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April 2012
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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Courage in Women and Entrepreneurs (Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, Part 2)

Posted by: Alex Linley


To mark the UK release of his latest fascinating book, The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, I caught up again with the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology”, long time friend and Capp collaborator, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener. In this second interview, we focused our attention on how courage manifests, and what might be different about it, in both women and entrepreneurs. See below for what Robert has to say about the findings from his research for The Courage Quotient:


AL: In your research on courage, did you find differences in the courage expressed by men and women?


RBD: I think that most people tend to believe that courage – at least stereotypically- is largely the domain of men. Fables, myths and modern movies all favour a fairly macho action-hero style of bravery. But movies such as Erin Brokovich, about a determined whistleblower, suggests that there is a place at the table for women as well. While researching The Courage Quotient I found a number of studies that suggest that women perform bravery as well as – and sometimes better than - their male counterparts. For instance, women are more likely to donate organs and are more likely to serve in risky overseas volunteer positions. It may be that men are placed more frequently in positions that require physical bravery – indeed, men overwhelmingly outnumber women in the military, police forces and in fire departments - but women do well with moral and social forms of bravery. [AL notes: We know from our work with the Fire Service that part of this difference is a result of different physical requirements in the role, which can be difficult, but not impossible, to surmount.]


AL: Why do you think this is? What impact does this have on male and female stereotypes in society do you think?


RBD: Men, because of their larger average size and access to testosterone, have long been at the centre of action especially when that action has been physical. In addition, wars and other physical feats tend to make for good narratives, so stories ranging from epic poems to modern movies tend to lionize the stereotypical form of male bravery. We tend to overlook that women have long been brave, but that women’s bravery has historically been outside of the battlefield. Women have spoken up as courageous advocates and often been the defenders of values. You see modern examples ranging from Benazir Bhutto to Mother Theresa to Maria Montessori. But it is more common that we overlook female forms of bravery because either 1) we do not agree with the values they espouse, or 2) their actions are often less “flashy” than those on the battlefield; taking the form of discussion, passing laws, and pioneering new fields.


AL: What about courage in organisations? Do you think that women need to use courage differently to men in order to succeed in organisational leadership?


RBD: I think that women – especially those in leadership – need to start thinking about themselves as courageous. I am not sure that it matters that their courage is similar to or different from male courage. What I really think matters is that female leaders truly accept the mantle of bravery. In many ways, women have an additional burden in the workplace. It is no secret that women shoulder a disproportionate amount of household and childcare responsibilities, that women are more likely to take time off following childbirth and that women in leadership work against the grain of a traditionally male-centric position. This means, in many ways, that women have to be able to advocate for themselves, speak boldly, and take risks. They will be scrutinized differently and are more prone to have life outside of work interfere with work. At every turn, I see potential for women leaders to bring bravery to the table.


AL: How about courage and entrepreneurship? Did you find that entrepreneurs demonstrate a particular type of courage?


RBD: I am particularly fascinated by entrepreneurship.  I have a hunch that those who have an entrepreneurial spirit are actually genetically wired a bit different and are more prone to be extroverted and risk taking. To make the leap into starting up a business, I believe that people also have to be possessed of a certain degree of optimism and self-confidence. It is an interesting case where multiple strengths might converge to create a new meta-strength (let’s just label it “entrepreneurialism”). I think we can learn much from small business owners and those who jump from start-up to start-up. They likely have a very high tolerance for uncertainty and a very high level of confidence that they can handle new situations and even small mistakes and failures. I think the entrepreneurial mindset is a terrific test case for courage.


AL: Based on your findings, do you think anyone can develop the courage to be an entrepreneur?


