Business owners spend a lot of time and money on team-building activities, but they often overlook an even more vital aspect of promoting successful teamwork: Understanding the skills and personalities of each individual employee and using that knowledge to build more effective teams.

Research shows that the best-performing teams are often made up of people with complementary—not redundant—skills and personalities. Diverse teams work because each member brings a unique skill set, personality and perspective to the table that one person alone can’t possess.

“Bringing together two or more people with complementary strengths not only compensates for the shortcomings of each but also results in a team in which the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts,” wrote leadership consultants Michael D. Watkins and Stephen A. Miles in Harvard Business Review.

Tools for Success

More companies are turning to programs that help them identify employees’ individual strengths and talents. It’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, as management guru Stephen Covey highlighted the importance of knowing and using strengths to foster teamwork in his bestselling 1989 book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

However, the practice of using strengths to build more diverse and self-aware teams has gotten more attention in the business world in recent years. “Stratified, siloed teams don’t cut it anymore,” wrote Mark Miller, vice president of marketing for Emergenetics International, a company that helps other companies assess employee characteristics and strengths and improve team building, on Inc. “It isn’t just a good idea to bring in people from various capacities; it is imperative to business success.”

The most common strengths-assessment tool that employers use is Gallup Organization’s Clifton StrengthsFinder, named after former Gallup chairman Dr. Donald Clifton, who is considered the father of strengths-based psychology. StrengthsFinder provides companies and business coaches with a 177-question test that employees take to assess their top five strengths. It then has 34 different “talent themes” that it ascribes to test takers, such as “learner” (someone who loves to gain knowledge), “achiever” (someone who thrives on accomplishment) and “communication” (someone who enjoys bring ideas to life through writing or public speaking). All the themes are positive and meant to motivate test takers to focus on their assets, rather than mending their flaws.

The StrengthsFinder program also sells a self-titled book that helps managers and employees better understand how to incorporate employees’ top strengths into their workplace.

Advocates of the strengths-identifying process say it can boost employee retention by helping companies put their employees’ talents to good use. This will only result in employees who are more engaged and motivated, because their talents are being embraced.

Many workers today want their employer to invest time and money in training and professional development—so assessments that help them identify and better utilize their strengths is clearly one way to provide that.

Maximizing Your Strengths

Employers have found various ways to incorporate strengths-based assessments into their organization and team-building efforts.

Rackspace Hosting, a managed cloud provider based in Windcrest, Texas, asks new hires to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder test. Employees then list their top five strengths on the back of their employee badge and at their work station. Employees are then trained on how to maximize each team member’s strengths to work together more effectively.

The company has also found employees tend to be happier, because they’re spending their time doing what they enjoy rather than being forced into roles they don’t enjoy. “By letting the team members with high Input® chew on research all day, keeping the high Restoratives® busy solving problems, and focusing the Maximizers® on stimulating excellence, everyone reaps more job satisfaction,” Rackspace copywriter Lizetta Staplefoote wrote in a blog post for the company.

Some companies have even used strengths-based analysis to create roles. Facebook, for example, is known to try to hire people—regardless of current job openings—and then use StrengthsFinder to create a job tailored to that person’s specific skills and strengths, according to Forbes.

Among the most valuable ways to use strengths assessments, though, is to assemble teams of people with complementary skills. If a manager knows, for example, that one or two people on a team are avid planners and love to analyze situations—but perhaps are not so good at executing projects—that manager might want to add an action-oriented person (such as someone who is good at Doing, in StrengthsFinder terminology) to that team.

Patrick Kayton, co-founder of Cognician, a company that created a tool called StrengthsEngage that helps StrengthsFinder users better utilize the information they learn from the test, suggests that managers and executives create a “talent map” that shows every employee’s strengths. That map can then be  referenced when creating teams and ensuring there’s not too many overlapping strengths.

“This allows you to see a bird’s-eye view of the distribution of themes across your company,” Kayton wrote in a blog post. “The first time we did this for Cognician, we were astonished. The vast majority of the team’s themes lay in the Thinking Domain, which is probably what you’d expect from a company called Cognician. But what did that mean for our ability to execute sales and development plans? Or our ability to nurture relationships with our customers? In fact, we had to admit, that we were frequently guilty of not shipping on time.”

Identifying each person’s strengths and then maximizing those strengths can help companies take their team-building efforts to the next level. All the team-building exercises in the world won’t repair a team that was poorly designed in the first place.

Next Steps:  Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!