How public servants can grow their character strengths

By Karina Donaire

Monday March 1, 2021

We all have character strengths (aka superpowers) (Adobe)

We’ve been bombarded with lots of scary scenarios lately: lockdown, pandemic, death toll, health crisis and so it goes on.

This article was prompted by a comment I left after reading another article in Apolitical where I said that it was important to respond and not react. So, after considering my angle for exhorting “more considered responses” I thought it was good to link it to our character strengths because we can all flex these muscles to make us more considered in responding to any situation.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond — Epictetus

Public servants around the world are involved in shaping public policy that serves justice, encourages active and empathetic citizenship, supports democratic institutions and processes and addresses (often wicked) public problems effectively and efficiently. So knowing our own individual strengths will better equip us for our important role in society.

During my most recent studies in Applied Positive Psychology, I was exposed to great lecturers and resources. Our classes allowed us the time to share our learnings and discuss practical interventions. This article focuses on one such intervention which I found to be practical and fun. The key is knowing and using your character strengths to support you in responding rather than reacting to what happens.

In this article, I refer to strengths as described by the Via Institute on Character. On their website you’ll find practical information about the 24 character strengths. Once you complete the free questionnaire (only takes about 15 minutes) you’ll get your strengths report in ranking order.

I am unashamedly a fan and I recommend it to you.

This questionnaire is the only free, scientifically based classification tool used by eight million people in 190 countries. It’s been translated into many languages too — and there are adult and young adult versions (so the whole family can participate).

We all have character strengths (aka superpowers) that can help us better navigate through life’s crises, some can even be harnessed to support us to respond and not react. Responding allows us to consider others, whilst reacting usually satisfies our individual sense of being right.

“Know thyself” and your capacity to choose

Your strengths report will give you a “point in time” view of your positive traits — from highest ranked to lowest ranked. By the way, the strengths of “prudence” and “self-regulation” are consistently in the lower rankings! (so, don’t be concerned if they are 23rd and 24th respectively).

Whether you read the Harvard Business Review or listen to Ted Talks, most agree that self-awareness leads to better decision making, improves self-confidence and a sense of wellbeing.

Consequently, knowing your strengths is a very good start in the lifelong voyage of self-awareness. So, what strengths can be used to encourage us to respond instead of reacting? Let’s focus on “kindness” and “perspective” – two pathways to help us respond (and not react) in times of uncertainty.


Kindness Perspective
What is it?
  • being compassionate, which means to really be there for someone, listening intently or just sitting with them in silence (equally important for yourself)
  • being nurturing and caring to yourself and others
  • giving of your time, money (showing generosity), and talent to support those who are in need
  •  ability to see the bigger picture in life and avoid getting wrapped up in the small details
  • while listening to others, perspective helps you to simultaneously think about life lessons, proper conduct, and what’s best in the specific situation.
How do I flex those muscles?
  • surprise a friend with a random act of kindness — for example, plan a day trip or cook a meal
  • while getting a morning cup of coffee at your local coffee shop, purchase a second for the person behind you in the queue
  • take time out to do something just for you (e.g. listen to music)
  • offer help and/or check-in with your neighbours who may be living alone.
  • reach out to a co-worker who has been having trouble at work and offer to help them explore a different perspective (often, it is not personal)
  • help a friend by challenging their assumptions when dealing with a problem (with sensitivity of course)
  • when facing a conflict, stop and assess your best option for going forward.


Now look at your own report and see where these strengths are ranked… if you want to bring them up in the rankings just try to “flex those muscles” as suggested. Consider doing this with a trusted buddy so you can learn from each other and keep track of progress. Try completing the questionnaire twice yearly to see whether the rankings have moved and if so, how much.

The right balance in the right situation

It’s worthwhile remembering that every character strength can be overused or underused – again it’s about awareness. Ponder the following:

“Bring to mind ‘that’ person at work who drives you nuts and then tell us what strength they are overusing…”

This was an exercise we did in class and in my case, after some unsurprising resistance to the task, I declared that the person was overusing the strength of “zest”. The overuse of zest translated into someone who was hyperactive and annoying. In its more balanced state, this strength leads to an active and energised life. A higher ranking of “hope” is often also found in people with high zest.

Now also consider that a person high in “bravery” may be overconfident and make foolish decisions or a someone low in “curiosity” may be too conforming and dull.

Your character strengths can be further understood by clustering them: top 10, middle 10, lower 4 or any combination you think is most appropriate for you at any given time. The rankings are likely to change over time (depending on your situation) and you can choose to develop lower ranked strengths – flex those muscles!

Sharing your strengths with your team (or your immediate family) is a great way of understanding the observed behaviours a bit better too. Pay attention to how strengths interact with each other. For instance, think about how the strengths of “leadership” and “humility” may manifest. I work with a senior leader who has both strengths in her top five. We find her modesty refreshing and her ability to influence others quite remarkable.

Flexing the muscles that help us respond and not react

Living through a pandemic means we have had plenty of pressing and awful news of late. Who amongst us kept calm during the toilet paper shortages?

During this time of prolonged collective uncertainty public servants can flex the muscles of kindness and perspective and:

  • show compassion and seek ways to help ourselves and others (kindness)
  • catch a glimpse of the bigger picture amidst the scary details (perspective)

This article is curated from Apolitical.

READ MORE: Self-care for public servants: how do you think and feel about change?

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