Strong Callings Flailing at work? Determine how your job can better draw on your strengths. If that’s not possible, it may be time to look elsewhere. Features
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Features  |   June 01, 2017
Strong Callings
Author Notes
  • Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, is a credentialed personal leadership coach (www.MelissaPageDeutsch.com) in Norfolk, Virginia, who works with SLPs and others seeking to transform their lives. Her speech-language pathology experience includes clinical work with adults in private practice, acute care and rehab settings, as well as research and clinical supervision in academia. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Voice Disorders. melissa@melissapagedeutsch.com
    Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, is a credentialed personal leadership coach (www.MelissaPageDeutsch.com) in Norfolk, Virginia, who works with SLPs and others seeking to transform their lives. Her speech-language pathology experience includes clinical work with adults in private practice, acute care and rehab settings, as well as research and clinical supervision in academia. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Voice Disorders. melissa@melissapagedeutsch.com×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Healthcare Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Features
Features   |   June 01, 2017
Strong Callings
The ASHA Leader, June 2017, Vol. 22, 52-59. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.22062017.52
The ASHA Leader, June 2017, Vol. 22, 52-59. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.22062017.52
Molly had recently begun her clinical fellowship at a large teaching hospital—her dream setting. During a graduate school rotation at a hospital, she’d discovered that she most enjoyed working one-on-one with adults and collaborating with a team in an intellectually stimulating environment. Typically upbeat, she sought coaching with me because she worried about her focus on negative aspects of her workplace—and the impact this was having on her personal life. Her goals were to shift to a more positive mindset, to be the best clinician she could possibly be, and to create healthier boundaries between her work and personal life.
“I worry about work and can’t stop talking about it to my husband when I come home,” she told me. “I second-guess my clinical decisions. And the others on the team mostly complain and are hard to approach.”
When we explored Molly’s core values and character strengths, the ones that floated to the top were teamwork, intellectual growth and kindness. These qualities likely played a role in her decision to enter the field of speech-language pathology, and to stay in it. Her work was her calling, and her resolve and commitment to make her job situation more positive were strong.
Molly’s distress made sense when we viewed her workday through the lens of her intrinsic motivations and strengths. When we find ourselves unhappy, it’s highly likely that we—or our environment—are not honoring our core values. There’s something in us that rebels against living diluted versions of ourselves, and that’s what was happening to Molly. To get her unstuck, she and I mapped out how she could stay connected to her values and keep growing her strengths. Next we’ll trace Molly’s journey and explore how you can also reconnect with your strengths to show up powerfully and contribute fully to those you serve.

There’s something in us that rebels against living diluted versions of ourselves.

Listen to yourself
Why did we begin our work by uncovering Molly’s core values and character strengths, rather than jumping into systematically tackling the challenges she faced? We had to lay the foundation for the work to come.
Identifying our core values and innate strengths is key to mapping our professional course. They act as a compass, directing our decisions and alerting us when the reality we encounter at work is not congruent with our expectations. Molly’s unique sense of self and knowledge of what connects her to her sense of purpose would drive all her choices and fuel her actions. (For exercises to help you identify your core values, see the Leader article, “The Dragon Slayer in You.”)
In fact, Molly’s sense of purpose will likely drive her success in speech-language pathology, suggests a 2007 study on recruitment and retention of SLPs by Andrew J.O. Whitehouse, Kathryn Hird and Naomi Cocks. They found that university students (like Molly) who enter the field motivated by a sense of altruism and intellectual curiosity are more likely to stay in it than those who enter motivated by the desire to have a professional career and salary. If we want to heed our calling, it is worth our while to create the circumstances that allow us to thrive and make the difference we’re here to make.

Students who enter the field motivated by altruism and intellectual curiosity are more likely to stay in it than those motivated by the desire to have a professional career and salary.