RBD: I would like to be able to say “yes, anyone can develop courage.” Even the sub-title of my book is “How science can make you braver.” I do believe that - that people have the ability to overcome personal limitations and learn skills around emotion management and other techniques that can make one braver. I might stop short at claiming we can turn someone into an entrepreneur though. Entrepreneurs happen to have a values-based mission that makes taking a risk seem worthwhile. They tend to have an optimistic disposition such that they believe that their idea will become a success. Finally, they have a huge tolerance for uncertainty and can thrive in an anxious state that causes other people to freeze up. Rather than trying to radically transform someone into an entrepreneur I would recommend the strengths strategy that I have often heard from Capp: collaboration and complementary strengths partnerships. If a person is weak in one area, I believe they can counteract this weakness by collaborating with someone for whom it is a natural strength. That is, generally speaking, a good message about courage. Courage need not be an individual phenomenon. We tend to be a little braver and a little less inhibited when we are in groups and when we get support.


AL: Finally, a big question for us to conclude with, what would you like to see people achieve with courage in the 21st century?


RBD: I love this question! I think of courage as being the shortest route to the good life. I think a full and engaged life includes risks and even occasional small failures. In the coming years we will collectively be faced with a number of challenges related to the environment, the structure of capitalism, and ethnic, religious and political conflicts. I believe that it is courage that allows individuals, groups and communities to stand up and demand change, to work for reform, and to make the big changes. I think the courageous leaders of successful movements, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., are terrific examples of how we have to be willing to take personal risks to make worthwhile change.


Thank you, Robert. As regular readers of The Capp Blog will be aware, Robert has been a diligent responder to your comments and questions. Please let us know any more by using the Comment box below!

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Introducing The Strengths Project and Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative, Kolkata

Posted by: Alex Linley / Avirupa Bhaduri


As some of our readers may be aware, for the last 3 years we have been supporting a Women’s Sewing Co-operative in the Shiriti slum in Kolkata, India. Our focus here was to use our knowledge of strengths and positive psychology and apply this with a less-advantaged community, something which our consultant Avirupa Bhaduri has done to great effect. In this first blog post, Avirupa introduces the background to the Shiriti Women’s Sewing Co-operative. In future posts, we will update you on the work of this group and what we are learning about the applications of strengths with disadvantaged communities in India.


Avirupa takes up the story…


Kolkata or Calcutta, the city of joy, is synonymous with culture, charity work, art house films, passionate theatre scene and predictably, poverty. Post globalization the image has not improved significantly even after the introduction of posh shopping malls, flyovers and upscale cars to the city’s menu. Slums continue to thrive inseparably with the condominiums, in fact often at their very fringes. By definition of The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, slums are characterized by non concrete roofing, absence of running water in houses, deficiency of toilet facility, and open drainage system. But contrary to popular perception, a slum neighborhood is a rather integrated social unit which functions within its unique structure.  


Since India’s first census in 1872, Kolkata has generally been India’s largest city( in terms of most populous metropolitan area), although in 1991 it lost that status to Mumbai.It is the chief commercial, financial, and manufacturing center of eastern India.To give a bit of perspective here, let me share some important data. According to the latest census report of 2011, out of the total population of Kolkata’s metropolitan area (4,580,544 people), more than 32.57 percent live in slums.

Shiriti is one such registered slum under KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) at Kalabagan in the south of Kolkata. Inhabited by almost 300 families, each comprising of 5 members on an average, it is really among one of the major slums in South Kolkata. Geographically and sociologically, Shiriti is well connected to the main city, maybe for this reason, we find its residents involved into a wide range of activities from factory worker to rickshaw puller; from golf course attendant to daily labour…the list goes on. Clustered into different groups of houses and forming a block, the slum has its own chowk (local square) and many sub spaces within it where people participate in different community events.

In our mission to take the benefits of positive psychology and the strengths approach out to communities who would not otherwise have access to these resources, we identified the Shiriti Kalabagan slum as our primary focus. Our choice was made on the basis that it was more of a permanent status, more organised, than other slum communities we had visited, and so had some of the community infrastructure that was necessary for our work.

