How to Play to Your Strengths


You may have more to gain by developing your gifts and leveraging
your natural skills than by trying to repair your weaknesses. Here is a
systematic way to discover who you are at your very best.
Most feedback accentuates the negative. During formal employee evaluations, discussions
invariably focus on “opportunities for improvement,” even if the overall evaluation is
laudatory. Informally, the sting of criticism
lasts longer than the balm of praise. Multiple
studies have shown that people pay keen attention to negative information. For example,
when asked to recall important emotional
events, people remember four negative memories for every positive one. No wonder most
executives give and receive performance reviews with all the enthusiasm of a child on the
way to the dentist.
Traditional, corrective feedback has its
place, of course; every organization must filter
out failing employees and ensure that everyone performs at an expected level of competence. Unfortunately, feedback that ferrets out
flaws can lead otherwise talented managers to
overinvest in shoring up or papering over their
perceived weaknesses, or forcing themselves
onto an ill-fitting template. Ironically, such a
focus on problem areas prevents companies
from reaping the best performance from its
people. After all, it’s a rare baseball player who
is equally good at every position. Why should a
natural third baseman labor to develop his
skills as a right fielder?
The alternative, as the Gallup Organization
researchers Marcus Buckingham, Donald Clifton, and others have suggested, is to foster excellence in the third baseman by identifying
and harnessing his unique strengths. It is a paradox of human psychology that while people
remember criticism, they respond to praise.
The former makes them defensive and therefore unlikely to change, while the latter produces confidence and the desire to perform better. Managers who build up their strengths can
reach their highest potential. This positive approach does not pretend to ignore or deny the
problems that traditional feedback mechanisms identify. Rather, it offers a separate and
unique feedback experience that counterbalances negative input. It allows managers to tap
into strengths they may or may not be aware of
and so contribute more to their organizations.
How to Play to Your Strengths
harvard business review • managing yourself • january 2005 page 2
Laura Morgan Roberts (lroberts@ is an assistant professor of
organizational behavior at Harvard
Business School in Boston. Gretchen
Spreitzer (,
Jane Dutton (,
Robert Quinn (
are professors of management and organization at the Stephen M. Ross
School of Business at the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor. Emily Heaphy
( is a PhD candidate in management and organization
at the Ross School of Business, and
Brianna Barker (barkerba@umich.
edu) is a PhD candidate in organizational psychology at the University
of Michigan.
During the past few years, we have developed a powerful tool to help people understand and leverage their individual talents.
Called the Reflected Best Self (RBS) exercise,
our method allows managers to develop a
sense of their “personal best” in order to increase their future potential. The RBS exercise
is but one example of new approaches springing from an area of research called positive organizational scholarship (POS). Just as psychologists know that people respond better to
praise than to criticism, organizational behavior scholars are finding that when companies
focus on positive attributes such as resilience
and trust, they can reap impressive bottom-line
returns. (For more on this research, see the
sidebar “The Positive Organization.”) Thousands of executives, as well as tomorrow’s leaders enrolled in business schools around the
world, have completed the RBS exercise.
In this article, we will walk you through
the RBS exercise step-by-step and describe
the insights and results it can yield. Before we
proceed, however, a few caveats are in order.
First, understand that the tool is not designed
to stroke your ego; its purpose is to assist you
in developing a plan for more effective action.
(Without such a plan, you’ll keep running in
place.) Second, the lessons generated from
the RBS exercise can elude you if you don’t
pay sincere attention to them. If you are too
burdened by time pressures and job demands,
you may just file the information away and
forget about it. To be effective, the exercise requires commitment, diligence, and followthrough. It may even be helpful to have a
coach keep you on task. Third, it’s important
to conduct the RBS exercise at a different
time of year than the traditional performance
review so that negative feedback from traditional mechanisms doesn’t interfere with the
results of the exercise.
Used correctly, the RBS exercise can help
you tap into unrecognized and unexplored
areas of potential. Armed with a constructive,
systematic process for gathering and analyzing
data about your best self, you can burnish your
performance at work.
Step 1
Identify Respondents and Ask for
The first task in the exercise is to collect feedback from a variety of people inside and outside work. By gathering input from a variety of
sources—family members, past and present
colleagues, friends, teachers, and so on—you
can develop a much broader and richer understanding of yourself than you can from a standard performance evaluation.
As we describe the process of the Reflected
Best Self exercise, we will highlight the experience of Robert Duggan (not his real name),
whose self-discovery process is typical of the
managers we’ve observed. Having retired from
a successful career in the military at a fairly
young age and earned an MBA from a top
business school, Robert accepted a midlevel
management position at an IT services firm.