Recognize dissonance
But as we all know, no matter our reason for entering this field, the reality we encounter in our workplace sometimes falls significantly short of our ideals. A large gap between the impact we hope to have professionally and the realities of our job demands can lead to frustration and burnout (see “Breaking Out of Burnout”).
The leadership at Molly’s hospital did not foster healthy communication and was stingy when it came to support for professional growth. She often felt too intimidated to ask for help outside her once-a-week meetings with her clinical supervisor. She yearned for more consistent guidance navigating myriad patient diagnoses and needs. She found the purse strings drawn tight when she sought approval to attend professional conferences.
Without a strong structure to encourage professional collaboration or to support her professional learning, Molly, a newbie, struggled. She worked at being friendly with her co-workers and tried to improve her skillset independently, on her own dime. But Molly felt like her efforts to effect change—to create the sense of positive teamwork she knew was possible—came up mostly empty.
Molly is not alone in this sort of unhappiness in an unfulfilling work environment. As part of my research into writing this article, I connected with speech-language pathologists around the country via LinkedIn. I read each profile, deeply inspired by the energy, accomplishments and difference these SLPs made in their clients’ lives. In an informal survey of my new virtual colleagues from wide-ranging settings, I asked three questions:
  1. What three factors do you think contribute to a healthy work environment?

  2. What three factors do you think contribute to an unhealthy/toxic work environment?

  3. To what extent do you feel like you use your strengths at work (estimated in a percentage)?

The SLPs who responded named the following as important contributors to a healthy work environment: teamwork/collaboration, respect and recognition, healthy communication, leadership that has your back, appropriate/sufficient resources to improve student/patient/resident quality of life or outcomes, competitive wages, high ethical standards, your own personal attitude toward life.
These same SLPs identified the following as leading factors contributing to a toxic work environment: weak leadership, lack of respect/recognition, poor teamwork/collaboration, questionable ethics, and inadequate resources (time and materials) to do their job effectively.
They estimated that they used their strengths at work anywhere from 50–90 percent of the time. Those who enjoyed higher degrees of work autonomy and trusting relationships with principals or supervisors reported higher use of their strengths at work.

Those who enjoy higher degrees of work autonomy and trusting relationships with principals or supervisors report higher use of their strengths at work.

Find your flow
As Molly discovered, our level of work satisfaction significantly affects our lives—and not just in the workplace. Work is important to our sense of meaning and identity, whether that work is at home raising a family, in a skilled nursing facility determining compensatory strategies for memory loss, in a university creating a new curriculum, at a teaching hospital writing up a safe swallowing protocol for a patient, or in the schools collaborating with a student’s teacher and parents to improve social skills.
A major factor in our level of satisfaction at work is our sense of fulfillment. When we are appropriately challenged, our efforts are recognized, and we clearly see that our work is making a positive difference, we are much more likely to find work intrinsically rewarding. What’s key here is achieving what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously refers to as “flow”: the experience of being completely immersed in an activity with full focus and energy. Being in flow connects us more fully to our lives—and to our work. We are energized and feel connected to our purpose and creativity.
What contributes to achievement of flow? A workplace that plays to our strengths. Workers who are encouraged to use their strengths are six times more engaged than those who aren’t, according to research by organizations such as Gallup. Their development is grounded in expanding upon what they do right, not remediating what they do wrong, leading to higher productivity and increased company loyalty.
Clinicians in my survey often credited leadership with establishing the healthy environments where they could do their work most effectively. But what if the leadership in your workplace doesn’t encourage use of employees’ strengths?
Don’t despair. You can take the reins and lead the charge yourself. You have strengths, you have gifts and you have a calling. Stay connected to this: It is the essence that will fuel you for the vital work to come. When you tap into your signature strengths, you’re better equipped to handle your emotions and to connect with a stronger sense of purpose at work. In fact, three key drivers of an engaged employee, according to psychologist Ryan Niemiec, are focusing on signature strengths, managing emotions and aligning purpose.
Name your strengths
To employ your strengths, you first have to name and claim them. To do this, I recommend that you:
  • Do a deep dive. What do you know to be most true about yourself when you’re at your best? Maybe you’re creative, kind, have a great analytical mind, a quirky sense of humor. Write it down in a list.

  • Talk to people who “get” you. What do they appreciate about you? Think of family, your friends from childhood, college or work. Think back to remarks they have shared about you that made you glow inside. These are the comments that made you feel seen and heard, your best and true self recognized. Add this to your list.

  • Conduct your own informal case study on yourself. Notice throughout a typical day when you’ve called upon your strengths and which strengths you use. For example, when I emerge from my house for a pre-dawn winter run, the beauty of the starry sky causes me to stop in my tracks and take a deep breath. My strengths of gratitude and appreciating beauty and excellence are at the fore in this unguarded moment.

  • Seek outside input from online resources like the free VIA survey or Gallup’s Strengthsfinder 2.0 ($15–$89). Each of these surveys measures strengths, but they are not interchangeable.

