How a focus on human strengths can boost productivity

In the UK we work hard… very hard. According to a study by the TUC, we work the longest hours in Europe: 42 hours per week compared to Germany’s 40 hours, France’s 39 and Denmark’s 37.7. That all adds up to two extra weeks of work a year.

But despite logging that additional time, we are no more productive than our European neighbours. In fact, we are less so. The UK consistently lags behind other developed nations when it comes to output per hour worked (the measure used for productivity). Our hourly productivity rate is 15% below that of the USA, Germany and France, and has barely shifted since the 2008 financial crisis. It’s clear we have a problem with productivity.

While there are many structural reasons for our productivity crisis, such as weak business investment and lack of innovation, much of it comes down to something people professionals understand very well: management. Or more specifically, poor management. Former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane suggested back in 2017 that a lack of management quality could be to blame for the UK’s sluggish record on productivity growth.

Improving management quality can be a tough nut to crack, particularly when it remains pretty common for people to be promoted thanks to their technical rather than people skills. But one way to boost it is by encouraging and enabling a focus on strengths as a means to improve management quality, in-work relationships and collaboration and, as an outcome, productivity.

We all have our own unique and enduring strengths. They’re the things we find enjoyable, energising and easy to use. Strengths are distinct from skills, which can be taught and acquired later in life, in that they are more intrinsic. However that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved and developed over time.

Taking a strengths-based approach means to first find out what your strengths are. Encourage managers to initiate a strengths discovery conversation with members of their team. That means taking some time out from being solely task focused to fully engage with questions like:

  • What was your best day at work in the last week and why?
  • When did you last get absorbed in something and lose track of time? What were you doing?
  • What gives you energy?
  • What would you like to do more of and why?
  • What have other people told you you’re great at doing?

Knowing our strengths and the strengths of others, allows us to leverage them more effectively, leading to a host of positive outcomes.

There’s no shortage of research which finds a clear link between strengths and productivity. Gallup found that people who use their strengths every day at work are 8% more productive. They’re also six times more engaged, and we know that engagement is another enabler of productivity. That positive impact is even greater when you look at team performance: Gallup found teams who focus on their strengths every day are 12 to 15% more productive.

This productivity boost comes because using our strengths makes our work more intrinsically rewarding, making us want to work harder because we’re finding it enjoyable and energising.

Effortlessness is a major element of ‘flow’: that state of being utterly immersed and so in the zone that time flies by without us noticing. Focusing on our strengths makes work more effortless: it’s not that we aren’t working hard, but we’re going with what we’re great at rather than fighting against our weaknesses.

All this helps managers too, who can focus on building the strengths of the team to improve performance, ensuring everyone’s in the best place to deliver. A team will be made up of individuals who have a host of different strengths. By being in tune with this, a manager can engender stronger and more intelligent collaboration by dividing work up according to team members’ individual strengths.

Managers can also encourage team members to think about how they can ‘craft’ their role. How could roles evolve or be slightly reframed to allow and empower people to use their strengths every day? This adds value to the organisation and increases productivity through a greater sense of intrinsic meaning, autonomy and wellbeing. It’s a win-win.

There are many levers that need to be pulled to solve the UK’s productivity puzzle, but an awareness and understanding of strengths might just be one of the missing pieces.