Despite strong credentials and leadership experience, Robert remained stuck in the same position year after year. His performance evaluations were generally good but not strong
enough to put him on the high-potential track.
Disengaged, frustrated, and disheartened, Robert grew increasingly stressed and disillusioned
with his company. His workday felt more and
more like an episode of Survivor.
Seeking to improve his performance, Robert enrolled in an executive education program
and took the RBS exercise. As part of the exercise, Robert gathered feedback from 11 individuals from his past and present who knew him
well. He selected a diverse but balanced
group—his wife and two other family members, two friends from his MBA program, two
colleagues from his time in the army, and four
current colleagues.
Robert then asked these individuals to provide information about his strengths, accompanied by specific examples of moments
when Robert used those strengths in ways
that were meaningful to them, to their families or teams, or to their organizations. Many
people—Robert among them—feel uncomfortable asking for exclusively positive feedback, particularly from colleagues. Accustomed to hearing about their strengths and
weaknesses simultaneously, many executives
imagine any positive feedback will be unrealistic, even false. Some also worry that respondents might construe the request as presumptuous or egotistical. But once managers
accept that the exercise will help them improve their performance, they tend to dive in.
Within ten days, Robert received e-mail responses from all 11 people describing specific
instances when he had made important contri-
How to Play to Your Strengths
harvard business review • managing yourself • january 2005 page 3
butions—including pushing for high quality
under a tight deadline, being inclusive in communicating with a diverse group, and digging
for critical information. The answers he received surprised him. As a military veteran and
a technical person holding an MBA, Robert
rarely yielded to his emotions. But in reading
story after story from his respondents, Robert
found himself deeply moved—as if he were listening to appreciative speeches at a party
thrown in his honor. The stories were also surprisingly convincing. He had more strengths
than he knew. (For more on Step 1, refer to the
exhibit “Gathering Feedback.”)
Step 2
Recognize Patterns
In this step, Robert searched for common
themes among the feedback, adding to the examples with observations of his own, then organizing all the input into a table. (To view
parts of Robert’s table, see the exhibit “Finding
Common Themes.”) Like many who participate in the RBS exercise, Robert expected that,
given the diversity of respondents, the comments he received would be inconsistent or
even competing. Instead, he was struck by
their uniformity. The comments from his wife
and family members were similar to those
from his army buddies and work colleagues.
Everyone took note of Robert’s courage under
pressure, high ethical standards, perseverance,
curiosity, adaptability, respect for diversity,
and team-building skills. Robert suddenly realized that even his small, unconscious behaviors had made a huge impression on others. In
many cases, he had forgotten about the specific examples cited until he read the feedback,
because his behavior in those situations had
felt like second nature to him.
The RBS exercise confirmed Robert’s sense
of himself, but for those who are unaware of
their strengths, the exercise can be truly illuminating. Edward, for example, was a recently
minted MBA executive in an automotive firm.
His colleagues and subordinates were older
and more experienced than he, and he felt uncomfortable disagreeing with them. But he
learned through the RBS exercise that his
peers appreciated his candid alternative views
and respected the diplomatic and respectful
manner with which he made his assertions. As
a result, Edward grew bolder in making the
case for his ideas, knowing that his boss and
colleagues listened to him, learned from him,
and appreciated what he had to say.
Other times, the RBS exercise sheds a
more nuanced light on the skills one takes
for granted. Beth, for example, was a lawyer
who negotiated on behalf of nonprofit organizations. Throughout her life, Beth had
been told she was a good listener, but her exercise respondents noted that the interactive, empathetic, and insightful manner in
which she listened made her particularly
effective. The specificity of the feedback
encouraged Beth to take the lead in future
negotiations that required delicate and diplomatic communications.
For naturally analytical people, the analysis
portion of the exercise serves both to integrate
the feedback and develop a larger picture of
their capabilities. Janet, an engineer, thought
she could study her feedback as she would a
technical drawing of a suspension bridge. She
The Positive Organization
Positive organizational scholarship
(POS) is an area of organizational behavior research that focuses on the positive dynamics (such as strength, resilience, vitality, trust, and so on) that lead
to positive effects (like improved productivity and performance) in individuals and organizations. The word “positive” refers to the discipline’s affirmative
bias, “organizational” focuses on the
processes and conditions that occur in
group contexts, and “scholarship” reflects the rigor, theory, scientific procedures, and precise definition in which
the approach is grounded.
The premise of POS research is that
by understanding the drivers of positive
behavior in the workplace, organizations
can rise to new levels of achievement.
