Posted on

Strengths: Character Strengths and Signature Strengths


StrengthsStrengths are the things we are naturally good at. Everyone knows that. And it has become something of a commonplace that:

We should play to our strengths

In fact, that seeming truism has been underpinned by a lot of academic research over the last 20 years or so, since Martin Seligman formally kicked-off the discipline of Positive Psychology.

So it is in the Positive Psychology sense that we shall examine what strengths are, and why they matter to us.

Why do Strengths Matter?

Strengths are what we are naturally good at. They emerge from our brain connectivity and chemistry – in part due to our genetic heritage and in part, from how we use that innate capacity as we learn and develop. No one can tell you much about how those factors balance out.

But they are important because it is when we pursue activities that match our strengths, we most readily get into flow states. We find the pursuit of our strengths to be intrinsically rewarding, and developing them further motivates us.

Flow, Motivation, and Signature Strengths

More than this, Martin Seligman has found that a life spent using our strengths becomes a meaningful one. Where we are not able to apply them, life can feel hollow.

Strengths, Skills, and Talent

When we learn how to do something well, we create a skill. Skills can be quite narrow and context-specific. But, when we combine them with our strengths, we gain the ability to apply them from one situation to another.


Talents are not context-specific. We can apply them in whatever we do, to create the conditions for excellence. Seligman describes talents as the things you ‘cannot not do’.

The conclusion is that, to maximise satisfaction, productivity, and quality of work, we should be using our signature strengths in our work, every day. And, as a manager, you will clearly get the best from your team members, if you arrange their work so that they can do likewise.

What are Strengths?

Martin Seligman and Neal Mayerson led research into Character Strengths, at the VIA Institute on Character. VIA stands for Values in Action. And their work tied together the ideas of:

  • values
  • virtues
  • strengths
  • character

In 2004, Seligman and Christopher Peterson published an academic volume called ‘Character Strengths and Virtues’ (US|UK) that identified 6 virtues and 26 character strengths that fulfil those virtues:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge
    Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of learning, Perspective, Innovation
  2. Courage
    Bravery, Persistence, Integrity, Vitality, Zest
  3. Humanity
    Love, Kindness, Social intelligence
  4. Justice
    Citizenship, Fairness, Leadership
  5. Temperance (Moderation)
    Forgiveness and mercy, Humility, Prudence, Self control
  6. Transcendence
    Appreciation of beauty and excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Spirituality

Signature Strengths

The 26 character strengths are all important to us. But, your Signature Strengths are the strongest or most prominent of them. You can take a free VIA Survey to get your own strengths profile.

Your signature strengths will be those that matter most to you, giving you the greatest sense of wellbeing and gratification when you apply them. You find them life-enhancing and so, three key features that are common in signature strengths – often called the 3 Es – are:

  • Essential
    Your Signature Strength feels core to who you are as a person.
  • Effortless
    When you work with a Signature Strength, it feels natural and effortless.
  • Energizing
    Using a Signature Strength energises and excites you. It leaves you happier, more fulfilled, and keen to use it more.

Two Prominent Strengths Models

Aside from the VIA Character Strengths model, there is one other that is particularly well-known – especially in the workplace. This is the Gallup Organization’s StrengthsFinder Tool.

Both of them focus on our positive qualities, so we can become aware of what we are best at, and where we thrive.

Predominantly, StrengthsFinder assesses workplace talents and skills. The VIA Survey is more of a psychological tool that aims to measure strengths of your character and personality. Here is a simple summary comparison.

VIA Character Strengths Survey

StrengthsFinder Tool

VIA Institute on Character Gallup Organization
Peer-reviewed academic instrument Non-peer-reviewed commercial asessment
Validated academically by statistical analysis, reliability criteria, peer-reviewed work Validated by polling, commercial surveys, and data analysis of paid questionnaires
Developed for all aspects of life Development focused on world of work
Describe paths to key Virtues and therefore tell you about your character Describe clusters of talents and therefore tell you about what you are good at
All strengths matter and interact Top 5 strengths dominate
Recommended book:
The Power of Character Strengths by Ryan M Niemiec and Robert M McGrath (US|UK)
Recommended book:
StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (US|UK)

StrengthsFinder Themes

We summarised the 6 virtues and 26 character strengths of the VIA model. The StrengthsFinder model adopts four categories to cluster its 34 strengths. Here is a summary

  1. Strategic Thinking Themes (8)
    Analytical, Context, Futuristic, Ideation, Input, Intellection, Learner, Strategic
  2. Executing Themes (9)
    Achiever, Arranger, Belief, Consistency, Deliberative, Discipline, Focus, Responsibility, Restorative
  3. Influencing Themes (8)
    Activator, Command, Communication, Competition, Maximizer, Self-Assurance, Significance, Woo
  4. Relationship Building Themes (9)
    Adaptability, Connectedness, Developer, Empathy, Harmony, Includer, Individualization, Positivity, Relator

Which Survey?

If strengths are of interest to you, I’d say that doing the free VIA Character Strengths Survey is an obvious start. In the world of work, you may find the cost of the StrengthsFinder survey is one you can justify by the additional insights or greater workplace focus it offers. You may like our article on Whitney Johnson, who advocates the StrengthsFinder model to help you find ways to disrupt yourself and find your next career move.

What is Your experience of Strengths?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *