At every interview someone will ask: “What are your strengths?”
Great question. Go write down your top 3 strengths!
Maybe you are strongest at:
Analysis, building relationships, operating a particular computer program, working with customers, building collaborative relationships, be strategic, your creativity, communication skills, team player, helpful, attention to detail.
The list could be endless.
The conventional wisdom in leadership development circles is that you should discover and capitalize on your strengths, assuming that they are aligned with some organisational need. No matter how hard you work on certain weaknesses, the logic goes, chances are you’ll make only marginal progress. Don’t waste too much time overcoming flaws; better to focus on what you do best and surround yourself with people who have complementary strengths.
It’s a reasonable approach that emerged as a response to an arguably unhealthy fixation on weaknesses when it came to performance reviews.
I love and applaud this movement. There is one caveat that we need to be aware of. It happens in a way that can blindside us and cause a lot of difficulty for those around us.
Take the manager (Pam) whose strength is her ability to think quickly and strategically. Those around Pam love her ability to cut through complexity and identify a pathway towards solutions. Coupled with a strong technical knowledge this manager is a huge asset to the company. Why is it then that Pam is not being invited to meetings where her skills could be a great benefit to solving problems?
The reason: Pam is overdoing her strength. This is not deliberate, yet Pam is not aware of the effect it is having on those around her. Because Pam thinks fast, is technically knowledgeable and has logical brain she is effectively shutting everyone out of the problem solution. Pam isn’t as strong at being creative or finding innovative solutions. When Pam speaks out a pathway to solve the issue the logic is so impeccable and articulated in an insightful way those around her feel unnecessary, insignificant and unresolved. There is also a nagging feeling that Pam’s solutions are good but maybe a even more creative solution can be found.
When we overdo our strengths they can become a weakness. In fact I would push the point further and say we become ‘difficult’ to deal with when we are not aware of how our strengths can be overdone.
Think about any strength: let’s say you are a great team player who will help others when called upon. Over do this strength and you become a rescuer who may become resentful of doing more than others in the team. You have set up the conditions by which others come to rely on you.
In the Harvard Business Review they report: (Feb 2009)
“In our research we tested the effects of overused strengths on two aspects of team performance: vitality (defined as morale, engagement, and cohesion) and productivity (quantity and quality of output). We found that taking a strength to an extreme is always detrimental to performance, but even a mild tendency to overdo it can be harmful. Be a little too forceful, for instance, and your team’s output may improve some—but vitality will take a hit, and weakened morale will eventually undercut productivity. Be a little too enabling, and you may shore up vitality—but productivity will suffer over time, which will in turn erode morale. In general, overdoing it hurts your effectiveness just as much as under-doing it”
There is another cost: lopsided leadership. Once you overplay a strength, you’re at risk of diminished capacity on the opposite pole. For example, a leader who is good at getting people involved in decisions, and has been encouraged to build on that strength, may not realize that in engaging so many others he or she is taking too long to move into action. HBR reports that among the senior managers they studied, 97% who overdo forceful leadership in some respect also under-do enabling leadership, according to coworkers. And 94% who overdo operational leadership in some way also under-do strategic leadership.
Finding Your Balance
It’s not hard to see why overdoing a strength can get you into trouble, but an intellectual grasp of that concept and even a willingness to change won’t save you from yourself. To find some balance, you also have to come to terms with the roots of your behaviour.
Managers are always at risk of being one-dimensional—and often blind to what they sacrifice as a consequence. Your organisation may be able to help you mitigate the risks by holding up a mirror to your overused strengths and lopsided tendencies (arguably, you’re owed the information), but you can’t count on it. Now more than ever, it’s your job to take control of your career—and it is in your power to manage your strengths so that they do not become weaknesses. I am not suggesting that it is reasonable to become perfectly balanced between, for instance, directional and enabling leadership strengths, or strategic and operational leadership. (In fact research from HBR suggests only about 5% achieve this). I am suggesting limiting the damage of overdoing in one particular direction. Think of this as a tension to manage rather than a problem to solve.
How to make sure that your strengths don’t become a weakness?
- Identify your 3 top strengths and identify in what ways that strength could be overdone.
- Declare to those around you your possible strength overdone.
- Give those around you permission to help you to become aware when you are starting to over do an identified strength area.
- Trace overkill to its source, whether that’s an unexamined assumption that more is better or a set of overly high expectations.
ACTION: Communicate this concept with your team and have a discussion to raise self-awareness for everyone and start the self-disclosure process, if appropriate.