Viewing Posts by Ruth Pearce
Jo works in education in the U.K. Her signature character strengths are Fairness, Humor, Judgment, Social Intelligence and Prudence. Her lesser strengths – on a typical day – are Gratitude, Hope, Spirituality, Appreciation and Self-Regulation.
As schools close their doors during this crisis, and families face the challenge of being at home, reduced income and still giving their children an education, she and her colleagues are working tirelessly to create a consistent learning environment.
When asked how things are going, she said, “I have never worked as hard in my life!” Between work commitments, juggling a family of six people stuck in the house, managing updates, checking in on family and friends, it is a whirlwind of calls, texts, emails … So, I asked her how strengths help:
Of the first three strengths Jo named, two were lesser strengths for her. We may believe that our lesser strengths are inaccessible or absent. Tips for coping:
” To lead people, walk beside them…” Lao Tzu
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
One of the questions I am frequently asked is, “what is the best character strengths profile for a…?” (fill in the blank)
And most often groups fill in the blank with “leader”.
“What is the best character strengths profile for a leader?”
This question is often prompted by the discovery that the character strength of Leadership (encouraging a group to get things done and organizing group activities) is not one of their top strengths, and they start to think leadership is not for them!
My answer is always the same… “It is your strengths profile used well”.
What does that mean though?
Understanding your Character Strengths Profile
Strengths optimization and adjustment is the key – and great leaders are able to leverage their top strengths with sensitivity knowing when to ramp them up, when to dial them back and when to sprinkle in a teaspoon of a lower strength with mindfulness and deliberation.
Character Strengths Use Fatigue
And what about strengths fatigue? What does that look and feel like?
What happens when we have to use strengths that are lower in the ranking for us? Well, unsurprisingly, it is tiring. In the last few months many people have been suffering Prudence and Self-Regulation fatigue. The pandemic has meant that some things we take for granted if we are fortunate – shopping at the store – are now taking a lot more planning. Planning requires Prudence. Wearing a mask around others for their safety – even though it may feel uncomfortable – uses self-regulation (at least until we create a habit). That is why it is important to be consistent with things like wearing a mask. If we do it for ALL social situations, it starts to use less self-regulation. We use self-regulation more when we are constantly making decisions about “is this a situation where a mask is appropriate?” and “is this a situation where a mask is unnecessary?”
I have noticed this in friends. One or two of them are blessed with self-regulation as a top strength – yes, they are unicorns! – and they did not find it hard at the start to have masks in their car, by the front door etc. (at least not once they had found masks!). One or two others have Kindness as a top strength and these people used that kindness – manifested as a concern for the health and well-being of others – to groove in a habit of go to the door, put on a mask, pick up the car keys, put on a mask and so on. Although their self-regulation was not high, they were able to use other strengths to build a desirable habit.
And what about Bravery fatigue? Bravery is a strength that is about feeling apprehension, anxiety and fear and doing something anyway. There are three types of bravery[i]. There is physical bravery – the type that involves running into a physically threatening situation. This could be stepping in when there appears to be a physical threat to someone, saving someone from an accident or fire. What comes to mind for you?
There is psychological bravery – feeling apprehension and fear and taking a difficult step – this might be accepting stage fright and speaking at a conference or giving the most important workplace presentation. What have you experienced?
There is moral bravery which is speaking up for what is morally right even when confronted with push back. We are seeing a lot of that at the moment in the US as we confront our history and our present. It can be something like pointing out that a project no longer makes sense, or that the short-term benefit of a project is at the expense of a long-term detriment, or to call out unfair work practices. How does moral bravery impact you?
In our day-to-day, during Covid-19 we have all to keep leaning on bravery, it is exhausting and there are so many ways in which we are having to engage bravery at the moment. Another interesting tidbit of information is that bravery is very rare as a signature strength (see above). In fact, it tends to rank quite low in most profiles – 18 or 19 is pretty common.[ii]
As we embark on the next months and years of challenge and change, how will you embrace it?