Our first work was focused on exploring the strengths that existed within this slum community. We did so through a survey using an approach adapted from the Individual Strengths Assessments which were developed by CAPP as a means of identifying, exploring and developing strengths in individual people. We had to modify the standard questionnaire though, to make it culturally and intellectually more appropriate. For example people had a difficult time to understand abstract concepts. Thus it seemed a good idea to use“autotelic” variables with questions like:


1. When do you have the opportunity to do what you do best?

2. Do you have someone who supports and encourages you?

3. When you think back to yesterday, did you have the opportunity to learn something new yesterday? What was it?  


So instead of following a strict interview pattern we went for a more relaxed “adda” format. An adda is essentially sharing stories.  We asked a series of 20 questions about the strengths that people had, how they used them, and their visions for the future.


Initially people were hesitant to talk about what is going right in their lives, but as we progressed responses started to pour in. One of the key observations was that, instead of individual strength the slum dwellers were more forthcoming about community strength. So we then added two more questions which for the first time addressed the concept of community strength.


1. When you think of Shiritri, and compare it to what you know of other bustees [slums], what do you think makes it different?


2. What do you think Shiritri has going for it that makes it as successful as it is (or, more successful than other bustees)?


The results from the survey were a learning experience for us, as a team.


The survey highlighted the women group of the slum. They emerged as very positive, full of initiative and enterprise but lacking resource to channel that by playing to their core strengths.  We then conducted a meeting with them, in that meeting two clear facts surfaced. First was the fact that they want extra income and secondly, most of them were keen to learn sewing as they felt there’s a demand for sewing jobs which they can do in their free time sitting in the comfort of their home.

We then decided to start by forming a sewing group. Four sewing machines were donated from Robert Biswas-Diener and a women’s sewing group (in Portland, Oregon).


The women were asked to sign up for an 8-10 months course of sewing. Within the next couple of weeks there was a huge response. A total of 60 women from all age groups signed up. Then the hunt for a teacher began. We found the perfect teacher in Sutapa Paul. Coming from a lower income group family herself, she understood the group very well.



On the inaugural day the women gave a hearty welcome to the machines. A puja was conducted; the machines were decorated with garlands. The tiny room of the local club was filled with laughter and shouts of joy. The enthusiasm was infectious. The class started on 14th March in that small room. The local boys happily agreed to let the women use their room during noon, when it usually remained unused. After a month, some left the group, unable to grasp even basic mathematics which is essential to the course. But most women stuck on. However some of the women, who left, kept in touch and insisted that they wanted to be a part of the group in other ways. Some expressed desire to buy material and fabrics at the best rate; some said they were good at keeping the books. Others claimed that they have contacts with local tailors and will try and get orders for the group. So all of us decided to form a co-operative which will be run by the group, where everyone will do what they liked best.

After about a year we retained a core group of eight women. We conducted random strengthspotting sessions in between the class. At first they were shy to talk about their own strength. The dual combination of humility and lack of self-esteem made them reticent. Then I decided to turn the tables, and let them speak about each other’s strength…and voila!! The response came readily.



Over time, now we have profiled our strongest members, including:


Sharmila who is a perfectionist, high on work ethic, she takes charge not only of the job allotted to her but also takes initiative to complete the unfinished work of the less skillful members of the group.


Mousumi, on the other hand is the book keeper, she is a natural at detail.


Arpita empathizes easily about others, and often brings tea for the group.


Tushi, a multi tasker is very accommodating and has an eye for all things pretty. She often makes useful suggestions about colour combination and patterns etc.


The group was given the first professional order by CAPP for 10 bags and 10 wall hangings. For them this meant a lot. They put together their collective strength and in only 10 days the order was successfully completed and delivered. The articles were highly appreciated by the team of CAPP and when  Dr. Alex Linley came to visit them in November 2010, the pride that they take in their job was apparent.


Alex asked Sharmila “What difference has this initiative made in your life?” Her answer was “We have become self reliant!” The confidence on her face showed clearly the new found strength within her, and I thought Phase I of our mission has been achieved.  In a self sustainable mode, this project surely shows signs of flourishing.