Once you’ve identified your strengths, look at how they have helped you at various points in your life. Ask yourself: How do I use this character strength when times are challenging? How is this character strength expressed during peak or “flow” experiences in my life? Where does this character strength show up for me in my daily life?
Perhaps your strength of gratitude has allowed you to connect at a deeper level with co-workers or clients. Maybe your character strength of curiosity opened you to a new treatment approach with a challenging patient. Or maybe your strength of perspective gave you the insight you needed to gracefully handle a difficult encounter.
As you engage your strengths at work, you create positive shifts that might tip the scales so that you either: a) find your work meaningful again; b) create changes to initiate the tidal shift from toxic to healthy; or c) tap into your own energy and resources to define and find the work you want outside of your current position.
Tapping into our strengths brings our work closer to our calling.
Customize for the job
Those of us who use four or more of our signature strengths at work have more positive work experiences and more work we consider a life “calling,” says Ryan Niemiec, a recognized authority on the topic of strength-based workplaces. Niemiec is the education director at the VIA Institute and has published many scholarly articles related to character strengths. He cites data—such as a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science—showing that overuse and underuse of character strengths relate to depression, whereas the optimal use of character strengths relates positively to higher flourishing and life satisfaction and less depression.
So how can calling on our strengths help us clinicians who feel overwhelmed by time and documentation demands, which seem ubiquitous across settings? Niemiec recommends using the newly studied character strengths intervention of “strengths alignment”: List your top five to seven signature strengths according to the VIA Survey, your most common work tasks (such as documentation paperwork), and then draw connections between the two. Then set concrete plans around how you will use one or more of those strengths with each of your work tasks.
Annie, a school-based SLP with 24 years of experience with the same employer, credits strong organizational skills for her ability to manage high caseloads, plan engaging treatment sessions and complete documentation requirements. But it takes more than strong organization to motivate one to stay put for 24 years, right? When she digs deeper, Annie recognizes how she uses her character strengths daily to make her job rich. Annie’s top strengths are:
  • Love. She truly loves her students and is committed to their growth.

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence. Annie notices and celebrates progress that’s incremental and might not be recognized by others.

  • Teamwork. Annie treasures the strong sense of camaraderie she shares with her peers, especially a newer SLP who’s two years out of graduate school. “She appreciates my ‘seasoned’ perspective,” says Annie, “and I appreciate her current knowledge.”

Try it yourself using your own top strengths. Data, such as those published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, show that drawing on our strengths helps to buffer the negative effects of work stress. Niemiec suggests some simple strengths-based practices clinicians can use to grow professionally and avoid burnout:
  • Tap one of your signature strengths in a new way at work.

  • Spot and express appreciation for one of the strengths of one of your colleagues each week.

  • Name, clearly, one of the problems or tensions you experience at work; then, consider how you can reframe this from a strengths-based perspective. What strengths are at play in the problem? Is a strength being overused? What strength is being underused? Is your colleague actually coming from a perspective of one of their strengths but you are perceiving it as a negative? Using a strengths-based lens can help you make the shift and reframe draining, tense and difficult situations.

Set concrete plans around how you will use one or more of your strengths with each of your work tasks.

Reframe and grow
And what became of Molly? She continued to work at her less-than-ideal workplace. Looking at her day through the lens of her values and strengths, she found enough meaning in the valuable experience she was gaining to make the dysfunctional dynamic tolerable. She added exercise and more socializing to her schedule to create a stronger sense of work/life balance. She put a limit on the amount of time she talked to her husband about work.
Six months later, rooted in a strong sense of her gifts and strengths—and with her clinical confidence more established—she realized that she was ready to explore other possibilities. She made the daring move to interview for a position as a clinical SLP at a highly selective teaching hospital that would allow her to use her strengths more fully.
And she was hired!
In our last conversation, Molly told me, “Melissa, I wake up every morning with a smile on my face, excited to go to work. When I arrive, one of my fellow SLPs might look up from a scan she’s studying and wave me over to look at it with her. I work with an amazing team, and I can’t believe how much I’m learning.”
At last, this clinician was living her calling.
Here’s my invitation to you: Try it. See what happens when you explore and exercise your values and strengths. Reconnect with that brave person inside of you. Your work—and life—are calling.
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June 2017
Volume 22, Issue 6