Strength use refers to the expressiveness and application of characteristics or skills that allow a person to function at their best (Miglianico et al., 2020). Strengths have trait-like properties (e.g., humor, emotional intelligence, creativity), but the use of strengths varies across different weeks, days, or episodes, depending on the context (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Strengths use may increase self-efficacy because using core qualities enables individuals to cope well with task challenges. When skills or strengths match situational challenges, people are more likely to be engaged in their work and totally focus on the task at hand. According to the literature, a skill-challenge balance is positively related to performance (Engeser & Rheinberg, 2008).
Previous studies have shown that strengths use is positively associated with self- and other-rated job performance (Bakker & Van Woerkom, 2018; Dubreuil et al., 2014; Van Woerkom et al., 2016), because when people conduct tasks using their strengths, they are more likely to be confident and authentic (Bakker & Van Woerkom, 2017). Following a naval sample for 30 days, Bakker et al. (2019) discovered that on the days when crew members used their strengths, they reported a higher level of engagement and produced more positive affect. In the current study, as we assessed the employees’ attentional performance immediately after a work episode in which they used their strengths (or not), this within-person approach is different from the majority of previous studies focusing on longer-term (e.g., weekly level, daily level) or cross-sectional relationships (cf. Miglianico et al., 2020).
Particularly relevant to the present study is the work of Dubreuil et al. (2014), who found that strength use was positively related to performance, mediated by passion and concentration, which suggests a possible relationship between strength use and attentional performance. However, in the study of Dubreuil et al. (2014), concentration was only measured using subjective self-reports. Thus, an essential point is that it remains unclear whether the findings of Dubreuil et al. (2014) should be considered as evidence for a substantial attentional performance associated with strength use, or whether it is that their findings are mainly due to the subjective interpretation of the participants’ attentional performance.
In addition to Dubreuil et al.’s (2014) findings, there are other reasons to expect that, under some circumstances, attentional performance may decrease after strength use. Using strengths may improve one’s mood and job performance (Littman-Ovadia et al., 2017; Wood et al., 2011). Although a large body of literature supports that positive mood increases cognitive flexibility, such as problem solving and creativity (Amabile et al., 2005; Fredrickson, 2001), there is growing evidence suggesting that positive affect can also have unfavorable effects on attentional performance (Oaksford et al., 1996; Phillips et al., 2002; Rowe et al., 2007). Given such contradictory findings, it is imperative to directly test the association between strength use and objective attentional performance, which, to the best of our knowledge, has been rarely studied before.
Attention is a critical cognitive resource related to task focus which links to work performance (Gardner et al., 2011). Each job task calls for a certain degree of attention given that employees have to cope with (cognitive) challenges. Attention has a transient nature since individuals tend to feel tired or bored if they have paid attention to a specific task for a prolonged period (Van der Linden et al., 2003). In addition, to the effects of fatigue, attention residue may occur (Leroy, 2009). Specifically, when employees enter a specific work episode, they may still reflect on activities they carried out during a previous work episode, implying that there will be fewer attentional resources available for their current work activities. Attention residue is a type of ruminative thought that is “specific to the context of task transitioning and the issue of allocating attention among activities; specifically, it describes thoughts that relate to a prior task when working on a subsequent task” (Leroy, 2009).
Indeed, previous research has provided evidence on attention residue effects. Leroy (2009) found that participants showed poorer performance if the previous task was unfinished. Yet, even the tasks that had been completed still consumed some level of attentional resources. Similarly, in the survey and experimental studies among employees and students, Newton et al. (2020) found that engagement in a specific task was positively associated with employees’ motivation; in turn, task engagement was, however, also associated with attention residue, which impaired engagement and performance on subsequent tasks.
As a follow-up study of Leroy’s (2009) and Newton et al.’s (2020) research, we rely on a computerized task, namely the Stroop Color and Word Test (Golden & Freshwater, 2002), to assess attentional performance objectively. Specifically, immediately after a specific work period in which employees report their strengths use, they are required to conduct the Stroop test. This enables us to observe whether employees show enhanced or compromised performance after a work episode. Since both strengths use and attentional performance share episodic and fluctuating attributes, we apply the episodic process model (Beal et al., 2005) on which we elaborate below.
