Your Strengths are a Resource

Use What You Have…Even Potatoes

My friend’s father served on the USS O’Bannon (DD-450) in the early 1950s. If you’re not a student of naval history, that statement will mean very little to you, but what I learned about the O’Bannon grabbed my attention. The namesake of Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the hero of the Barbary Coast (from where we get the line in the Marine hymn  “…to the shores of Tripoli”), the USS O’Bannon was the Navy’s most decorated destroyer in World War II, earning 17 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.

If fighting in monumental battles like the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf isn’t  enough, the crew of the O’Bannon came out on top in a fight that became the source of legend. As the story goes, it was a dark South Pacific night when a Japanese submarine surfaced near the O’Bannon. Upon spotting the enemy, O’Bannon’s crew jumped into action with a plan to ram their foe. At the last minute, however, the Captain turned the destroyer abruptly to avoid causing an explosion that could have crippled his ship. After the sudden maneuver, the O’Bannon found itself alongside the enemy sub and too close to use its guns.

As legend has it, the quick-thinking crew flew into action with the weapons they could put their hands on. Spurred on by the ship’s cook, the crew began pelting the enemy sub and its topside crew with potatoes. The confused Japanese sailors believed the projectiles to be handgrenades, so they tried to make a hasty escape. With distance now between them, the O’Bannon began firing and ultimately sunk the sub. After the media latched on and embellished the story, the incident became known as the Maine Potato Episode and was later commemorated by a plaque donated by the Maine Association of Potato Growers.  

While some of the facts surrounding these events are in dispute (as is often the case with legends), there are some lessons here for those of us who toil from our kitchen tables in a post-Covid world, now trying to figure out how to do more with less. Like the crew of the O’Bannon, we have to come up with creative ways to attack pressing problems and make the best use of the resources we have. 

When working with people, we should consider our strengths to be our most important resource. Strengths are the behaviors we use to get things done and we all have plenty of them. The SDI 2.0, the assessment used in Core Strengths training, presents a portrait of your strengths. The portrait is actually configured a bit like a toolbox with the strengths on top representing the tools you’re most likely to use at work and the strengths on the bottom being the ones you’re less likely to use. 

Most people usually find a bit of good and bad news when they initially consider their relational strengths. First, the bad news: most of us aren’t using all of the strengths (tools) available. Instead, we tend to use a few familiar tools in every situation. For example, one of my top strengths is competitive. I like to win. But that would be a really poor choice if I’m trying to recruit a colleague to work on a demanding, time-sensitive project–especially if she is already feeling overwhelmed with work responsibilities, homeschooling, and caring for a sick spouse. Better strength choices in this situation might be caring, supportive, and helpful. 

Now, here’s the good news: we have access to all 28 relational strengths. That means we can choose the right tool for the job instead of becoming overly reliant on a few familiar strengths. This insight would be helpful if you are typically very careful and orderly in the way you approach your work, but now, your manager is asking you to quickly design and get buy-in on new work flows to accommodate a fast-changing situation. In this case, the best tools might be option-oriented, open-to-change, quick-to-act, and persuasive. 

The way to access all of the strengths you’ll need is to give yourself the right reasons. Your reasons are tied to your motives or those internal drives that serve as your personal why. The SDI 2.0 also helps you understand your motives and how they influence the way you use your strengths. When you understand how motives are connected to strengths, you feel empowered to try new approaches with people who may have different motives. People and relationships start to make sense.

The resourceful crew of the O’Bannon used a variety of strengths to succeed. When firing their guns wouldn’t work, they hurled potatoes at the enemy. As with any good team, these sailors recognized the need to make adjustments based on the situation they were in. It’s the same for us, we need to adjust our approach to be more effective. Fortunately, we have plenty of options, although I don’t recommend throwing potatoes at your co-workers.

Black Lives Matter

10,000 Lives Initiative

In a perfect world, that statement would be a reasonable and simple truth, and everyone would be treated with dignity and respect. Sadly, that’s not a reality for far too many. Enough is enough. 

In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. – Thurgood Marshall

Diversity, inclusion, and belonging make the world a more beautiful place – and that’s a world we want to help build. We’ve spent almost 50 years studying the science of relationships and how to improve them. We’ve seen our RQ solutions implemented with great success at Fortune 100s, universities, government agencies, non-profits, and beyond. Now we want to give our award-winning training and assessments to those who need it most in times like these. 

We’ve withheld our statement until now because honestly, a statement was not enough. Here’s how we are going to take action. We will invest in young, black leaders in HBCUs and high schools who will help create a better world than the one they’ve been given. A world where they matter. A world where they’re valued and given a fair opportunity. We at Core Strengths are working to certify 500 teachers, mentors, and administrators to become Core Strengths Facilitators, who will then train 10,000 more in their respective communities. All on us. 

We recognize that systemic change is needed. To this end, we will also offer free training to law enforcement agencies and others on the front lines where racial and social justice issues are best addressed.

Lastly, we will continue to partner with our corporate clients to help shape inclusion and diversity initiatives that foster productive action. We will do that in our own organization as well.

There’s a long road ahead of us, but together we are stronger.

Recognition in Relationships

Hero. It’s the most fitting description for first responders, members of the military, and now, healthcare providers who have sacrificed so much to care for so a well-timed and well-crafted statement of appreciation is one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve a relationship. In our relationships, being recognized (for the things we want to be recognized for) gives us a sense of connection with other people. It helps us feel understood and valued.

But have you ever been a recipient of a “compliment” that missed the mark? Or perhaps you’ve been surprised when your well-intended expression of gratitude back-fired? The problem is that we can get caught up saying things how we want to hear them, instead of really thinking about how other people want to hear them.

If you factor in people’s underlying motives – their Motivational Value System (MVS) – when you craft compliments or statements of recognition, your statements are more likely to have the intended positive effect. People’s motives drive their behavior and influence their decisions about the outcomes that are most valuable to them. If you know someone has a Blue MVS and wants to help, you also know that seeing another person’s needs met is evidence of being helpful. So how do you say ‘thank you’? Clearly, we need to describe the help that was received and the positive effect it had on the person who was helped. This is more than a simple thank-you because it connects to the Blue motive by showing how the motive to help was fulfilled and how it affected other people.

Here are some general ideas about recognition for each of the seven MVS types described by the SDI 2.0:


They like to feel that they are needed and appreciated. They need to know that the help they provided was genuinely useful to another person and made a positive difference in their life.


They like to be recognized for their ability to see what needs to be done, and to actually get those things done. They need to know that their accomplishments were part of something bigger and contributed to a higher-level goal.


They like to be respected for their expertise, reliability, and judgment. They need to know that any structure, process, or system they created is efficient and effective – or that it clarifies things or saves time for others.


They like to be known for their compassion and their ability to improve people’s lives through action, advice, or mentoring relationships. They need to know that other people have been able to develop and improve.


They like to be valued for their strategic skills and their ability to turn complex problems into actionable insight. They need to know that results were accomplished according to a well thought out plan.


They like to be appreciated for their self-reliance and for maintaining environments in which others are able to grow and act independently. They need to know that other people have developed the skills to help themselves.


They like to be known for their flexibility and being able to respond appropriately to whatever the situation calls for. They need to know that their collaboration promoted openness to ideas that produced a better result for everyone involved.

The key to crafting recognition statements that feel truly rewarding is to consider your audience. What motivated them to do the thing that you appreciate? Be specific, and try to speak in a way that shows you understand their core motives.

So go ahead. Make someone’s day!

Even Heroes Need Relational Skills

Now, More than Ever, Teachers Need Relationship Intelligence

Hero. It’s the most fitting description for first responders, members of the military, and now, healthcare providers who have sacrificed so much to care for so many during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many – especially parents with school-aged children – would also apply this exalted designation to teachers because they have learned first hand what a tough job they have. My guess is that when kids go back to school, whenever that is, there will be a newfound appreciation for those brave souls who skillfully engage our kids each day. There might even be a few standing ovations during back-to-school nights this fall.

After speaking to several teachers in the last few weeks, I’ve come to realize that relationships matter in education perhaps more than any other profession. Think about it. Teachers don’t make a tangible product; they provide a critically important service. And just like any service-based business, relationships – the way people interact – determine success or failure. 

Consider all of the relationships teachers need to manage: peers, principals, parents, district-level personnel, community stakeholders, and most importantly, their students. James Ford, North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year in 2015, made this observation in an article for Education Week:

The relational part of teaching may very well be its most underrated aspect…Our first job as teachers is to make sure that we learn our students, that we connect with them on a real level, showing respect and affirming their worthiness to receive the best education possible.

It’s not just one man’s opinion either. A meta-analysis of 99 studies found that the quality of student-teacher relationships was correlated with engagement in learning activities, behavior in the classroom, social functioning, and overall academic achievement. It’s not surprising to find that students who feel understood and valued by their teachers perform better. Of course, we could say the same thing about managers and their employees in the workplace as well. 

