A Positive Focus: Discovering Your Best Self through Strengths Academy

Members of the Strengths Student Team at a recent Strengths Awareness Day on campus

By: Whitney Hopler, Communications Coordinator

Everyone at Mason is pursuing greater knowledge through their academic studies and work. But how well do we know ourselves? The more we learn about ourselves, the better prepared we’ll be to fulfill our highest potential – in the university, and beyond. That’s why all Mason students, faculty, and staff can take the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment to discover their top five personal strengths out of 34 core personality strengths identified in Gallup’s extensive research.

“The idea behind Strengths is that once we know what we’re naturally talented in, we can continue focusing on and investing in those talents,” said Chelsie Kuhn, project coordinator at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB). “This is much more effective and efficient than attempting to ‘fix’ our weaknesses. Everyone has all 34 themes or talents defined by Gallup, but we really use our top five, which is what Patriots can access.”

People can use information from the assessment in a variety of valuable ways, said Lewis Forrest, associate dean of University Life. “Strengths is important because it is a great tool, which has lots of utility. Not only does it give an individual some insight into the things that they do well, it is a great tool for building bridges between classmates and colleagues. Understanding individual strengths and what they mean can help you leverage them in just about every area of your life. Focusing on what you do well is a great practice for everyone.”

As of April 2017, more than 12,000 people at Mason – students, faculty, and staff – have discovered and started to use their Strengths, said Forrest. In May 2017, he said, the Strengths Student Team “held the last of several very successful Strengths Awareness Days to close out the semester.” Mason is sharing our Strengths experience and knowledge with the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) as well, he said, as UDC works to build a Strengths culture on their campus.

Rashaan Mateen, a senior majoring in both management and finance at the School of Business, said the assessment results changed his life significantly. “Before taking the assessment, I really didn’t know what my strengths were. I didn’t know what I was good at. I didn’t really have any talents, in my opinion.” He discovered through the assessment that he actually had many personal strengths. “It gave me confidence,” he said. Mateen says that his top five strengths – analytical, harmony, responsibility, relator, and consistency – surprised him a bit but helped him connect the dots between parts of himself that he hadn’t fully figured out.

Kuhn discovered that her top strengths have helped her a lot in her work planning projects on campus. “My top 5 are Learner, Achiever, Responsibility, Relator, and Intellection. Of my top 5, two fall under the executing domain, two under the strategic thinking domain, and one under relationship building. This has helped me think about how I can effectively execute projects – I’m good at setting up a strategic plan, executing the to-dos, and building relationships during the entire process.”

Mateen serves as a Student Strengths Ambassador on campus, helping other students discover their own strengths and learn how to use them well. He works on activities that raise awareness of Strengths Academy (a campus-wide initiative to create a culture that promotes thriving together by using Strengths). Those activities include workshops for students to take the assessment, and the recent scavenger hunt that gave students who had already taken the assessment a fun way to discover and talk with each other about their Strengths.

The StrengthsFinder assessment is “especially important for young people,” said Nance Lucas, executive director of CWB. “College students are dealing with so many pressures. This tool is designed for them to integrate their strengths into all areas of their lives.” Learning about their personal strengths helps students make wise decisions about academic majors, internships, and career paths, she said.

Mason was the very first organization to use the Strengths assessment, when it was introduced in 2006, said Lucas. “Over time it just grew in its use and its popularity. It affirms taking what you already have inside you and investing in it.”

People whose self-esteem has taken a hit from life’s disappointments or discouraging words they’ve heard from others in the past can use Strengths information to move forward in positive ways. “We want to boost confidence and give people hope,” Mateen said. Those who take the assessment but don’t really believe their strengths at first can test the results by incorporating those core strengths into their daily decisions and seeing what happens. “If people invest the time to put their strengths to use, they’ll come to understand the power of them,” Mateen explained. “Everyone uses their strengths in different ways.”

Kuhn explained that Strengths can guide people with both a positive focus and flexibility. “By shifting focus to what folks are naturally good at, Strengths can be a tool to build self-confidence. … Strengths can be used to set goals no matter what direction someone might want to move in. I find it important to mention to the students that I work with that Strengths is not prescriptive; just because I have a certain top five arrangement doesn’t mean I am limited in my career choices – it just means that these are the talents that I have invested in over the years. Knowing that your top five isn’t the ‘end all, be all’ of who you are allows the students to step back and use this as one of the many tools they have access to at the university.”

When people are working together, they can use their individual strengths to maximize the effectiveness of their work as a group. That can work well for students working on projects together, or for employees in training. “Once multiple people on a team or in a class know their Strengths, they can map this information and work more effectively by designing projects and assignments with these talents in mind,” Kuhn said. “For example, if there’s a project with multiple pieces, the team can think strategically about who to leverage for building strategy, building relationships, influencing others, or executing tasks. If the group is lacking in any of Gallup’s four domains (relationship building, strategic thinking, executing, and influencing), then they can leverage other Strengths that they have to compensate, or they can build complementary partnerships with others in the surrounding community.”

Shernita Rochelle Parker, director of organizational development and faculty/staff coaching for Mason’s Human Resources and Payroll department, said that making Strengths the theme of the 2015 Staff Development Day proved helpful for employees. “Keynote remarks and classes were focused on encouraging faculty and staff to learn more about their strengths — particularly as their strengths relate to their performance, engagement, resolution of conflict, and physical well-being goals,” she said. “Attendance was very high, with nearly 300 people attending the majority of the day’s classes and activities.”

Every day, Parker said, Strengths Academy helps to foster “a positive and supportive workplace culture where an individual’s growth and development occur as a result of being able to work to their strengths, where feedback seeks to acknowledge what is ‘right’ with an individual’s performance, and collaboration and innovation thrive as a result of the increased engagement and productivity that faculty and staff experience in a strengths-based culture.”

Parker noted that, “Gallup analysis has shown, when an individual is given an opportunity to use their strengths every day at work, they are ‘three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, six times more likely to be engaged at work, 8 percent more productive, and 15 percent less likely to quit their jobs.’”

Human Resources encourages everyone who works at Mason to use their strengths to the fullest, Parker said, and doing so “will provide great benefit to faculty and staff as individuals and the university as a whole.”

Mason’s students, faculty, and staff can keep going deeper into the benefits of using their personal strengths on an ongoing basis. In fact, Mateen said, there’s no limit to how much Strengths can help people fulfill their potential in life. “Successful people know what they’re good at, they know what they’re not so good at, and they leverage everything else. If you continue to work on your strengths, you can become extraordinary!”