005, v.) where their strengths are utilized.
It is a “collaborative process between the person supported by services and those supporting them, allowing them to work together to determine an outcome that draws on the person’s strengths and assets” (Duncan and Hubble, 2000)
Thus, in a strengths-based approach, the focus is on these strengths and how they are present in a person’s context and environment, and capitalizing on these to effect change.
Based on the definitions, here are nine guiding principles that serve as the backbone that guide the practice and implementation of strengths-based practice (Wayne Hammond, Ph.D.,2010).
Can you name your top 5 strengths? Yes, those things that you are naturally really good at?
Scientific researches and case studies show clear evidence that people who know and use their personal strengths:
Studies show that people who have a chance to use their strengths at least once a day report lower levels of depression, higher levels of positivity and stronger mental health.
Research shows that being able to leverage one’s strengths creates a buffer against the negative effects of stress or trauma.
Putting at use one’s core strengths is associated with healthy behaviors – such as pursuing an active lifestyle and following healthy eating habits.
Both strengths awareness and strengths use are positively linked with self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-confidence.
Contrary to popular beliefs, applied research shows that strength areas have by far larger growth potential than one’s weaknesses.
The active use of one’s personal strengths creates feelings of authenticity, vitality, and concentration. This, in turn, leads to a more creative mindset and greater proactivity.
People that actively use their strengths at work experience higher job satisfaction. Plus, it is easier to find true meaning and pleasure in their work.
Employees who have a chance to apply their strengths at work on a daily basis report a much higher level of engagement in what they do.
Labeling people with deficits and problems limit the options that can be used to effect change. Instead of the traditional way where people are branded with their deficiencies, knowing your strengths focus more on what you have and highlights them.
Studies show that those who have more awareness of their skills are more confident. This leads to better outcomes and faster results.
In various studies on risk behaviors and behavioral functioning, focusing on people’s strengths resulted in a reduction of risk behaviors and an overall improvement in behavior.
Many studies show that focusing on strengths improve mental health recovery, high reports of life satisfaction, and even improvement of overall health status.
Not convinced yet?
Focusing on strength based practice is not only good for you, but also for people around you.
Countless studies show that teams and organizations where people know and leverage their strengths experience higher performance, engagement and retention.
So once again – can you name your top 5 strengths?
Despite all the benefits we listed above, you are probably struggling to name your top 5 strengths. Don’t worry, you are not alone. In fact, not even 1 out of 3 individuals can confidently answer this question.
Does that suggest that we as human beings are naturally modest and reserved? Is it the societal effect discouraging bragging? Or that we are raised since childhood to focus on our weaknesses and fix those, rather than focusing on something we are already good at?
Possibly. What is clear is that 1) the majority of us don’t really know what our strengths are, and 2) we do not fully value them.
So, let’s hop into your strengths journey together. And let’s start by looking at at the strength-based approach in detail.
In the strengths-based approach, deficiencies are not ignored, nor are individuals asked to ignore their problems and pains.
Instead, the emphasis is that outcomes are based on a positive outlook and goals (de Jong & Berg, 2002). Here are some benefits of the approach compared to the traditional deficit approach as outlined by Saleeby (1996, p. 297)
David Lees (2004, p.3) also provides an insightful table that compares a deficit model and a strengths-based model.
Capacity Building from a Strengths Approach (Lees, D., 2004)
Despite its many benefits, there are still a few critics to the approach. Here are a few:
A strengths-based culture is cultivable and applicable at every step of the employee lifecycle – from recruitment and selection of the right candidate for the right position to career development, from succession planning to leadership development and team building.
Counselors and therapists recognize the importance of positive processes in the therapeutic process and use their clients’ strengths in effecting therapeutic change. Gelso and Woodhouse (2003) explained that the use of clients’ strengths is involved in two processes of therapy, namely:
Furthermore, Scheel, Davis & Henderson (2012) conducted interviews with therapists and found five themes where therapists incorporate their client’s strengths in the therapy process:
The practice of the strength-based approach is ever-evolving and varies in its form of delivery.
