Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing?

As an executive coach, I see the dynamic of strengths being overused to the point of becoming weaknesses. It is not that uncommon to see someone who is successful by building a career on their gifts, only to have them start to plateau, or worse, struggle to meet performance expectations as a result of not being able to adjust to a changing environment and shifting performance demands. Allowing our strengths to automatically guide our behavior can lead to stagnancy and career damaging mistakes. What you’re loved for today, can be tomorrow’s write up. Without a balanced assessment of how we should behave, one that is rooted in self-awareness and a sensitivity to the bigger picture of organizational objectives and the individual goals of those around you, negative reactions and results can catch you by surprise really fast. And, I know that the workplace is filled with mixed messages….people are often promoted because of their strengths, so when the pressure is on they naturally lean into them. But, I try and advise them to be mindful about that…sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. 

There have been some great books published on the value of discovering your strengths, and playing to them instead of focusing on improving your weaknesses. Not a bad philosophy. However, what happens when something good gets overused? Usually it swings from a positive to a deficit. Any strength over, or inappropriately used, becomes a weakness. For example, if I am open-minded and nimble, flexibility may be my genius. But, if I am too flexible in too many scenarios I may come across to others as wishy-washy, spineless or scattered. Or, if I am always methodical and organized I may appear bureaucratic, too linear, or rigid in situations that require an immediate creative response.

The key is to use your collection of talents, skills and strengths at the appropriate levels. This requires you to be recognizing your behaviors and reactions, accurately reading the environment and people in it, and responding in ways that are best suited to what’s happening in front of you – in other words – it requires you to use your Emotional Intelligence. So what should you do? Instead of automatically applying the same behaviors or outlook to new problems, stop and ask yourself these questions: 
  • Am I doing what is comfortable to me versus what the situation requires? Don’t fall into the trap of being on auto-pilot and using what is easy instead of what’s going to be most effective. 
  • How can I use my other skills to leverage a better approach to this problem? Instead of applying your problem solving skills to go straight to identifying a root cause, consider stretching yourself to try a completely new approach. For one week, track your immediate tendencies to respond and take a different course of action. 
  • Could doing the opposite of my instincts pay off in more credibility? On some occasions your team needs you to be something you’re not. To find out, ask at your next one-on-ones with your supervisor…what value do you see me bringing to the team and what is missing that I can add to the team dynamic? Typically decisive? Sometimes they need you to be passive. Ordinarily kind-hearted? Now they need to see you demanding. 
  • Am I thinking inside my own box in terms of what’s “right” and “wrong”? If you catch yourself thinking in “shoulds," chances are your judgment blinders may be on.

Holding fast to your concept that you know best and the way things should be done or how people should behave is one of the quickest ways to alienate others and weaken your position of value to the team. Creativity, influence and high impact results are the fruits of the open minded. Don’t always come across as the smartest person in the room, even if you are. Make a list of the projects, goals or interpersonal situations from the last two years that didn’t work out as you had hoped and explore each one to uncover if maybe an overuse of some skills resulting in a lack of balance could have contributed to the outcome. The goal is to leverage your unique talent briefcase and use each of your strengths to its maximum potential. And, despite how tempting it is to think more is better, it’s not.

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