How important is finding a career that matches your strengths?

One of the most common ideas in career advice is that finding a good career is a matter of finding the role that uniquely matches who you are. You’ll be fantastic at the career that best matches you, and terrible at other careers, so the mission should be to find the career that’s the best match.

We haven’t found much support for this idea so far. The most in-depth attempt to study “match” is Holland-types, but several meta-analyses have found no or only a very weak relationship between Holland-type match and performance (or job satisfaction). On the other hand, we’ve encountered some important general predictors of success. For instance, hundreds of studies have found that the smarter you are, the more likely you are to succeed in almost every career. With a general predictor like intelligence, more is always better – it’s not that it means you’ll do well in some jobs but worse in others depending on your “match”.

However, a new line of research into “strengths” might shift the picture. There have been two attempts – the Virtues in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths test and Strengths Finder – to determine people’s character strengths, and study the importance of leading a career in line with them.

We did a review of the literature to see whether we should incorporate them into our advice, which we summarise below. We found that strengths don’t seem especially useful for choosing a career in the first place; however, once you’re in a career, you’ll probably be a bit happier if you find ways to regularly use your strengths.

Our recommendation: If you’re already in a job, then we’d recommend taking the VIA signature strengths test and finding more ways to use your strengths. Though because the evidence is still relatively weak, we wouldn’t make it a top priority.

To get started:

  1. Take the VIA Signature Strengths test.
  2. Make a note of what your top five signature strengths are.

Then consider these exercises:

  1. At the start of each day, think of one new way in which you’ll use one of your signature strengths that day.
  2. At the end of each day, note down which strengths you used that day.
  3. Try redesigning your role so that you use your strengths more. See ideas of 340 ways to use signature strengths.

Our research process

For Strengths Finder we read the StrengthsFinder 2.0 book; took the assessment; read a technical report by Gallup which summarises the evidence for the assessment and did a search for more studies relating to it on google scholar.

For the Virtues in Action Signature Strengths test we read the chapter on Strengths of Character and Work in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work, read two overviews of studies on signature strengths and followed up on the most relevant papers, and read two meta-analyses on positive psychology interventions.

Our findings

What is the Virtues in Action Signature Strengths test?

The Virtues in Action Signature Strengths test is an assessment designed to identify a person’s top ‘signature strengths’. These are character strengths that you feel authentic to you, that you frequently exercise and that you find energising. Here’s the list of all 24 character strengths:

Graphic2014

What is Strengths Finder 2.0?

Strengths Finder 2.0 is an assessment to identify people’s top strengths in the workplace. It was popularised in the book StrengthsFinder 2.0. It is an updated version of the original Clifton Strengths Finder assessment made by Gallup.

How do Strengths Finder 2.0 and the VIA signature strengths test differ?

  • Strengths Finder 2.0 is more focused on workplace relevant strengths than the VIA Survey is: “VIA strengths were initially chosen for study because they are widely recognized and valued, in contrast to the more workplace-specific strengths of interest to the Gallup Organization” (“Strengths of character and work.” Oxford handbook of positive psychology and work (2010))
  • Both are designed by psychologists (Clifton for Strengths Finder, Seligman and Peterson for the VIA Survey).
  • The list of strengths in Strengths Finder 2.0 (34 in total) is based on analysis by Gallup of ~100,000 semi-structured interviews of people in a wide range of occupations.1 The list of strengths in the VIA Survey (24 in total) is based on analysis that drew on a literature survey of virtues from different religious and philosophical traditions across many cultures.2
  • Both assessments are tested for reliability (results are stable over time) and validity (they measure what you want them to).
  • Strengths Finder 2.0 gives you personalised descriptions of your top 5 strengths (i.e. two people with the same strengths can get different text descriptions of their strengths depending on exactly how they answered questions on the assessment). The VIA Survey gives the same descriptions of strengths for everyone.
  • Both recommend using your top 5 strengths more. Both give recommendations of how to use your top strengths more.
  • Strengths Finder 2.0 costs ~$15 to take, the VIA Survey is free.
  • Using Strengths Finder 2.0 has been studied by Gallup and linked to increased employee engagement, productivity and profitability, as well as reduced turnover. The sample sizes are quite large, and there are a couple are experimental and quasi experimental studies with wait-list controls. However, most/all of these studies were sponsored by Gallup, so there’s likely to be bias there, and more importantly, it looks like none of the studies are published in peer reviewed journals.3 Because of this, we decided to focus the rest of our research on the VIA Signature Strengths test.
  • The VIA Signature Strengths test has been studied by independent academic psychologists, and there are Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) that show using signature strengths in new ways (or monitoring one’s use of strengths) increases general happiness.

What’s the evidence that the VIA Survey can be useful for (i) job satisfaction (ii) job performance?

In sum, there is some evidence that using signature strengths at work is useful for job satisfaction and performance, but it’s relatively weak.