Since the approach is applicable on different levels, from an individual to families, and communities, there is a fast-paced increase in the number of methods of practices being developed based on the foundations of a strengths-based approach.
Here are some examples of interventions that use the strength-based approach:
A solution-focused approach is a counseling approach that highlights the importance of searching for solutions instead of focusing on problems.
In this approach, people are encouraged to adopt different perspectives when looking at a situation. This enables them to have a deeper understanding of the causes and results (Lam & Yuen, 2008). The emphasis is placed on people’s resources and resilience which they use to pursue goals and effect change.
Solution-focused therapy and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) are currently being used in a variety of settings, such as mental health, child welfare, schools, public social services, and hospitals (Miller, Hubble, Duncan, 1996.)
Strengths-based case management is a case management model that addresses the needs and social desires of people. It is widely used in various fields such as mental health, school counseling, elderly care, and substance abuse.
This model is based on six principles by Rapp (1998), namely:
This practice is founded on the premise that people view their lives through the narratives that they create. These narratives then influence their future life experiences. In this approach, individuals are encouraged to develop a strengths-based narrative.
At the same time, the approach teaches the individual that problems are external to the person. The approach recognizes that the process of telling a story, asking questions, and reflecting on the self-narrative promotes healing, where negative experiences are translated into resilience and strength (Epson & White, 1992).
In the reauthoring of one’s story, a person is driven to recognize and own his strengths. The view of self in light of disability or weakness is changed to a more holistic view where the emphasis is placed upon the transformation of suffering into relevant life experiences.
This approach aims to build on parents’ strength and enhance family life to reduce the risks for children and to offer support to families when the children’s welfare is in danger.
This is done by empowering parents to build their supportive networks (Green, McAllister, and Tarte, 2004) in the community and improve their engagement in the program by recognizing that they are the experts in their family’s lives.
More and more health care professionals and agencies are adopting a strength-based approach to care. Gan and Ballantyne (2016) describe the use of a solution-focused approach in families of adolescents with traumatic brain injury.
In addition, Gotlieb (2014) expounds the use of strengths-based nursing, which offers a holistic approach compared to a deficit-based medical model in working with patients.
Mossman (2011) also found that utilizing a strengths-based approach in providing parent education to mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) led to more positive parent-child interactions and more positive emotions from parents.
Strengths-based approach is utilized in the following ways for clients who are receiving care:
Questions exploring the following factors are important to help them recognize and appreciate their available strengths:
Social workers may utilize a strength-based approach in asking individuals three pertinent questions as suggested by Pulla (2017) to help them process and empower them to commit to change or improvement:
Here are other types of questions that may help the social worker direct the client toward his strengths:
Early childhood is a formative time to build upon and explore children’s capacities. Providing them with the freedom to explore and appreciating their unique ways of learning will help enhance their strengths.
According to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence (2011), each child has a different way of learning. Appreciating these will help parents and communities further enhance and embrace each child’s uniqueness.
Here are the eight intelligences according to Gardener:
Musical: Children who are music smart learn best through songs, patterns, rhythms and musical expression.
Bodily-kinesthetic: Children who are body smart learn best through interaction with the environment and having concrete experiences
Interpersonal: Children who are people smart learn best through interacting with others. Children who are people smart learn best through collaboration and cooperation.
Verbal-linguistic: Children who are word smart love reading, speaking, listening, and writing. They learn best through spoken and reading words.
Logical-mathematical: Children who are math smart learn best through reasoning and problem-solving. These children love numbers.
Naturalistic: Children who are nature smart see subtle differences in things. They learn best through classification and categories.
Intrapersonal: Children who are self-smart learn best through the use of feelings and values
Visual-spatial: Children who are picture smart think in images and “see” things in their minds.
In addition, pediatricians use a strengths-based approach in helping parents and children in their development.