Leading from Who and How You Are - Being and Doing
As a leader, what are the options? Consider these five questions. Journal about them. Discuss with others and get their perspective. Two heads are better than one (and many diverse heads are better than two!)
When you begin to answer these five questions, you start to increase your value as a leader because:
“You can be the lead in your own life.” – Kerry Washington
[i] Niemiec, Ryan M., and Robert E. McGrath. The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality. VIA Institute on Character, 2019.
[ii] Robert E. McGrath (2014): Character strengths in 75 nations: An update, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicating to furthering research and promoting good practice.
Little did we know when we were choosing the dates and topics for the ProjectManagement.com blog that we were on the cusp of a major shift in the world! The present, the past and the future – being an adaptable PM. That was the topic already slated for this week… What a timely topic! And I have broadened it to the topic of being an adaptable project manager now and where we expect it to go in the future. It is not just how we will project manage it is how we will live, choose, prioritize and stay sane! And all these are important components of project management too.
We have been down this hole before – or one like it!
As we look back on a time that was just a few weeks ago, we may be surprised at the number of things that we took for granted and just assumed would continue forever. Every day much like another, the same struggles, the same connections, the same processes. How do you feel as you look back at that time? What emotions do you feel about it?
To help you, take a look at the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions. Ask yourselves the questions that follow:
What is one thing you will keep doing from “before”?__________________________________
We are always navigating holes…
Change is something that many people don’t appreciate. A few weeks ago, there was a sudden change. For many we were told to “stay home starting tomorrow”. For some, that means working from home, for others it means losing a job and struggling with day to day expenses and for some it means juggling work from home, schooling the kids, making additional meals, buying groceries with less access to stores. And then of course there are many people who despite the stay at home orders, are still having to go out to work. Maybe to work on the food supply chain, or as a frontline worker in the healthcare field. The change has been dramatic, and we have had no choice but to adjust the best we can.
In group coaching sessions we often hear that people are “not experiencing anything different than usual”. They regularly or habitually work from home. It is “just the same”. When we pause and think about the truth of that statement, we are often surprised, and it turns out that the only thing that seems the same is the idea of working from home. For example, one person said “nothing has changed for me, I always work from home. We asked, how is it different?
She paused, reflected and answered:
She suddenly looked sad and relieved. She was sad that there were so many things that had changed and relieved because she admitted she had been feeling tired and a little down and had been criticizing herself when things were so “normal” for her.
Maria Sirois (Author of “A short course in happiness after loss”) says “pain, is pain, is pain”. Humans don’t experience pain in comparison to others. They experience their own pain and it is not less – or more – because of how it compares to others. It just is. Having just been in a four- hour mindfulness retreat and I am reminded to think about this present and ask these questions:
What is one thing you are doing now that you will continue to do? _______________________
Like holes before this one, we will find our way out
One significant job of a project manager is to collect, challenge and collate project predictions. Our experts predict how long each part of a project will take and what the optimal sequence is, and we put it together to form the plan. So often the plan is not what is ultimately executed and to some degree serves more as a benchmark (baseline) against which to measure the deviation from what we expected. This has never been truer than now.
As the world tentatively reopens, there is even more uncertainty than when it shut down. A few weeks ago, others made the decisions and we lived with – and adjusted to – those decisions as best we could. Our choice was not “what to do” it was “how to do it”. Some of us adjusted more easily than others. Some did not really adjust at all and now suddenly we will be asked to adjust again.
In the future though we will be making the decisions. We may be told it is OK to go back to work, but we will decide if that is safe – for us, for our children who may not be in school – for vulnerable loved ones. We will decide whether going to a restaurant, store, gym or sports venue is “safe enough”.
Our days will be a maze of decisions, and we will be called upon to use our strengths in new ways and to use strengths that come less easily to us in order to get through the next few months.
