Working with the Grain

“What use am I to her, to us, if I’m living against my own grain?” These words spoken by Carol, played by Cate Blanchett in the film of the same name, really struck a chord with me. Whilst Carol is the central character in film about lesbian romance set in the 1950’s, the same words could have given voice to the suppressed feelings of many people living a life according to others’ expectation, working in jobs that require them to work against their grain, frustrated by lack of fulfilment and not being able to reach their full potential.

Just as Carol realised, not being true to who you are impacts not just your own happiness and well being but your ability to serve others and form meaningful relationships. As, Abraham Maslow noticed so acutely, “ If the essential core of a person is denied or suppressed, he gets sick sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes immediately, sometimes later.”

So What?

From an organisational perspective the potential impact is not to be taken lightly. People excel more readily and consistently by working with their grain and maximising their natural talents (their recurring and enduring patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour) rather than trying to improve upon their weakness (Buckingham & Clifton, 2004). Yet, too often a management mind-set entrenched in deficit thinking leads organisations to focus on identifying and fixing areas of weakness, rather than discovering the unique contribution and potential strengths their employees are gifted to bring. Constantly being asked to perform in ways that do not optimise our talents, requires more effort and, if it is a daily requirement, leads to stress and frustration. Coupled with an accelerated pace of change and increased pressure to perform, it’s no wonder engagement and productivity is suffering.

So how do you know if you are working with the grain?

As any good wood carver knows, to bring out the true beauty of the wood, you have to understand the grain and how to work with it. Removing wood with the grain is easy, the tools effortlessly finds their path. The same is true of people. When situations enable us to work with our grain we feel at ease, learn quickly and our energy and performance are high. We feel good, and our state positively influences those around us. We are engaged and in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as a state of ‘flow’.

Studies conducted by Gallup indicate that people who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general (Rath, 2007). In short people are happier and report higher levels of wellbeing when working with their grain. Strong evidence from neuroscience backs up the benefits of a happier workforce reporting that when people feel positive:

  • it increases their cognitive resources (Arnsten, 1998),
  • they are more able to solve more problems with the insight phenomenon, which is required for complex problem solving (Subramaniam et.al, 2009)
  • they come up with more ideas for actions (Frederickson, 2001)
  • have a wider field of perceptual view (Schmitz, De Rosa & Anderson, 2009)
  • are 31% more productive, more resilient, suffer less burnout, gain better jobs and are better at keeping jobs (Lyubomusky 2005).

In contrast, when we are called to work against our grain, we feel resistance and frustration. Even if we are highly competent in the task, when we are relying on learned behaviour rather than our natural talents, ultimately the task depletes or weakens us, requiring more effort to stay motivated and engaged.

Now What?

Just as the growth rings of a tree fit perfectly together and run throughout the length of its trunk, so do our natural enduring patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour; our grain. The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment refers to these patterns as talent themes. Through a comprehensive study comprising two million interviews, Clifton and his team modelled the success patterns of their interviewees to identify 34 talent themes which hold the key to unlocking a person’s true nature and releasing their potential as strengths. The assessment ranks these themes in order and identifies your top 5 Signature Talent themes; those which, when productively applied, are most likely to render consistent near perfect performance, or strength. The beauty is that playing to our strengths also renders the greatest feelings of fulfilment and ease – we are in the groove.

Sometimes the grain can be a real challenge for the carver, but most of the time, providing he is respectful of the wood, the grain provides a built-in way to enhance a carving.  Craftsmen appreciate that each piece of wood has its own characteristics and peculiarities and work to bring out the grain pattern to show the wood to advantage. That takes patience. Similarly a skilful coach or manager works with the employee to help them understand how to honour and embrace their grain. They can help identify the source of any resistance and frustration which might be rendering them stuck and find productive ways to apply their talents so that their true brilliance shines through.

If you manage a team of people or an organisation, taking the time to identify, appreciate and develop the natural talents of your people can help you to understand how to liberate their potential and elevate their levels of engagement and productivity.

Just as Carol realised a person’s ability to contribute their best for the benefit of themselves and others comes from working with their grain, not against it.

So take the first step.

Take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment and find out where your true talent lies. Then hire a coach to find out how to leverage that talent and let your own light shine so you can liberate others to do the same.