How to identify your strengths. Part 2: Questionnaires

Previously, I’ve explained why it’s best to stick to your strengths, and explained how to identify your strengths through self-reflection.  In order to use self-reflection, you’d have to be aware of your body and mind, watch how they naturally respond to situations, and take some extra time to sit and reflect in the ways I outlined.  This is all well and good, and many people relish that type of self-analysis.  Others, including my own good self, don’t find that quite so appealing.  Personally, I’d prefer to just fill out a questionnaire and get the results.  If you’re like me then read on, and I’ll tell you where to go next. First of all – in case you’re unsure which way to go – here are the pros and cons of each:

For Self-Reflection/Against Questionnaires

Questionnaires are fixed and rigid – Although there are many thousands of possible outcomes from a questionnaire, it is still blocked into a framework, and cannot tell you about anything outside of the framework.  Self-reflection is more flexible.

Questionnaires are focused on psychological and social strengths only – So you won’t discover any physical abilities like reaction time or balance except through reflection.  

Self-Reflection is more personalised and focused on you – Its outcome is based on your real-life behaviour.  Questionnaires, on the other hand, give you a best-guess based on your answers to questions – this has potential for error.

Increased self-knowledgeYou’ll surely learn more about yourself from doing this.

For Questionnaires/Against Self-Reflection

You may not have the wordsIf you don’t have a good vocabulary to identify strengths with, you might miss some, or not realise that a certain consistent behaviour can be applied productively.  Once you’ve very familiar with the strengths vocabulary, you might even try your hand at Talent SpeedReading, which could be useful if you’re in a managerial position.

Personal tasteSome people find self-reflection difficult or boring.

Backed by researchYes, responses are fixed into a framework, but there are good reasons that this framework exists.  These models are not arbitrary: research has been done to test their effectiveness.  

Saves time and effort – 45 minutes to 1 hr, versus 1 or 2 weeks.

Of course, you can always do both, and see how the results compare.  There are two dominant models in the field of personal strengths.  These are Values In Action, coming from positive psychology researchers, and StrengthsFinder, based on research by Gallup.  (Note: There is a third model, Realise2, coming out of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology on June 2nd 2009.  As I know very little about it, I’ll leave it alone for now.)

Values In Action  

Legend has it, a group of intrepid researchers went into the mountains one winter, taking with them food and every major scientific, philosophical and religious text ever written, from the north, east, south and west.  For a long time, there was no word.  Some feared the worst.  Then, the next spring, the researchers returned.  Exhausted and emaciated, they came down the mountain, carrying over their heads a glowing, 800 page tome entitled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV), which contained extensive information and background on 24 character strengths.

I may have exaggerated this story slightly.

In any case, these 24 strengths are grouped into six virtues.  To come up with this list of 24 strengths, the historical texts were examined, and commonalities were identified.  The researchers looked at what the great thinkers of our species agreed on, and tested these common ideas against a set of criteria of their own. 

The end product is a model where the exercise and development of strengths leads to the achievement of virtue.  So it’s mainly concerned with developing good character.  

The Values In Action model has an accompanying test, used to diagnose peoples’ “signature strengths”.  The test is called, inventively enough, the Values In Action Inventory of Strengths.  It is well supported by research, and a lot of effort has been put into making sure this is a valid and reliable reflection of human strengths. 

For example, when the test is given to people in the military versus civilians, soldiers come out higher in strengths like teamwork, honesty and bravery (1).  Another example: executives tend to display less kindness and love, but higher leadership and self-control than their employees (2).  These findings and others like them are sensible; they show that the test is accurate.

The VIA Inventory of Strengths can be taken at Authentic Happiness.  It’s free but requires registration (you also get access to a whole host of other tests) and it takes around 45 minutes to complete.  If you only take one test, take this one.  I recommend it because I’ve read much of the research using this model, so I know it’s been well validated and tested. 

Also, studies have shown that when people use their signature strengths, as identified by this questionnaire, they get happier, and continue to get happier the more they use them (up to the 6 month point where the study ended, that is). (3) 


This is a more well-known approach to strengths, due to the popularity of the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths”.  Rather than focusing on good character and virtue, the authors have focused on the workplace, and job performance.  The model is based on a survey of 2 million people in just about all known professions.  Each participant was interviewed, then the data was analysed and compiled into what is known as StrengthsFinder.  

If you’re interested in strengths to help you find or progress in your career, this is probably the model for you – it’s specifically designed for that purpose.  To develop strengths, you first must identify your talents.  Talents are defined as “any recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied”. 

After discovering your talents, you practice them, learn complimentary skills and knowledge, and eventually the talent becomes a strength, which itself is defined as “consistent, near perfect performance in an activity.”    

Like the VIA Inventory of Strengths, the test takes around 45 minutes to complete, and gives you an output of your top five strengths.  Unlike the VIA, the StrengthsFinder model includes a total of 34 strengths, rather than 24, and unfortunately it isn’t free.  

To take the StrengthsFinder test you have to first purchase one of their books, StrengthsFinder 2.0 will give you access to the newer test, or an older publication like Now, Discover Your Strengths will get you into the older test (convenient links below).  These books are pretty cheap in paperback and worth getting if you’re interested in strengths.  Once you have an access code, head over to the StrengthsFinder website and log in!



Recommended Reading:


(1) Matthews, M. D, Eid, J, Kelly, D, Bailey, J. K. S, Peterson, C. (2006) Character Strengths and Virtues of Developing Military Leaders: An International Comparison. MILITARY PSYCHOLOGY. 18(Suppl.), 57–68.

(2) Character Strengths of Executives and Employees 

(3) Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

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