If this is true, what are we doing to give teachers the skills they need to develop positive and productive relationships? Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) has been the educational system’s answer. Few would debate the importance of SEL, but the execution of SEL has not been consistent or complete across the country. Education Week Assistant Editor, Sarah Sparks, writes that only one out of five teachers feel prepared to teach SEL concepts to their students and 18 percent of teachers still have not received any formal SEL training. This suggests that teachers and the administrators who support them still need to be up-skilled on ways to strengthen their relationships with their colleagues and students. But I don’t know any teachers who have an abundance of spare time to invest in extensive training programs. They need just-in-time learning that informs their daily interactions and simple tools that support their work.

That’s where Relationship Intelligence (RQ) comes into play. RQ provides insight on how to make the proper adjustments to make interactions more effective. It’s based on a few big ideas about how to build productive relationships:

  • You’ve got to see more of the picture. Most people stop at the surface, only focusing on what they see. I see a colleague behaving in a particular way, I tell myself a story about that behavior, and then I allow that story to affect the way I interact with them. If I’m honest, the stories I tell aren’t always positive and at times cause me to make other people out to be villains which often not the case. I also have a tendency to make myself a victim in my stories – and that’s also rarely true.

    The rest of the story lies beneath the surface and is based on an understanding of the motives that drive behavior. In short, it’s the why that is important and so often the missing piece that leads to misunderstanding and strife.  But the why isn’t always easy to discern, so the SDI 2.0, an inventory that accurately assesses motives under two conditions – when things are going well and when there is conflict – becomes incredibly valuable.

  • Motives influence what you see and do. Each of us is driven by a blend of three core motives that reflect our desire to help others, achieve results, and establish order. However, the way each of us prioritizes, values, and blends these three motives can be different based on how we’re uniquely wired. When we’re faced with conflict, these motives can shift and cause us to see and respond differently. It might seem complicated, but through the use of some simple colors and combinations of colors, there is an easy way to understand and discuss how these motives operate.

    When it comes to working with people, motives also explain what people want. For example, I’m primarily driven by a desire to get things done (also known as the Red Motivational Value System), so I like people to get to the point, focus on what needs to be done, and what actions we need to take to achieve the goal. Your principal, colleagues, or students might feel the same way. Others, however, might like to spend some time focused on people or data when discussing an issue or making a decision. What’s true for everyone, however, is the fact that when we communicate in ways that honor what’s important to people, we’re usually building a productive working relationship with them and able to make progress.

  • Your strengths are your tools. Strengths are the behaviors we use to get things done when working with people. They are like tools in our relational toolbox. Fortunately, we have many different strengths (tools), so the key to success when working with others is to choose the right tool for the job. I find that most people tend to rely on a few familiar or favorite tools (strengths) for every job, but because people are different and appreciate different approaches, we need to access a broad range of strengths to be effective. It’s also true that when we choose the wrong tool or overuse a strength, we can do more harm than good. Just ask the guy who tried to fix his plumbing problem with a sledgehammer.

This prescription for improving working relationships isn’t difficult. In fact, we can boil it down to the memorable mantra that all teachers already know: A-B-C. Assess motives. Bring the right strengths. Communicate in the right style. ABC is the key to becoming a better communicator, collaborator, and ultimately, more connected with students. 

By now, just about everyone in America has a greater appreciation for teachers. But even our heroes need to enhance their skills when it comes to building better relationships. And since we can all do a little better in this regard, the next time you interact with a teacher, take a moment to express your gratitude and offer a word of encouragement. In doing so, you’ll be building a better relationship as well.

Get to the Root of Low Morale and Improve Employee Attendance Problems

No matter your role or your seniority level, how people show up—and if they show up—has a tremendous effect on morale. Unhappy workers are less productive, and high absenteeism (chronically missing work), only makes relationships among team members or within your department more stressed.

Absent colleagues also affect your bottom line. According to “Absenteeism: The Bottom-Line Killer”—research done by the workforce solution company Circadian—unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker and $2,650 each year for salaried employees. With hourly workplace absenteeism rates ranging from 5%-10% on any given day, those costs add up quickly.

The biggest problem is that costs (and not just financial ones) snowball over time, with absenteeism and low morale creating a cycle for low productivity. For example, it’s difficult for members of a team to go above and beyond expectations when they are waiting on results from an absent member, or worse, have to cover for that member’s tasks instead of making more progress on their own goals. Resentment builds, especially if managers don’t address the issue.

