What's Missing in Your Career

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

How are strengths linked to careers? This is one of the most commonly asked questions I receive in my character strengths workshops. The short answer is: We need more research on the topic.

Here’s the long answer: Traditional career counseling focuses on many different categories of strength, such as interests, skills, and talents. Tools that tap into your areas of interest and passion (e.g., the Strong Interest Inventory) have long been used by career counselors. They are also interested in how you build certain skills that might be related to particular careers–communication skills, programming skills, team-building skills.

And if you have a particular raw talent, a career counselor might suggest you pursue a related field. For example, if you’re great at drawing, consider a career in graphic design. Of if you love dealing with numbers, consider pursuing accounting, mathematics, or engineering.

This is where the answer gets interesting. Whatever your interests, skills, and talents might be, they aren’t the only types of strengths that are important when pursuing (or changing) a career.

The Missing Piece

What is rarely discussed in career counseling is character strengths. Skills, interests, and talents are quite different from character strengths, or the positive traits that are essential to a person’s identity. They are universal aspects of our personalities that are valued by people of all cultures.

Drawing connections between character strengths and career transitions, career decision-making, and career counseling is quite new (after all, the VIA Classification was first published in 2004). At present, more is unknown than known about the possible effects.

That said, early research is promising. Hadassah Littman-Ovadia, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology, published a study with her colleagues that compared strengths-based career counseling with traditional counseling. Unemployed job seekers were the subjects who received four sessions of character strengths counseling, or four sessions of traditional counseling. The researchers found that the career counseling that embedded character strengths was far more successful in helping people become employed (80%) compared with the traditional career counseling (60%).

Building a Successful Career With Your Strengths

Taking the VIA survey and understanding the 24 character strengths–and especially your signature strengths–can help you thrive in your current career, or discover a new path. Here’s what to think about:

- Self-awareness: Be mindful of your signature strengths, middle strengths, and lesser strengths. Since deeper awareness often leads to insights which can lead to change, it is possible that strengths knowledge (and practice therein) can lead people to becoming more informed on possible career paths they might choose. Note that this is very different from an authority or counselor telling someone or guiding them in a direction based on certain results.

- Positivity: There’s pleasure, engagement, and meaning in knowing what your strengths are, which can empower you to use them with greater frequency, intensity, or duration; and/or with greater balance, fluency, and savvy in your career endeavours.

- Productivity & Relationships: You become more engaged, productive, and happy when you use your strengths at work, so taking the VIA survey is important for helping to catalyze strengths awareness, appreciation, and use. Align your strengths with your current work tasks (e.g., use creativity on a work project), and brainstorm new ways you might be able to use them too. You could even consider talking to your manager (or direct reports) about how to optimize your (or their) best qualities on the job.

When Strengths Become Weaknesses at Work

The VIA survey is not recommended to be used in career matching, including matching specific careers to a particular character strengths profile, determining you’re not in the right career because of your profile, or determining you should not pursue a career path because of your profile.

There are many different kinds of jobs in any particular career. For example, an accountant might have a non-social, isolated bookkeeping job, or a creative and social job as a chief financial officer. It is not clear how to match jobs and careers with VIA survey results (yet). Career selection is complex and nuanced, and is a highly individual and personal decision.

Selecting employees based on the VIA survey is also discouraged. Hiring individuals because of their character strengths profile, firing an employee because of their character strengths profile, or promoting an employee based on their character strengths profile is not recommended. Why not? Because employees can fake the test by giving answers they think their employer wants to see. This invalidates the individual’s results. Also, the VIA survey was not designed for comparison with others, and so results should not be used to compare one applicant’s (or employee’s) character strengths with another’s.

References

Littman-Ovadia, H., Lazar-Butbul, V., Benjamin, B. A. (2014). Strengths-based career counseling: Overview and initial evaluation. Journal of Career Assessment.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.New York, NY: Oxford University Press. *

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