Episodic Process Model
Beal et al.’s (2005) episodic process model refers to work as a sequential process consisting of a series of work episodes. In the model, work episodes can interact with one another and influence performance. A performance episode is referred to as a time-bound, task-related period, and employees’ performance is proposed to vary across performance episodes depending on task characteristics and individual states. For example, positive or negative affect may accumulate during one episode and have an impact on performance in and outside specific episodes. Beal et al., (2005, p. 1055) also noted, “As they (employees) move from one activity to another, some episodes may remain active or open, in the sense that although they do not hold a person’s momentary attention, that individual does not subjectively feel that they have decided to terminate the episode.” This may partly relate to attention residue.
When people use their strengths during specific episodes, they tend to be engaged and experience a stronger sense of reward and meaningfulness (Van Woerkom & Meyers, 2019; Van Woerkom et al., 2016). There are several reasons to expect, however, that attentional performance on subsequent tasks/episodes may decline after using their strengths. According to the attention residue notion, people may find it difficult to completely disengage after strengths use because strengths strongly facilitate work engagement (Van Woerkom et al., 2016). At the same time, since tasks in which employees use their strengths may require relatively high levels of attention and consume energetic and cognitive resources (Bakker & Van Wingerden, 2020; Liu et al., 2021), less of their attentional resources may be available at hand, which may relate to a reduced focus and suboptimal performance on subsequent tasks (Leroy, 2009; Newton et al., 2020).
A second possible reason why attentional performance may be compromised after strength use is its effects on mood. Doing what one is good at is associated with more positive affect (Dubreuil et al., 2014). Therefore, during the episodes when using strengths, people might accumulate positive affect. However, a large body of literature shows that positive mood is associated with longer response time in attention-related tasks (Gable & Harmon-Jones, 2008; Phillips et al., 2002; Rowe et al., 2007). The general argumentation for the negative effect of mood on attention is that positive mood increases the attentional scope, allowing individuals to be potentially distracted by irrelevant information. Hence, after a period in which one has used strengths, the accompanying positive mood may be associated with worse attentional performance.
Even though little empirical evidence has been accumulated regarding a negative association between strengths use and attentional performance, there are several similar proactive behaviors or states that have been shown to have a negative relationship with performance. For example, Bakker and Oerlemans (2019) showed that job crafting (another form of proactive behavior) is positively related to momentary ego depletion, which, in turn, negatively related to work engagement. Similarly, Cangiano et al. (2021) found that taking charge behavior (another form of proactivity) is negatively related to detachment in the evening, which impairs next-day motivation and performance. Some scholars have also argued that only proper use (e.g., strengths-situation match) of strengths generates beneficial effects, and that overuse of strengths or using strengths in inappropriate situations will produce adverse effects (Bakker & Van Woerkom, 2018).
All in all, as the literature regarding lowered attentional performance after task engagement and positive mood is more prevalent, we formulate the following hypothesis:
Strength use in a specific episode is negatively related to subsequent attentional performance.
The Mediating Role of Eudaimonic and Hedonic Well-being
Given the above argumentation that attention residue or mood state links to attentional performance, one possible factor that may mediate the relationship between strength use and attentional performance is well-being, including eudaimonic and hedonic well-being (see Fig. 1; Turban & Yan, 2016).
A comprehensive classification of well-being distinguishes eudaimonia from hedonia and refers to them as two essential aspects of well-being (Straume & Vittersø, 2012). Eudaimonia and hedonia originate from different philosophical roots. Eudaimonia stems from Aristotle, who emphasized the moral and virtue aspects guiding life (Nagel, 1972). Eudaimonia theory refers to that well-being is primarily derived from realizing one’s potential by allowing a person to become fully functioning (Rogers, 1963) and argues that well-being is characterized by meaningfulness and personal growth (Turban & Yan, 2016). Here, meaningfulness refers to developing a sense of purpose or significance when doing things worthwhile (Martela et al., 2018); whereas personal growth refers to how employees consider their sense of learning, progress, and development (Luyckx & Robitschek, 2014).