While the clinician takes an active role in providing knowledge and integrating opportunities in their daily life, the clinician recognizes that the parent is the expert in the family (American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d.).
This is done by identifying the parents’ and child’s strengths. Their cares and overall health is also discussed. Once these are identified, practitioners provide feedback.
Then, if a behavior change is needed, clinicians adopt a shared decision-making process to encourage the family to be an active participant towards the change.
Preschool teachers utilizing a strength-based approach must fit the curriculum to the child’s unique strengths. This may include having various opportunities in the curriculum and offering different “areas” such as arts area, science area, and so on, in the classrooms.
This follows Bronfenbrenner’s (1994) Ecological Model of Child Development, which states that the child should be at the center of education, and not the curriculum. This means that the child should be seen as a whole person, with his culture, language, upbringing are considered.
Of equal importance is that teachers should also practice self-reflection. Understanding one’s biases, values, and practice and how it can affect his interaction with the children can help them better tap into each child’s strengths and unique capacities.
One case study (White, 2014) applied a strengths-based approach in a large school K-12 school in Australia.
The approach was utilized in existing school experiences such as sports, student leadership, counseling, and the English curriculum.
This led to the development of a strengths-based culture on the campus where students are learning not only about his strengths but of others, including his teachers.
Also seen is a greater exploration about the use of their strengths in various fields of interest.
Lopez and Luis (2009) suggests five principles of strength-based education that educators can apply in their schools:
Principle 1: Measurement of student (and educator) characteristics includes strengths assessment. Aside from behavioral data (like absences and living situation), and data on academic achievement (i.e., grades), strengths and other positive personal values (e.g., hope and wellbeing) should be included.
Principle 2: Provision of a highly individualized learning experience. This does not only include encouraging students to set goals based on their strengths and apply them.
This includes education professionals to consider their students’ strengths and interests in their efforts to personalize the learning experience.
Education professionals can do this by highlighting their student’s strengths and providing feedback on the use of these in achieving learning-directed goals.
Principle 3: Network with others. Students should be encouraged to collaborate with others who have strengths that they don’t have. This helps in filling the gaps and managing available resources better.
Principle 4: Deliberate application of strengths within and outside of the classroom. Educators may utilize pedagogical approaches that tap on and use their strengths.
Educators must provide opportunities for students to leverage their unique strengths. They must also foster an environment where peer feedback about strengths is normal and celebrated.
Principle 5: Strengths development should be intentional. If the student has the goal of improving his strengths, he should be proactive in searching for greater exposure to opportunities and resources to further their skills and knowledge.
This does include not only the application of strengths but also engagement in new experiences which have the potential to expand one’s strength
While relatively new, shreds of evidence about the effectiveness of the approach are slowly emerging. To date, there is still a lack of a substantial body of evidence for some strengths-based approaches.
This is owing to the difficulty in synthesizing results due to the vast population and areas of application where the approach is utilized. However, here are some of the emerging outcomes that are available:
Studies show that strengths-based interventions have a positive psychological impact on people, particularly in their wellbeing through the facilitation of hope.
A study found that what helped people with mental health issues the most in their recovery was the presence of hope and the development of trust in their own decisions and judgments (Ralph, Lambric, and Steele, 1996).
Another study that utilized narrative therapy for clients using the “Be Your Best Self Program” with clients with mental health illness found that shifting on their strengths and being empowered in their own recovery has led to an improvement of their emotional, psychological and social wellbeing (Hood & Carruthers, 2016).
Researchers found that an individual’s increased confidence in their skills and better recognition of what they can offer shifts their attitudes from being mere recipients to becoming contributors in the society (Foot & Hopkins, 2009).
Building on the strengths of local people allows communities, institutions, and services to draw upon these strengths to build stronger communities.
From the other end, studies show that recognizing that the community (1) affects individual outcome and is (2) a resource that the individual can tap into to achieve their results lead to better competencies, skills, opportunities, and social relations (Arnold, Walsh, Oldham, & Rapp, 2007).