For example, research by Marcial Losada
and Emily Heaphy at the University of
Michigan suggests that when individuals or teams hear five positive comments to every negative one, they unleash a level of positive energy that fuels
higher levels of individual and group
performance. Kim Cameron, a POS researcher, has demonstrated how this
positive approach has helped the workers at Rocky Flats, a nuclear site in Colorado, tackle difficult and dangerous work
in record time. Begun in 1995 and estimated to take 70 years and $36 billion,
the Rocky Flats cleanup project is now
slated for completion in ten years, with a
price tag of less than $7 billion. KaiserHill, the company in charge of the
cleanup, replaced a culture of denial
with one that fostered employee flexibility and celebrated achievements. The result was that employees developed new
procedures that were fast, smart, and
POS does not adopt one particular
theory or framework but draws from the
full spectrum of organizational theories
to explain and predict high performance. To that end, a core part of the
POS mission is to create cases, tools, and
assessments that can help organizations
improve their practices. The Reflected
Best Self exercise is just one example of
the kinds of practice tools available from
POS. (For more information about POS,
see the University of Michigan’s Web
site at
How to Play to Your Strengths
harvard business review • managing yourself • january 2005 page 4
saw her “reflected best self” as something to interrogate and improve. But as she read the remarks from family, friends, and colleagues, she
saw herself in a broader and more human context. Over time, the stories she read about her
enthusiasm and love of design helped her rethink her career path toward more managerial
roles in which she might lead and motivate
Step 3
Compose Your Self-Portrait
The next step is to write a description of yourself that summarizes and distills the accumulated information. The description should
weave themes from the feedback together
with your self-observations into a composite
of who you are at your best. The self-portrait is
not designed to be a complete psychological
and cognitive profile. Rather, it should be an
insightful image that you can use as a reminder of your previous contributions and as
a guide for future action. The portrait itself
should not be a set of bullet points but rather
a prose composition beginning with the
phrase, “When I am at my best, I…” The process of writing out a two- to four-paragraph
narrative cements the image of your best self
in your consciousness. The narrative form also
helps you draw connections between the
themes in your life that may previously have
seemed disjointed or unrelated. Composing
the portrait takes time and demands careful
consideration, but at the end of this process,
you should come away with a rejuvenated
image of who you are.
In developing his self-portrait, Robert drew
on the actual words that others used to describe him, rounding out the picture with his
own sense of himself at his best. He excised
competencies that felt off the mark. This didn’t
mean he discounted them, but he wanted to
assure that the overall portrait felt authentic
and powerful. “When I am at my best,” Robert
I stand by my values and can get others
to understand why doing so is important. I
choose the harder right over the easier wrong.
I enjoy setting an example. When I am in learning mode and am curious and passionate
about a project, I can work intensely and untiringly. I enjoy taking things on that others
might be afraid of or see as too difficult. I’m
able to set limits and find alternatives when a
current approach is not working. I don’t always
assume that I am right or know best, which
engenders respect from others. I try to empower and give credit to others. I am tolerant
and open to differences.
As Robert developed his portrait, he began
to understand why he hadn’t performed his
best at work: He lacked a sense of mission. In
the army, he drew satisfaction from the
knowledge that the safety of the men and
women he led, as well as the nation he
served, depended on the quality of his work.
He enjoyed the sense of teamwork and variety of problems to be solved. But as an IT
manager in charge of routine maintenance on
new hardware products, he felt bored and isolated from other people.
The portrait-writing process also helped
Robert create a more vivid and elaborate sense
of what psychologists would call his “possible
self”—not just the person he is in his day-today job but the person he might be in completely different contexts. Organizational reGathering Feedback
A critical step in the Reflected Best Self exercise involves soliciting feedback from
family, friends, teachers, and colleagues. E-mail is an effective way of doing this, not
only because it’s comfortable and fast but also because it’s easy to cut and paste responses into an analysis table such as the one in the main body of this article.
Below is the feedback Robert, a manager we observed, received from a current
colleague and from a former coworker in the army.
From: Amy Chen
To: Robert Duggan
Subject: Re: Request for feedback
Dear Robert,
One of the greatest ways that you add value is that you stand for doing the right
thing. For example, I think of the time that we were behind on a project for a major
client and quality began to slip. You called a meeting and suggested that we had a
choice: We could either pull a C by satisfying the basic requirements, or we could
pull an A by doing excellent work. You reminded us that we could contribute to a better outcome. In the end, we met our deadline, and the client was very happy with the
From: Mike Bruno
To: Robert Duggan
Subject: Re: Request for feedback
One of the greatest ways you add value is that you persist in the face of adversity. I
remember the time that we were both leading troops under tight security. We were
getting conflicting information from the ground and from headquarters. You pushed
to get the ground and HQ folks to talk to each other despite the tight time pressure.
That information saved all of our lives. You never lost your calm, and you never
stopped expecting or demanding the best from everyone involved.