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The Courage Quotient with Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener (Part 1)

Posted by: Alex Linley


I am delighted to announce that Capp friend and collaborator Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener has written a stunning new book, The Courage Quotient, which is released TODAY on and on April 25 on (although the eBook is available now).


I caught up with Robert to find out more about why he has written The Courage Quotient, and what he would like us all to take from it. Here’s what he had to say…


AL:  So, Robert, you have just written a new book on courage, why?


RBD: It is amazing to me how much attention has been devoted to the topic of happiness by scientists, myself included. The shelves of major book retailers are littered with titles on happiness. By contrast, there are no titles on the science of courage and I think this is a conspicuous oversight. I would argue that bravery is an important phenomenon, a vital part of living a full and engaged life, a topic directly relevant to management and business, and a concern that touches literally everyone. As such, I felt an irresistible impulse to contribute to this fascinating topic. Specifically, I hope that readers will come away with new information, practical tools, and perhaps a bit of enjoyment after spending time with this book.


AL: What are the key messages you want to get across to people in the book?


RBD: If I had to boil the book down to only a few main take-home messages they would be these:


First, courage is an everyday occurrence. Many people immediately jump to acts of physical bravery when they think about courage but this is a mistake. Every individual has a personal history of bravery. If you have ever accepted a new job, relocated to a new city, or gotten married, then you have taken a chance and faced some personal fear.


Second, courage can be learned. We tend to think of courage as a trait – and to some extent it is a predisposition toward risk-taking – but courage is also about managing fear and this is a learn-able skill. This is a non-trivial point because it suggests that people can get more of this highly desirable skill. I would even argue that by learning a few techniques for increasing your courage quotient you can have a better life!


AL: What exactly is courage, and why do you think it’s important?


RBD: People have all sorts of definitions of what courage is. I particularly like the way some psychologists think about this topic. Courage, by one attractive definition, is any action that a person engages in when three conditions are present:

  1. There is a perceived threat to you
  2. The outcome of an action is uncertain
  3. You feel fear


Many psychologists view courage as the choice to take action despite the presence of these three conditions. Specifically, courage can take place in any realm of life, ranging from entrepreneurship, to relationships, to investing, to physical heroism.


AL: The title of your book is The Courage Quotient; is a “courage quotient” somehow different from courage?


RBD: Courage is made up of two separable processes: managing fear and the willingness to act. At first glance, these two processes seem to be directly linked, like a see-saw, where when one goes up the other necessarily goes down, and vice versa.


On closer inspection, however, you can see that these two processes are independent of one another. A person could still be willing to act despite experiencing a huge amount of fear, which is to say that the willingness to act must be greater than the experience of fear, for courage to take place. A person’s courage quotient, then, is simply a ratio between these two processes. If they are equal, or if fear is greater, then a person will not act courageously.


AL: What did you find out in doing your interviews with people?


RBD: In researching this book I had the terrific opportunity to interview 50 highly courageous people who came from all walks of life. These included a polar explorer, a cage fighter, a witness to a crime who chose to testify in court, an executive and many others. Among the first, and most interesting, insights I gained through these interviews was that people are largely unaware of their own bravery.


At first I attributed this to simple norms for humility. But it turned out to be more than people simply downplaying their own achievements; they literally seemed oblivious that they were acting in extraordinary ways. Time and again I heard the refrain “I just did what anyone would have.” I call this phenomenon – the tendency to perceive extraordinary personal action as being ordinary – “courage blindness.” When I work with clients on developing a more courageous living style, I often start here with them taking more ownership and gaining more insight into their own past bravery.


AL: What tips could you give to readers of The Capp Blog on how they could develop their own courage?


