Why playing to your strengths builds self esteem & confidence — and reaps greater rewards than fixing weaknesses


“My feedback tells me I spend too long in the detail — that said, it’s key to my job role, so what do I do?”

“I need to work on being more charismatic.”

“I’ve been told I need to have more impact, like my peers.”


These are just three pieces of feedback  feedback gathered from appraisal assessments  that coachees have bought to their coaching sessions with me. These assessments are usually scores given against a list of behavioural competencies  benchmark behaviours employees must tick off in order to progress. These competencies are used to identify weaknesses that become our ‘areas for development’. But when we compare ourselves with such benchmarks  when we focus on our weaknesses — we can begin to lose sight of our strengths. Given that the majority of competency-based assessments I’ve come across are carried out by multinational blue-chip organisations, and these are role-orientated business organisations, then trying to create well-rounded, all-singing, all-dancing clones that these competencey-based assessments are aiming for makes little sense.

A growing pile of research is suggesting that focusing on fixing what’s wrong (unless it’s serious and is properly impeding performance) does little for both organisational and individual performance. Worse still, for those with low self esteem, when they’re made to compare themselves with others, it can trigger a shame reaction (they become ashamed of not living up to the expectations of others) and a further lowering in self worth.

Concentrating on strengths improves performance, confidence & self esteem

In a Gallup survey of nearly 200,000 employees in 36 large organisations, it showed that when employees had the opportunity to do what they are best at, they were more productive, they got higher customer satisfaction scores and there was lower staff turnover. In other words, their work was better and they were happier. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council also showed:

  • When companies focused on giving positive feedback about employee strengths during performance reviews, employee performance rose by up to 36%
  • When the feedback given was about people’s weaknesses – what HR calls our ‘areas of development’ or “skills gaps” – the study found performance decreased by 27%. 

The majority of feedback you get in the workplace is about what’s wrong with you. Organsations want us to well rounded. This need to be well-rounded, to concentrate on areas of weakness, rather than on fostering talent, starts at home:

  • A recent study in America revealed: That for every one piece of praise parents they gave their children, they criticized them eight times. 
  • In another study: 77% of parents in the US think that a pupil’s lowest grade should get the most time and attention.

Build your career around your strengths and seek help to plug your gaps and build confidence

The most successful people know what they’re good at and build their careers around this and they get others on board to do the things they’re less good at, rather than wasting time learning to be an all-rounder. 

When Microsoft started growing, Bill Gates realised his strengths weren’t in running a business, so he employed Steve Ballmer, and Gates went back to what he was best at: developing the software. And this is replicated across pretty much all successful people, they’re not well rounded, they’re good at one thing to the exclusion of others, they pursue excellence rather than well-roundedness. Think of the single-minded dedication it takes to be a sportsman, like Steve Redgrave or Tiger Woods.

So, spend time fine-tuning and using your strengths – then this will help you be the best you can be, and because you’re concentrating on developing the things you’re good at, you’ve much more chances doing work that will make a positive difference. And this in turn, will help you develop more self-worth — it’s like a positive feedback loop.

When you use your strengths, you can get into flow, which builds confidence & self esteem

Can you think back to the last time when you were doing a work activity in which you were in flow, when you were in the moment, what sport people call ‘the zone’? When you’re in ‘the zone’, you’re in the moment – you’re not worrying about the future or what happened in a meeting last week. You’re not questioning your abilities or yourself. 

To get into flow, you need to be using a strength. 

I’m not saying that using your strengths mean you ignore your weaker areas – it’s just a question of emphasis: if there’s something you’re struggling with that’s stopping you from completing an important task, it needs addressing. But, and here’s the thing – we don’t need to be brilliant in these areas. Good enough is usually good enough. 

The most successful people work to their strengths – they see fine-tuning strengths as the areas for greatest opportunity, not plugging their ‘skills gap’. Because, what they don’t want to do is waste their natural talent. 

As Benjamin Franklin said of wasted natural talent – they are “sundials in the shade”.

A free online strengthsfinder tool to identify your strengths

There are several profiling tools out there that will identify your strengths for you.The VIA Character Strengths Questionnaire is free of charge. It takes takes about 25 minutes to complete. Go to http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey 

How to start using your strengths more often

Once you have your list of strengths, consider these questions: 

  1. How much do I use these strengths currently – at work and at home?
  2. What are other areas in my life could benefit from using these more?
  3. How much energy do you spend on developing your non-talents?
  4. What benefits do you see from really engaging your strengths?

The key to healthy self-esteem is to live in line with your values and play to your strengths. When you start to do that more consistently, you find yourself in states of flow and enjoying being yourself. Identifying and playing to your strengths is a concept used in my How to Build Unbreakable Confidence online course.


Peter Willis, founder and course tutor, Unchainyourbrain.org

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