How to Play to Your Strengths
harvard business review • managing yourself • january 2005 page 5
searchers have shown that when we develop a
sense of our best possible self, we are better
able make positive changes in our lives.
Step 4
Redesign Your Job
Having pinpointed his strengths, Robert’s next
step was to redesign his personal job description to build on what he was good at. Given
the fact that routine maintenance work left
him cold, Robert’s challenge was to create a
better fit between his work and his best self.
Like most RBS participants, Robert found that
the strengths the exercise identified could be
put into play in his current position. This involved making small changes in the way he
worked, in the composition of his team, and in
the way he spent his time. (Most jobs have degrees of freedom in all three of these areas; the
trick is operating within the fixed constraints
of your job to redesign work at the margins,
allowing you to better play to your strengths.)
Robert began by scheduling meetings with
systems designers and engineers who told him
they were having trouble getting timely information flowing between their groups and Robert’s maintenance team. If communication improved, Robert believed, new products would
not continue to be saddled with the serious
and costly maintenance issues seen in the past.
Armed with a carefully documented history of
those maintenance problems as well as a new
understanding of his naturally analytical and
creative team-building skills, Robert began
meeting regularly with the designers and engineers to brainstorm better ways to prevent
problems with new products. The meetings
satisfied two of Robert’s deepest best-self
needs: He was interacting with more people at
work, and he was actively learning about systems design and engineering.
Robert’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Key
executives remarked on his initiative and his
ability to collaborate across functions, as well
as on the critical role he played in making new
products more reliable. They also saw how he
gave credit to others. In less than nine months,
Robert’s hard work paid off, and he was promoted to program manager. In addition to receiving more pay and higher visibility, Robert
enjoyed his work more. His passion was reignited; he felt intensely alive and authentic.
Whenever he felt down or lacking in energy,
he reread the original e-mail feedback he had
Ethics, values,
and courage
Creating a table helps you make sense of the feedback you collect. By clustering
examples, you can more easily compare responses and identify common themes.
• I take a stand when superiors and peers cross
the boundaries of ethical behavior.
• I am not afraid to stand up for what I believe
in. I confront people who litter or who yell at
their kids in public.
• I am at my best when I choose the harder right
over the easier wrong. I derive even more satisfaction when I am able to teach others. I am
professionally courageous.
Curiosity and
• I gave up a promising career in the military
to get my MBA.
• I investigated and solved a security breach
though an innovative approach.
• I like meeting new challenges. I take risks and
persevere despite obstacles.
Ability to build
• In high school, I assembled a team of students
that helped improve the school’s academic
• I am flexible and willing to learn from others,
and I give credit where credit is due.
• I thrive when working closely with others.
Common theme Examples given Possible interpretation
>>Finding Common Themes
Copyright © 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
How to Play to Your Strengths
harvard business review • managing yourself • january 2005 page 6
received. In difficult situations, the e-mail messages helped him feel more resilient.
Robert was able to leverage his strengths to
perform better, but there are cases in which
RBS findings conflict with the realities of a person’s job. This was true for James, a sales executive who told us he was “in a world of hurt”
over his work situation. Unable to meet his
ambitious sales goals, tired of flying around the
globe to fight fires, his family life on the verge
of collapse, James had suffered enough. The
RBS exercise revealed that James was at his
best when managing people and leading
change, but these natural skills did not and
could not come into play in his current job.
Not long after he did the exercise, he quit his
high-stress position and started his own successful company.
Other times, the findings help managers
aim for undreamed-of positions in their own
organizations. Sarah, a high-level administrator at a university, shared her best-self portrait
with key colleagues, asking them to help her
identify ways to better exploit her strengths
and talents. They suggested that she would be
an ideal candidate for a new executive position. Previously, she would never have considered applying for the job, believing herself unqualified. To her surprise, she handily beat out
the other candidates.
Beyond Good Enough
We have noted that while people remember
criticism, awareness of faults doesn’t necessarily translate into better performance. Based on
that understanding, the RBS exercise helps you
remember your strengths—and construct a
plan to build on them. Knowing your strengths
also offers you a better understanding of how
to deal with your weaknesses—and helps you
gain the confidence you need to address them.
It allows you to say, “I’m great at leading but
lousy at numbers. So rather than teach me remedial math, get me a good finance partner.” It
also allows you to be clearer in addressing your
areas of weakness as a manager. When Tim, a
financial services executive, received feedback
that he was a great listener and coach, he also
became more aware that he had a tendency to
spend too much time being a cheerleader and
too little time keeping his employees to task.
Susan, a senior advertising executive, had the
opposite problem: While her feedback lauded
her results-oriented management approach,
she wanted to be sure that she hadn’t missed
opportunities to give her employees the space
to learn and make mistakes.
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