How to Improve Employee Attendance Problems

Getting to the root of low morale is crucial—and it can be tricky. The group’s low morale may be the reason for an individual’s absenteeism. Or, just as likely, the individual absenteeism is creating rifts among the team, which is lowering morale. Increasing numbers of absences among team members or regularly calling sick (never accruing leave) are two of many signs that a problem exists. To uncover the underlying reasons, managers need to be able to talk about the issue openly and in a way that will land positively with the often absent team member—and other members on the team.

Good managers take low morale and absenteeism seriously, because when addressed early and often, it precludes larger breakdowns in departmental or even company culture. But it’s equally true that good managers also fall prey to inertia when it comes to tough conversations. That may be partly because their own style of leadership might be contributing to the problem or even triggering conflict. This possibility must be part of the discovery. In our work at Core Strengths, preparing for these kinds of conversations is a target of our work in talent effectiveness.

When we coach managers, we start with personal assessment data about what motivates them and each member of their staff. Then we ask how the chronically absent (or unhappy) team member’s motivation and strengths stack up to the manager’s (because styles can clash). We also ask the manager to examine whether the core motivations of that person are being met. For example, if the person’s reason for showing up every day involves the satisfaction he gets from being on a team and supporting others (a Blue motivation in the Core Strengths lexicon), yet that person is rarely part of meetings, a manager might start by adjusting that person’s role to include more team activity. If another often absent employee is motivated by the potential for advancement (a Red motivation), yet the role doesn’t offer that upward mobility, the manager would do well to discuss this disconnect openly—and coach the team member to better performance so that she might qualify for a more upwardly mobile position.

In some cases, absenteeism is caused by personal issues that a team member may be reluctant to discuss, such as health problems or challenges with children, elderly parents, or other family members. Reaching out and starting a conversation that is unthreatening will greatly lessen the burden on the team member, and together the manager—and even other members of the team—can come up with short-term solutions that allow the burdened employee a chance to address personal issues, without suffering in silence and allowing resentments to build among co-workers. Simply showing care, as a leader, is a potent way to quickly improve the manager’s relationship with their team.

When the problem is clearly not the leader but a dysfunction within the team itself, we work to open up relationships among team members. We begin by dividing up the team by motivational type, where they discover that there are others on the team who share their reasons for showing up each day (and it’s often not someone they would have guessed). When the whole team reconvenes, there can be a healthy discussion about these similarities and differences, not only in motivation but also style of communication (the two go hand-in-hand), creating new channels of communication that were previously nonexistent.

We see again and again how this open discussion using a common, non-judgmental language leads to a team culture where people finally discuss the elephant in the room (absenteeism and low morale being only two of many types). This immediately leads to less avoidance of work or of particular people—and greater shared understanding for the periods in life we all undergo where we really must spend time elsewhere to be our best at work.

How to Discuss Absenteeism With an Employee

Here are some of the conversations to have as a manager or as a colleague to break the ice and uncover the real reason your team is dealing with either absenteeism or chronically low morale:

  • First and foremost, if you are a manager and your relationship with your team has negative aspects, address them by beginning to build a foundation where your direct reports feel understood and valued by you. Ultimately, they must feel safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings so you can get to the root of low morale. Coaching (whether in-person or through a platform) can go a long way in preparing you to have the conversations needed to make this shift.
  • Gather basic attendance data and book some non-threatening one-on-one time with affected employees to broach the subject of absenteeism. You might lead with a line as simple as: “I’ve noticed that you are regularly absent three days a month. I care about you and wonder if there’s anything else going on that I could help you navigate through here at work.”
  • Conduct an anonymous survey about morale, including questions about what people want to achieve as individuals in their roles. Give your team the chance to truly speak up about what matters to them. (This can also be done in a 360-style meeting, but sometimes first getting a sense of just how rough the waters are is a good idea.)
  • Provide continuing education or offer for people on your team the chance to attend a conference of their own choosing (given the subject matter also benefits current team goals). Education might not always be in the budget, but it can have a huge ROI in terms of gaining insight into the direction your talented people would like to take their careers and how your department or organization could benefit from investing in their dreams.

Software Teamwork: Taking Ownership for Success

Software Teamwork:

Taking Ownership for Success

Published 2008

Jim Brosseau has decades of experience teaching and consulting with the SDI. Chapter 9 of his book, Motives and Expectations, explains how and why the SDI is an important part of understanding and improving team dynamics. Jim currently teaches at SFU’s Beedie School of Business in British Columbia, Canada.

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When relationships work, there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved.