The Enduring Impact of Focusing on StrengthsYears ago a 7th grade teacher gave her class an up close and personal exercise in finding and building on strengths. She began by circulating sheets of paper that had only the name of each student at the top of each blank page. Students were asked to identify what they felt was the greatest strength of that student or build on a strength that someone else had already noted.

Once each paper was circulated around the entire classroom and every student added their feedback the completed sheet with their name on it was given to each student. Students studied their feedback and then summarized what they’d been told in a brief verbal report to the rest of the class. The increase in positivity, energy levels, engagement, cooperation, and grades was immediate and lasting.

Ten years later one of the students in that class was killed in military action during his time in the marines. The young marine’s body was flown home to his family for burial. During the funeral one of the pall bearers recognized his 7th grade teacher and talked with her about the enduring impact of her strength building exercise. The young marine’s parents overheard the conversation and joined in. “Thank you so much for the big difference you made to Ryan’s school life,” the deceased young marine’s mother said to the teacher as she wiped a tear from her eye. “He was the smallest kid in grade seven and was getting bullied by bigger kids. His self-esteem was slipping and he was becoming more withdrawn. That exercise changed his perspective and was a big part of turning him around. He carried that sheet of paper everywhere. It was tattered, torn, and falling apart in the wallet they just returned to us with his things earlier this week.”

  • What if the teacher had asked the kids to write down weaknesses and improvement suggestions?
  • Why do most performance reviews focus on fixing weaknesses rather than leveraging strengths?
  • What’s the lingering effect on motivation to improve and performance?