RBD: I would offer two simple places to start. First, a common problem that holds people back is the fear of the unknown. Uncertainty is a bit anxiety-provoking for most people. I recommend that people try to fill in gaps in their knowledge by making the unknown known. For people who are afraid of public speaking, for example, I recommend that they explore the venue, stand on stage, sit in the audience, and imagine the applause at the end of the talk, rather than the nerve-wracking time on stage. To the extent a person such as this can picture a successful image in detail, the greater their ability to act bravely.


Second, I encourage people to embrace mistakes. Not to tolerate mistakes, mind you, but to embrace them. People who understand mistakes – especially small-stakes mistakes – as unavoidable, and even as an important part of learning and growth, are more likely to take appropriate risks.



Robert will join us again in two weeks’ time for the second part of our interview on courage, this time focusing on courage in women and in entrepreneurship. Watch this space!


In the meantime, if you have a question you’d like to put to Robert about courage, please let us know in the Comment box below, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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On Learning From Our Heroes

Posted by: Alex Linley


I was inspired to write this blog on the basis of a number of the comments that I received on my last blog, “On Learning to Learn: Four Positive Psychology Principles”. There was a lot of interest in how we can learn from our heroes, and so I share more insight and practical tips on that topic here.


My own hero for learning about this topic is Michael Cohn, who wrote the chapter for my earlier book Positive Psychology in Practice from which all of my learning about learning from our heroes then developed. Cohn’s simple premise was that we knew a lot about positive downward social comparisons – how we feel better by comparing ourselves to people who are worse off than we are, but a lot less about positive upward social comparisons – how we can learn from the people we admire.


For us to learn from our heroes successfully, two basic conditions need to be met.


First, we need to believe that we are capable of change and growth ourselves, what Carol Dweck refers to as a malleable self-image (as distinct from a fixed self-image).


Second, we need to pay attention to the specific qualities of the individual that we want to emulate, rather than trying to be like that person as a whole.


If we believe that we are capable of change and development, and we learn to pay attention to the right things about our heroes, then we significantly increase our chances of being able to learn from them – or indeed from anyone who has positive characteristics that we admire and want to emulate.


The real insight here is about knowing what the “right things” are to which we should pay attention. In essence, these “right things” are:


  1. The things that actually make a difference to the person’s success that we are trying to emulate
  2. The things that it is within our control to do something about
  3. The things that are authentic for us to focus on developing for ourselves
  4. And ideally, the things that enable us to play from and build on our strengths as we work towards success.


In my last post, I mentioned how I have learned from Malcolm Gladwell in this regard, so let me illustrate each of these four points with this example.


First, without doubt one of the things that has made a difference to Malcolm Gladwell’s success is his ability to write well. But, not just that, it is specifically his ability to create meaningful and memorable characters with whom we, as the reader, can engage. Hence, it was particularly this on which I focused in trying to learn from him in developing my own character writing for the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book.


Second, being able to develop my capability as a character writer was something that was within my control, and that I could do something about (through deeply understanding Gladwell’s style by studying precisely how he did it, and trying to emulate that myself). Note that this wasn’t about growing my Afro (like Malcolm) or becoming a staff writer at the New York Times. Instead, my focus was on something that was very much within my ability to develop and do something about in the near term.


Third, developing my character writing felt like an authentic and natural development for me. I had written a lot of academic output, but never anything that was character-based. So, this was a new departure, but one building on an existing skill set, which felt like a natural extension of what I had done before.


Fourth, this activity certainly played to my strengths. I was looking to develop my Scribe strength, focusing on how improving my character writing would help me with what I wanted to achieve going forward. Given that I was focusing on building from a strength, it was a natural and engaging development activity to undertake.


Did it work? I’ll leave you to read the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book and be the judge of that yourself! Nonetheless, I am certainly pleased with what I was able to learn by applying the lessons of positive upward social comparisons.


I hope you are too – and thanks again, Michael (Cohn), for everything we have learned from you, about learning from our heroes.



Cohn, M. A. (2004). Rescuing our heroes: Positive perspectives on upward comparisons in relationships, education and work. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 218-237). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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