Reevaluating an Old Problem

The obvious question is that, if catering to our strengths is so helpful, why hasn't anyone thought of it before? They have, of course. Separating people according to various inclinations or personality types is an ancient field of psychology. Carl Jung, for example, classified people as introverts or extroverts. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test based on Jung's theories, has been administered to countless job applicants and career planners for many years.

The problem with most of the type indicators in use is that they are so venerable, says Philip J. Stone, a Harvard psychology professor. "Carl Jung was a great guy, but his concepts are far removed from the modern workplace," says Stone.

More recent initiatives, such as the positive psychology movement led by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, have had limited influence, however, on what Buckingham and Clifton describe as a pervasive emphasis on fixing what's wrong with people. Their studies found that, around the world, people and societies are obsessed with remedying weaknesses but discount talents as unworthy of attention. Many people, in fact, don't have any idea what their strengths might be, though they're painfully aware of their failings, Buckingham reports. "The bottom line is, we live in a remedial world," he says.

Fascination with failings, Buckingham adds, combines with an unfortunate but strong corporate tendency toward the Peter Principle - promoting people into jobs where they are incompetent. The result? The longer people are in their jobs, the less likely they are to be doing what they do best.

Finding a New Approach

The Gallup Organization has been tracking employee strengths for the last 30 years, while interviewing some 2 million employees, including 80,000 managers. In talking with employees whose companies consistently exceed expectations with noticeably low turnover, as well as employees of companies with rapid turnover, the researchers uncovered 34 themes of human talent - those naturally occurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior. Combined with knowledge (the facts and lessons learned) and skills (the steps of an activity), these become an individual's strengths. And, the interviews made clear, drawing on strengths has positive effects for both the individual and the employer. In Now, Discover Your Strengths, Buckingham and Clifton show how these discoveries can be applied within corporations.

The new book is only the beginning, however. The Gallup Organization also offers training courses for corporations and individuals, as well as an innovative Web-based survey offered to - and only to - purchasers of the book. Each copy of Now, Discover Your Strengths comes with a unique code number printed inside, which the purchaser can punch in at a Web site to take a free, online test that identifies the test-taker's top five signature themes. (For more information, log onto www.strengthsfinder.com.)