In the same light, building connections and networks within communities result in greater quality of life and an improved sense of wellbeing (Gilchrist, 2009).
In the school setting, educators who use a strengths-based approach in their practice, such as in providing feedback and creating measures and assessment, have students who also develop a strengths-based approach to learning and education, by doing more of what they do best (Lopez & Luis, 2009).
A study by Early and Glenmaye (2000) found that having a strengths perspective in families helped them identify coping resources and make use of their available strength in setting goals and their capabilities, visions and aspirations.
Another research found that empowerment is a crucial component in interventions that involve vulnerable families (MacLeod & Nelson, 2000).
Many other studies also found that focusing on children and adolescents’ strengths lead to a significant decrease in risky behaviors and an overall improvement in their behavior functioning.
Historically, the attention to “what is wrong” has been the center of attention of psychologists willing to help people get back to normal.
The typical strength based model of personal development is indeed very simple. First, you identify your current state. Second, you compare with the benchmark, with what is normal for the average Joe.
Third, you close the gap by fixing what’s not normal. Hence, throughout history, psychology was seen a problem-solving discipline that studied the average human behavior and helped abnormal become normal again.
This is reflected in the – “deficit” or “medical” – perspective, which arose in the field of medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and still dominates the practice of helping professions nowadays.
Despite the great advancement in the medical and psychological field, one key issue with this approach still remains. And it starts already with the terminology. “Having a problem” in its definition doesn’t suggest anything positive, does it?
Although it might seem like a play of words, admitting “to have a problem” implies a need for an external help – a therapy and professional who can analyze the problem and prescribe a cure for it.
Often, focusing solely on the “problem areas” tend to diminish the role of the individual, disempowering people from taking action and creating dependency on the continuous help of external professionals.
While traces of the strength-based theory appeared throughout the 20th century, it’s only in the 1980s that it was fully articulated as a standalone theory.
Practitioners started searching for a deeper meaning of their work – were they there only to fix people? – and with that, a small movement was soon to become one of the most influential theories of our times.
In his famous speech, Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, summed up the new perspective:
“The most important thing we learned was that psychology was half-baked. We’ve baked the part about mental illness, about repair damage. The other side’s unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we’re good at.”
Contrary to the deficit perspective, the strengths perspective and approach shifts the transformational power from the external expert to the individual.
Even more empowering: long gone the time in which you measure change potential with respect to average benchmarks. Focusing on the good side has no upward limitation on the development of the human potential.
And we know what you’re thinking now: that sounds great, but what about our weaknesses?
It is important to understand that the strength based perspective is not about denying one’s weakness or hiding away from problems. Instead, it offers a different perspective on resources and strengths the person already has to tackle those problems. It is a different approach, a different mindset – a different way of looking at the world.
While it’s easy to contrast one perspective against the other, strengths should not be seen as the direct opposite of weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham famously said – you can’t learn anything about success by studying failure.
The wave of “success studies” took off during the 1990s simultaneously in two different directions, which we will briefly cover below.
Centuries of case studies about mental disorders have made psychologists accurate at describing and rigorously classifying all shades of individual mental pathologies.
However, how do you plan to study what makes people thrive if you don’t even have a proper vocabulary to describe it?
It was the initiative of Martin Seligman to give the official start to the positive psychology movement in his 1998 APA Presidential Address, and to foster the development of the scientific classification of strengths.
Such a new vocabulary was supposed to serve as the “un-DSM”, i.e. a positive alternative to the classification of mental disorders.
Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, the original authors of the classification, in collaboration with 55 notable scientists and scholars spent 3 years in an attempt to understand what is best about human beings.
Based on thorough qualitative research of historical, religious and philosophical material written by humankind, they developed 10 criteria to identify a character strength among 24 possible,
In 2004, the Values-in-Action (VIA) Survey was first published to identify character strengths of individuals. Consisting of 240 untimed questions, the survey – still available today – focuses on assessing 24 individual’s character strengths as foundational to the human experience and virtues.
