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Roberts, L. M., G. Spreitzer, J. Dutton, R. Quinn, E. Heaphy and B. Barker. 2005. How to play to your strengths. Harvard Business Review (January): 74-80.

Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

How to Manage Yourself Main | Social Networks Bibliography

The purpose of this article is to describe a method of seeking and using feedback referred to as the Reflected Best Self (RBS) exercise. The authors recommend it as a tool that can help people understand and leverage their individual strengths and find a sense of their "personal best". The RBS exercise is based on an area of research called positive organizational scholarship. The feedback exercise was developed from studies indicating that people tend to remember criticism, but respond to praise. Criticism makes people defensive and less likely to change, while praise produces confidence and the desire to improve.1

The RBS exercise involves four steps, but there are some caveats to consider before proceeding. First, the tool is designed to help develop a plan for effective action, not as an ego building exercise. Second, to be effective the RBS method requires a commitment and follow-through. Finally, the method should be used at a different time of year than the traditional performance review to avoid interference from negative feedback.

Step 1: Identify Respondents and Ask for Feedback

Solicit positive feedback from family, friends, teachers, and colleagues. This can be done effectively using e-mail which produces results that can be copied and pasted into an analysis table. Ask these individuals to provide information about your strengths including specific examples of ways in which you used these strengths that were meaningful to them. You may be uncomfortable asking exclusively for positive feedback, but remember that the exercise will help you improve your performance.

Step 2: Recognize Patterns

Use the feedback from respondents to identify common themes or areas of strength. Add examples of your own and organize the information into an analysis table following the general format of the illustration below.

Common Theme Examples given Possible Interpretation
Ethics, and values    
Courage under pressure    
Curiosity and perseverance    
Ability to listen    
Analytical ability    
Team building skills    
Respect for diversity    

This analysis step can be very illuminating. It will help you develop a larger picture of your capabilities, and perhaps even to rethink your career path.

Step 3: Compose Your Self-Portrait

Write a description of yourself that summarizes what the analysis revealed, weaving the themes from the feedback and your own observations into a composite of your "personal best". It should be a prose composition beginning with "When I am at my best I..." This will take time and careful consideration but should provide an image of who you are now, and who you can become, i.e., your "possible self".

Step 4: Redesign Your Job

Redesign your job description to emphasize your strengths. This might involve changing the way you work, changing the way you spend your time, changing the composition of your team, or becoming more interactive with more people within the company. It could also help you aim for undreamed-of positions within your organization.

Beyond Good Enough

The Reflected Best Self exercise can help you identify and build on your strengths, and develop an understanding of your weaknesses. The overall result provides a strength-based orientation to go beyond the "good enough" state to discover who you are at your best and what you can become in the next phase of your career.


1 More on the positive organization can be found at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business Center for Positive Organizational scholarship. Some related books include the following:

Cameron, K. 2008. Positive Leadership. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cameron, K. and M. Lavine. 2006. Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance - The Rocky Flats Story. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cameron, K. S., J. E. Dutton and R. E. Quinn. 2003. Positive Organization Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Dutton, J. E. 2003. Energize Your Workplace: How to Build and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Ragins, B. R. 2006. Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Roberts, L. M. and J. E. Dutton. 2009. Exploring Positive identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Quinn, R. E. 2004. Building the Bridge as You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Quinn, R. W. and R. E. Quinn. 2009. Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Related summaries:

Drucker, P. F. 2005. Managing oneself. Harvard Business Review (January): 100-109. (Summary).

Kaplan, R. S. 2008. Managing yourself: Reaching your potential. Harvard Business Review (July-August): 45-49. (Summary).

Simon, C. C. 2011. R.O.I.: Is graduate school worth the investment? The New York Times Education Life (July 24): 18-19. (Summary).

Wademan, D. 2005. The best advice I ever got. Harvard Business Review (January): 35-44. (Summary).