We are already seeing that everyone is being called upon to use more Prudence than normal. This character strength – the planning strength – is one that we are more likely to be adept with. We may have to lean more on Perspective – yes a choice may feel unsafe, but it may be less dangerous than the alternative (not going back to work and not being able to pay the rent for example).
We will need Hope – that is the strength of positive forward thinking AND taking action.
Forgiveness may be needed more now as people make decisions that turn out to be less than optimal, or tempers fray, or energy is lower. In fact, when we look at the twenty-four research- based character strengths (see below), EVERY one of them has a place in what is coming in this future.
Look at the list and think about which of the strengths come most easily and naturally to you and then make a plan for how to engage those strengths purposefully in the future. These questions may help:
What is one practice you want to adopt going forward to help make each day 2% better? _______________________________________________________________________
Take what you learned in the past, are learning in the present and launch into the future with a curious mind. In mindfulness we call this “beginner’s mind”. In the next few months we will all be beginners. Embrace it, take care of yourself, and see what you learn!
And, remember to put on your own oxygen mask first!
For a great little book to read during these times of uncertainty – to understand how we process change – read Carole Osterweil’s book Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience: A Leader's Guide to Walking in Fog.
Originally, I was going to share the results of some of my research on project managers, and some ways to close the gap on this critical business and team strength. Suffice to say, we, as a group, do not score high in social intelligence. We seem to show more perseverance and prudence. And when it comes to understanding and reading others, we are not necessarily as comfortable as others are.
In these difficult times though, let’s look at social intelligence from a different perspective. We ALL need it – along with emotional intelligence (awareness of emotions and the ability to manage our emotions). Alexithymia is the inability to identify and describe emotions. Let’s face it, most of us are not taught to recognize and name our emotions and, in the West at least, it is common to “stuff” them. We want to push away emotions that are uncomfortable or that we perceive as “bad”. We rarely pause and take stock of our emotions and are even less likely to describe them to others. Until one day our emotions take over our behavior!
So I encourage everyone to practice naming their emotions - see below for a tool to help!
Starting with us: Emotional Intelligence
Today I was listening in on a coaching session and the client – we will call her Amy – wanted to explore ways of decompressing and building resilience during these difficult times. She asked her coach for suggestions, and what followed was a process of the coach helping the client to explore what already helps her reset. She identified being in nature (research shows this is a huge de-stressor), exercising, meditating, reading poetry and planning wonderful trips in the future as ways she can change her emotions from ones that seem to drain energy to ones that help her to feel more Zest, Hope and enthusiasm.
In the course of the hour – one that she had considered canceling – she not only identified rejuvenating practices but EXPERIENCED them. At the end of the hour she commented on how important it had been for her to keep the appointment and she made the following observations:
In the face of stress, we often cancel the things that rejuvenate us FIRST in order to claw back time. We cancel the yoga practice, our meditation, that virtual cup of coffee with a friend, our walk outside, or our coaching session. What Amy said at the end was “I want to make a note of how this feels. It is the best way I could spend this hour. I have identified practices that I will use to help myself and in this moment my head feels clearer and I feel calmer and more optimistic than when we started.”
What does this have to do with Alexithymia – one of the things we often forget to do is CHECK-IN with ourselves. As project managers, we are constantly transitioning – moving from a team meeting to a meeting with frustrated stakeholders, to a briefing with the project sponsor and then to our desks to update reports and statuses. Each encounter generates a response in us and if we don’t take stock, name our emotions, acknowledge them without judgment and then mindfully select the ones we want to leverage, we become overwhelmed and unfocused. This is often when we snap at people unexpectedly or fly off the handle at the smallest thing.
I recommend using a tool such as Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Pause for 1 minute and think about where you just were and where you are going. Ask the following questions:
Don’t be surprised when conflicting emotions come up. We often have so-called “mixed feelings” about things or we can feel excited about one part of our lives and anxiety about another – all at the same time!