The creators of the survey insist that all 24 strengths matter equally as they all are scientifically linked with life satisfaction and are universal.
Promoted by a non-profit organization, the VIA Survey is one of the most well-researched personality assessments holding validity over time, cultures and scientific peer reviews.
It is important to note that Peterson & Seligman have presented their original list of 24 character strengths as neither exclusive nor exhaustive.
This, in combination with the development of the VIA Survey, has both laid the foundation and encouraged a new wave of research around positive psychology and the effect of strengths on the individual.
If Martin Seligman followed a scientific approach to the strengths psychology, Don Clifton at the Gallup Organization explored the subject with a clear empirical focus.
Unlike Seligman, who focused on literature and deep research to understand strengths, Donald Clifton and his team of researchers conducted millions of interviews with top professionals across industries in the United States to discover the excellence in ourselves.
Two core principles served as the base of this research:
1. To produce excellence, you must study excellence.
2. Strengths are talents that are developed through the application of knowledge and skill.
As a result, Don Clifton and his colleague Marcus Buckingham have identified hundreds of talent themes and condensed them to 34 most prevalent ones.
Based on their findings, StrengthsFinder was developed and launched with the goal to help individuals identify their top talents. Such talents, with enough care and persistence, could be subsequently developed into strengths. Consisting of 177 statement pairs, the test focuses on determining 5 top talents out of a list of 34.
Thanks also to its empirical origin, StrengthsFinder is widely considered to be focused and centered on the workplace environment, particularly in the Western world.
Despite not being peer-reviewed in famous psychological research journals, the Clifton StrengthsFinder has been enjoying a blockbuster popularity across the world, with close to 20 million people completing it to date.
It’s the StrengthsFinder assessment that has brought the strengths-based approach to mainstream and yielded Donald Clifton the title of “the grandfather of the strengths-based psychology”.
HIGH5Test is a free strengths test that has the mission of “changing the world by helping people understand and appreciate themselves and each other”. It utilizes both a theoretical and an empirical approach to research to ensure that results can be concretely applied and that it could be applied across populations.
The test measures your strengths, which the test defined as “recurring patterns of thoughts, decisions, actions, and feelings.”
While other tests meet the first two criteria below, HIGH5test extended the concept to have a more precise definition of strengths. To be a strength, it should satisfy five major criteria:
The Strengths Profile is an online assessment that provides a taker with a unique profile that contains both realized and unrealized strengths, as well as learned behaviours and weaknesses.
It defines strength as something a person is good at (performance), something a person enjoys (energy), and something a person does often (use)
Realized strengths are strengths that an individual enjoys using while unrealized strengths are those that a person doesn’t use often.
Learned behaviours are those that the individual does well but not necessarily enjoy, while weaknesses are things that the individual finds hard to do and does not enjoy.
The strength-based theory has represented a significant shift in thinking compared to the past. While the area is far from being fully researched, it has created a fertile ground for new practices based on the strengths psychology.
There are today countless, proven applications of the strength-based approach.
Career selection, relationship building, parenting, personal and business coaching, resilience-focused therapies, community development, self-esteem building practices, traumatic stress recovery, new skill development – all these areas have started to benefit from a strengths approach.
What’s more, the application of the strengths philosophy has wider social implications. Think about it – a society that encourages and supports the individual to excel in their strengths, rather than avoiding distortions or hammering down problems.
The optimization for strengths and management of weaknesses through complementary partnerships leads to:
1. The promotion of cooperation instead of competition;
2. The celebration of diversity in all its forms.
A strength based perspective transcends traditional barriers and empowers all people, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual preferences.
The strengths language can become the universal tool through which people recognize, develop and celebrate their natural talents and abilities.
We at HIGH5 believe that wider adoption of the strength-based approach will cultivate what’s strong, not what’s wrong, in our society – a society where individuals will be empowered to do more of what they enjoy and are good at.
And now, back to you: So, can you name your top 5 strengths?
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