Hedonia is also rooted in ancient Greece (Henderson et al., 2013). According to the Greek philosopher Aristippus, hedonia is generated from satisfying appetites versus suppressing them, and people may lead a happier life if they can fulfill their desire or lust. In contrast to eudaimonia, hedonia is more concerned with the happiness produced by consumption and sensuous gratification (i.e., spending money, watching movies, eating delicious food). A happier mood, however, does not necessarily indicate that a person has done something meaningful. In the work context, taking a short walk during work breaks or playing a game with colleagues (e.g., Ping Pong) is considered to increase hedonic well-being as it allows employees to relax and refresh. Compared to eudaimonia, hedonic well-being is characterized by positive affect, relaxation, vitality, and less negative affect and stress (Henderson et al., 2013). Though there are different measurements of hedonia, following Bassi et al. (2014), we mainly refer to positive and negative affect (PANAS; Watson et al., 1988) as indicators of hedonic well-being.
When employees use their strengths (e.g., a creative person designs a new proposal for research), they are likely to be more authentic, allowing them to become more self-confident because they are doing what they are good at (Van Woerkom et al., 2016). Employees will also flourish as they can better deal with challenges and difficulties encountered at work when using strengths (Littman-Ovadia et al., 2017). Strengths use may also help satisfy basic psychological needs (i.e., relatedness, Bakker & Van Woerkom, 2017), because strengths use increases positive mood, and people tend to be more prosocial and offer help when they are happy (George, 1991).
In a recent review, Ghielen et al. (2018) synthesized 18 (quasi-)experimental studies and confirmed that strengths-based interventions enhance well-being, work engagement, and personal growth initiative. Overall, these findings indicate that when people use their strengths, they are more likely to experience eudaimonia. From a hedonic perspective, when performing tasks or activities one excels in, employees develop feelings of control over their tasks and associated positive affect (Wood et al., 2011). In line with the reasoning above, we propose the following hypotheses:
Strength use is positively related to eudaimonic well-being in terms of meaningfulness and personal growth.
Strengths use is positively related to hedonic well-being in terms of more positive affect and less negative affect.
Since strengths use tends to produce a higher sense of eudaimonia, it might make it more difficult to transfer their attention from the previous to subsequent tasks (see Fig. 1). Because meaningful tasks draw employees’ attention, they may be less willing to change their focus if the subsequent tasks are not attractive or interesting enough (Newton et al., 2020). In other words, better well-being during one work episode might bring attention residue to the next episode, which may compromise performance in the next episode. Imagine a researcher totally focusing on writing a paper. If a colleague visits to invite them to join in a Ping Pong game for a short break suddenly, then the researcher might not perform optimally during the game as they may still ruminate on various ideas.
Moreover, although strengths use is accompanied by positive affect, which coincides with a broader attentional scope (i.e., enables a person to process more information except for the core of task), strengths use and the accompanying positive affect may become detrimental to attentional performance when there are multiple tasks ongoing and the performed task requires a high concentration level. A broader attentional scope, for example, may imply that a person is more frequently distracted by task-irrelevant stimuli (Rowe et al., 2007). The distraction may allow individuals to be unable to fully focus well on the tasks at hand (Lavie, 2010). In the work context, as the work process involves multiple tasks (e.g., meeting, writing, management), which requires considerable cognitive efforts, people may be distracted by stimuli from other tasks when they are in a good mood. Especially when people transit their attention across work episodes, such as from task to task, it is more likely that people feel an excessive cognitive load as there is information emerging from both the previous and current tasks.
Indeed, several studies have provided preliminary evidence for the negative link between positive affect and attentional performance. For instance, Phillips et al. (2002) found that positive mood did not change general reaction times in a traditional Stroop task, but caused longer reaction time when switching conditions during the task (i.e., take turns to respond to the ink of color and the word itself). Similarly, Oaksford et al. (1996) showed that both positive and negative affect suppressed performance in a selection task and replicated the detrimental effect of positive mood on the performance in Tower of London task.
In total, since meaningfulness (eudaimonia) accompanied by strengths use may let individuals keep immersed in what they are performing, which may account for why attention residue appears, we argue that eudaimonic well-being will mediate the negative relationship between strengths use and attentional performance. In addition, based on the side-effect of mood on attention (Rowe et al., 2007), which allows individual to be attracted by distractors, we propose that at the within-person (episodic) level, hedonic well-being will also mediate the association between strengths use and attentional performance.
Strength use is negatively related to subsequent attentional performance through eudaimonic well-being.
Strengths use is negatively related to the subsequent attentional performance through hedonic well-being.