What is a Strength?

The idea of playing to our strengths seems logical and appealing to the people I work with. Then when we start working on identifying strengths in themselves and in others, some interesting questions start emerging: “What exactly IS a strength?” or “Does ____ count as a strength?”


Psychological researchers have been working on these questions for more than 20 years and continue to do so. In this article I’ll provide a brief summary of three commonly used strengths classifications, and then I’ll share my recommended tools for identifying strengths in people of different ages and with different focus areas.



The Scientific Quest to Define Strengths


Strengths are defined in various ways by current researcher/thought leaders as...

  • "a family of positive traits" (Park, Peterson, and Seligman, 2004)

  • "morally valued and beneficial to oneself and others” (Niemic, 2013)

  • “the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance” (Rath, 2007)

  • “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2008)

The researchers providing the strengths definitions above have been leading the way to define and catalogue strengths. Their work has resulted in a variety of classifications of strengths as dynamic (changeable) states, fixed personality traits, or learned/developed competencies (skills). This research has produced three distinct assessments which have been rigorously validated and are broadly used today.


I'll briefly describe how these three assessments classify strengths below. My main objective here is to give you a sense for the differences between these scientifically derived "lists" of strengths, so that you can begin to work with them for yourself.


Character-Based Strengths: VIA

The VIA Institute on Character commissioned Dr. Chris Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman to lead a team of 55 social scientists in studying world religions, philosophies, and psychology looking for agreed-upon virtues. The result is a set of 24 Character Strengths grouped into 6 areas of Virtue, as shown in the image below...


Talent-Based Strengths: Gallup/CliftonStrengths

The Clifton Strengths Assessment grew from research by Don Clifton and the Gallup organization investigating how individuals approach their lives and get work done. The result is a set of 34 Talent Themes grouped into 4 Domains, as shown in the image below...


Combining Character and Talent: Strengths Profile

The Strengths Profile was developed by a team of researchers at the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology, led by Dr. Alex Linley. Its primary focus is on identifying strengths to support employee development. 60 Strengths are grouped into 5 Strengths Families, as shown in the image below...


Which Type of Strengths Should You Focus On?

One major benefit of using any well-researched strengths classification like the three above is that they help you develop a robust vocabulary to describe attributes more specifically than you may do naturally. This can help you spot and develop strengths in yourself as well as in your colleagues, friends, and family members.


Like most things in life, there’s not a single “best choice” here. It really depends on why you’re wanting to identify strengths, and for whom...


For Children and Teens (and Teachers/Parents)

VIA and Gallup both offer assessments for youth: VIA Youth Survey (for ages 10-17...and free!) and Clifton Youth Strengths Explorer (for ages 10-14). So if you’re thinking about your kids’ strengths in everyday life, those would be good choices. Also, if you're a teacher or parent and want to be able to talk about your own strengths using the same classification as your students or children, the Adult VIA Survey would be good to do (and it's also free!). We use VIA in our positive parenting programs, which you can read more about here.


For Career Development/Employee Selection

The VIA Institute specifically states that its strengths classification is not recommended for career development (at any age) or employee selection. So if that’s what you’re focusing on, the Gallup/CliftonStrengths Assessment (for ages 15+) or the Strengths Profile Assessment (for ages 16+) will be better tools for you.


For Your Personal Development

If you’re concentrating on your own personal development, any of the three (VIA, CliftonStrengths or Strengths Profile) could be useful…and you can even use all of them as a reference for your own strengths discovery process. I've done this and have found it very interesting and useful to think about the different things each assessment tells me about my strengths. All of the reports feel accurate for me, and the experience is like seeing myself through different lenses.


My coaching work focuses on people who want to play more to their strengths in educational, non-profit, and volunteer settings...and I've chosen to use Strengths Profile for this. You can read more about why I love it and how I use it here.


For Team Development

Both CliftonStrengths and Strengths Profile offer Team reports, which consolidate strengths data for work groups to help them explore collective strengths and collaborative opportunities. I chose to become an accredited Strengths Profile practitioner because I feel the tool lends itself better to coaching and team development than CliftonStrengths does. You can read more about why I like Strengths Profile so much and how I use it here.


For Further Reading & Research Cited


Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, Todd B., & Lyubchik, N. (2016). Psychological strengths at work. In Oades, Lindsay G. et. al (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-based Approaches at Work. Hoboken: Wiley.


Linley, P.A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.


Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology. New York: Springer.


Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, I(3).


Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. Gallup Press.


About the Author

Kristin Lowe is a former international school teacher who now works as an organisational psychologist, strengths-based leadership coach, and positive parenting educator.


Kristin’s work centers around applied positive psychology, helping school communities cultivate what is best within themselves and leverage these strengths to help students become confident, capable, and caring people.


You can read more about Kristin’s background and qualifications here.


If you’d like to speak with Kristin about positive psychology coaching and consulting services, please send a message, schedule a call, or start a chat below...

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