There are RCTs that show using signature strengths in new ways (or monitoring one’s use of strengths) increases general happiness, but we didn’t find RCTs testing the effects on increasing job satisfaction or job performance:

We found 6 correlational studies which suggest that deliberately using signature strengths at work increases job and life satisfaction and job performance.4

However, a meta-analysis of RCTs of positive psychology interventions (which include signature strengths) concludes:

the quality of the studies was not high, and no study met all of our quality criteria.
there is a need for more high-quality studies, and more studies in diverse (clinical) populations and diverse intervention formats to know what works for whom.

How relevant are signature strengths for career selection?

From the evidence there so far, not very.

From Peterson, Christopher, et al. “Strengths of character and work.” Oxford handbook of positive psychology and work (2010) (emphases ours):

“It does not appear that individuals with different character strengths necessarily choose different occupations, or that different occupational constraints and opportunities strongly foster or discourage different character strengths

“However informative and interesting measures like the VIA-IS may be, they are not strong diagnostic tests, and their results should never be used in and of themselves as the basis for selection or placement. Rather, knowledge of a worker’s character strengths is probably more useful in helping a worker craft the job that he or she already has.”

“Although we find differences across occupations in the level of the strengths and their association with work satisfaction, these differences are small. In general, there are more similarities across occupational type than differences in the strengths that relate to satisfaction at work.”

They also found that there was a negative (but small) correlation between job satisfaction and having a signature strength that’s common among others in an occupation. They suggested that might be because you are less likely to stand out and contribute if your strengths are already common (emphases ours):

“If a worker in a given occupation scored higher on a less typical strength of character within that occupation, then he or she was more likely to be satisfied with work. Perhaps such an individual brings to bear strengths that are especially needed at work. Or perhaps such an individual feels distinct from his or her co-worker.”

“Further research is needed to verify and understand this intriguing but tentative pattern.”

There is possibly some weak evidence for jobs varying by how much they let you use different strengths in this paper, but we’re not sure if it actually just shows that some jobs are better in general (for everyone) for using strengths rather than better for some individuals.

Should you take and apply the VIA signature strengths test?

Yes – it’ll probably make you a bit happier. The evidence is still weak, but it’s an intuitive idea and doesn’t cost much, so seems worth doing, if not as a top priority. It’s especially worth doing if you’re already in a job, since signature strengths are not helpful for career selection.

Notes and references

  1. “So we mined our database, which at the time contained more than 100,000 talent-based interviews, and looked for patterns in the data. We examined specific questions that had been used in our studies of successful executives, salespeople, customer service representatives, teachers, doctors, lawyers, students, nurses, and several other professions and fields. Through this process, we were able to identify 34 themes of talent that were the most common in our database.” (Rath, Tom. StrengthsFinder 2.0. Simon and Schuster, 2007.)
  2. “To systematize character strengths, the VIA project relied on a literature review by Katherine Dahlsgaard, who read the texts of the world’s influential religious and philosophical traditions (e.g., the books of Exodus and Proverbs in the case of Judaism, the Analects in the case of Confucianism, and so on), exhaustively listed the virtues discussed in each, and then identified a core set of virtues acknowledged as important in all (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005)” Peterson, Christopher, et al. "Strengths of character and work." Oxford handbook of positive psychology and work (2010)
  3. Studies listed in The Clifton StrengthsFinder® 2.0 Technical Report: Development and Validation
  4. From VIA Character Strengths In The Workplace:
    1. “The use of strengths at work was connected with work performance, and this relationship is explained by vitality, concentration, and harmonious passion (Dubreuil, Forest, & Courcy, 2013)” (correlational)
    2. “Employees who used four or more of their signature strengths had more positive work experiences and work-as-a-calling than those who expressed less than four (Harzer & Ruch, 2012a).” (correlational)
    3. “ the congruent use of strengths in the situational circumstances at work is important for fostering job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning in one’s job (i.e., the alignment of one’s signature strengths with work activities is what matters; Harzer & Ruch, 2012b).” (correlational)
    4. “Among volunteer and paid workers, endorsing strengths is related to meaning, but both endorsing AND deploying strengths is connected to well-being (Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010).” (correlational)
    5. “Character strengths use was connected with personal well-being and job satisfaction (Littman-Ovadia & Davidovitch, 2010).” (correlational) (n=85)
    6. “In a three-year thematic analysis of drivers of employee engagement, focusing on character strengths was among the three most crucial drivers (along with managing emotions and aligning purpose; Crabb, 2011). Specifically, employees are encouraged to identify, use, and alert others of their signature strengths as well as converse with managers about strengths use opportunities in the organization” (Crabb, 2011) (correlational)

Author: Roman Duda

Roman did a fully-funded Masters in Philosophy at Oxford, during which he also consulted for a major energy company on their business strategy, whilst also studying Mandarin Chinese. With a strong interest in Quantified Self, he has worked at the start-ups Memrise and Self Spark.