The strengths movement in psychology, education, business, coaching, and related fields offers a welcomed shift from traditional approaches that focus on weaknesses and deficits.
But, do you ever get confused about the differences between the strengths surveys that are out there?
The VIA Survey (VIA Institute on Character) and the StrengthsFinder tool (Gallup Organization) are the two dominant strengths assessment instruments in the field. Let’s take a closer look at each.
The Gallup Organization has been a pioneer in the strengths movement over the last couple decades, helping people to make a shift in how they view themselves and their work. In reviewing extensive employee surveys, the StrengthsFinder instrument was created to measure 34 talent themes of employees in organizations.
A decade and a half ago, the VIA Institute collaborated with leading scholars to understand what is best about human beings. Scientific meetings (including meetings with Gallup), collaboration of 55 scientists, cross-cultural work, and extensive analysis and research over a 3-year period resulted in the VIA Classification of 24 character strengths and 6 virtues. The VIA Survey, a free, validated, online tool was then created to measure these universal character strengths.
There is a basic, core similarity to both tests in that each focuses on positive qualities in the individual. Each offers individuals and groups an opportunity to shift attention toward what is strongest and best in people.
Both tests offer a substantive reframe of traditional approaches that help people. Change the question you are asking; this is the backbone of the strengths movement. For example:
Questions from traditional approaches:
- What problem are you struggling with? When did it start?
- What are your weaknesses? What do you need to improve upon?
- What are your deficits as a manager/teacher/employee/student?
- What drains you and gets in your way during the day?
Questions from a strengths-based approach:
- What is going well in your life? How do you contribute to this?
- What is best about who you are?
- What are your strengths as a manager/teacher/employee/student? What qualities within you might you build upon?
- What engages you most during the day?
[Note that while VIA and Gallup champion the latter questions, in many situations, questions from both sides are important to deploy, rather than one-dimensionally choosing one set or the other].
That said, there are a number of differences—some nuanced, some significant—between the two tests and what they measure. The table below outlines many of these distinctions.
StrengthsFinder assess talents and skills in the workplace, while the VIA Survey measures strengths of character, or positive traits of personality. The former veers toward seeing strengths as the result of excellence or near-perfect performance whereas the VIA approach to strengths is that character is not only present at those times of excellence but also in small, everyday moments and interactions, as well as times when you are resilient.
The dominant focal point of StrengthsFinder’s application is the workplace, with schools and churches being additional secondary domains of application. The use of VIA is applied widely in those settings and any situation in which human beings are present. Since character strengths are universal across cultures and nations and are part of the ingredients that make us human, the sky is the limit when it comes to the potential for VIA applications. For examples of applications, click here.
Another significant difference between the two instruments involves the scrutiny of science. The VIA Surveys and character strengths interventions are peer-reviewed, whereas StrengthsFinder is not. This means the VIA work has withstood the criticisms and challenges of science and has benefitted from the observations of many researchers around the world. The StrengthsFinder work is only studied by Gallup-employed scientists. As StrengthsFinder is promoted by a for-profit organization, Gallup does not reveal trade secrets and various scientific data. The VIA Survey publishes its data, research, and emerging practices on its site, and researchers studying the VIA Survey publish their findings in scientific journals. In addition, any researcher or student in any profession can request to study and use the VIA Survey(s) in their work (learn more here).
Which Survey Should I Use?
It’s hard to find a scenario where it wouldn’t be useful to use the VIA Survey to assess, explore, and intervene around character strengths. This is because these 24 character strengths are a "common language" —easily understood by all—for communicating around our positive identity. They represent the core of who we are as individuals. And positive identity matters, regardless of the setting you are in and the people you are with. Character strengths are connected with a myriad of positive outcomes, from greater work engagement and positive work experiences to more intimate relationships and greater achievement. For an annotated bibliography of 150+ recent studies involving character strengths, click here.
Therefore, a better question is—when might you integrate a second strengths assessment along with the VIA Survey, such as adding in the StrengthsFinder tool? No response based in science can be made. This decision will instead, depend on a number of factors—the individual’s or consultant’s comfort level, their strengths savvy, and the interest/needs of the client involved.
I welcome those who integrate use of both assessments in their practice or research to e-mail me as well as post comments/suggestions here.
Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D. O. (2001). Now, discover your strengths. New York: The Free Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
VIA Survey (the research-validated test)
Gallup strengths (strengths center and test)
VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)
VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)
VIA resources for practitioners