Expanding to others: Social Intelligence
How do we expand this to those around us? After all, everyone could use a little help right now!
A way I like to recommend is the SEA method:
I usually focus on VIA Character strengths when doing this. At the same time, it can be used for any kind of strength or skill.
You might focus on the technical skills of the person; their character strengths of perspective, kindness, honesty, humor and more; you might focus on their behavior from being on time to offering help to someone who is struggling more than they; you might focus on their attitudes – always spreading hope and focusing on what we can do right now, or gratitude – focusing on what they DO have in this moment rather than what they are afraid of.
So here are three questions for you to think about in this moment:
These three steps are the foundations of Social Intelligence!
2. Image by Sydney Rae on Unsplash
One of the wonderful things about character strengths is that although we all have all 24, and they are a common language that lets us express our understanding and appreciation of each other’s qualities in a straightforward way, we do nevertheless express each strength uniquely.
This combination of similarity and difference is what makes character strengths so powerful. They both connect us and differentiate us at the same time.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when you speak to people who are leaders and to the people whom they lead. It is not uncommon to encounter expectations about what a leader will look like, what strengths they will have at their fingertips. We may even expect them to have superhuman capacities that translate into many signature strengths – more than your average person. One person even asked me once whether to be a good leader you needed to get all 24 strengths to the top level.
And of course, the most common preconception of all is that in order to be a leader, we must have the strength of Leadership as a top strength.
Will the Real Leader Please Stand Up?
In reality, it is not the case that every leader or even every good leader has leadership as a top strength. On average across populations, Leadership is a strength that shows up squarely in the middle of the average profile. As with any of the strengths, there are people with Leadership higher than average, but that does not automatically make them a leader.
What we do know is that effective leaders recognize, acknowledge and cultivate the strengths of the people they lead. They play to strengths and recognize that as leaders their job is not to know all the answers, or even provide all the structure and guidance. Their job is to create an environment where their teams flourish and can be their best selves.
Over the years, I have been able to look at the character strengths profiles of many people in leadership positions, and what I find time after time is not that they are high in leadership, but that they know their top strengths and they use the strengths that are at their fingertips – their signature strengths – to be the best they can be. One person actually took their signature strengths and explained how they blended together to make them someone that others took for a leader.
Finding your pathway to Leadership
Interesting preliminary research has shown that there are some promising correlations between seven core team roles and specific character strengths. For example, the role of Decision Maker correlates with Zest, Hope, Bravery, Perseverance, and Leadership. Most people will not be surprised at the last strength, but all these strengths individually and together represent pathways to be a Decision maker – the person who is “energized by analyzing information from various perspectives, weighing evidence, applying logic, and choosing a fruitful course of action.” For most people that would be a leadership role!
The secret to character strengths is to discover your personal profile and your unique way of using those strengths. Does your kindness get used at work to help colleagues, or at home with family to support them as they make their way through life or in your community as you help people facing personal challenges? Do you show your kindness with a hug and understanding when someone is in pain or by doing something practical to help? Does your bravery show up when you get comfortable with being uncomfortable in accepting a personal challenge, or when you speak up for others against a crowd, or you stand by a loved one in the face of criticism from family? And how do those two strengths show up together?
As basic building blocks of personality, your character strengths are the same as mine, the same as a loved one’s, the same as those of your boss. What makes you you is how you use them and blend them and show them to the world. And that is as unique as your thumbprint.
How will you use YOUR top strengths to set you apart today?
 Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129. doi:10.1080/17439760600619567
 See for example Lavy, S., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Boiman-Meshita, M. (2016b). The wind beneath my wings: The role of social support in enhancing the use of strengths at work. Journal of Career Assessment.
 Pearce, R. (2018). Be a project motivator: Unlock the secrets of strengths-based project management. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
 Be a Project Motivator, p124
 Ruch, W., Gander, F., Platt, T., & Hofmann, J. (2016). Team roles: Their relationships to character strengths and job satisfaction. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1257051