Strengths Taken Too Far
When Strengths Become a Liability
When you have a high level of competence in an area, that strength can generate many benefits. If you learn to capitalize on your strengths, apply them in the right environment and in the right way, you can achieve great results. That is the good news.
But there is a potential ‘dark side’ to every one of our strengths. We can take them too far!
Think of the competencies that you have as a rubber band. If you don’t have much strength in the competency, the rubber band will be lax. If you have good strength in the rubber band, the band will be taut. But, if you stretch that band too tightly, it will break! That is called an over-extension of a good thing!
Let’s start with a simple example. If you are very good at digging into the details, you can add much value to a team or organization. When the rubber band is extended ‘just enough’, you have great strengths at being accurate and thorough. But think about how that can turn into a liability if you pull the band too tightly. When under stress, do you go too far in your analysis? Do you over-analyze? Are you paralyzed by the level of detail? Do you delay decision-making? Do you come across as aggressively challenging the data and opinions of others? That is one example of a strength that, when taken too far, can become a liability.
Here is another common example. Are you great at taking charge, creating a plan, and directing the right people in the right direction and then measuring progress? Leaders with these skills are invaluable to a company. They get the job done. They get others to get the job done. The strength drives results. But when you pull too tightly, under stress, think about how these strengths can be over-extended to create liabilities. Do you bark orders at others, not asking opinions or listening to other ideas? Do you micro-manage so much that others lose confidence in their own ability? Again, used in the right dose and at the right time and in the right circumstances, these are valuable strengths. But, taken too far, these strengths can lead to a workforce that feels over-managed, over-criticized, and over-worked without ownership of their work. It is impossible for most employees to thrive in such an environment.
So, how do you use that awareness of the tension between a strength and a strength taken too far? There are two ways to approach this in a coaching conversation, proactively and reactively.
Proactively: When I am working with a leader who has many strengths, we discuss the value and benefit of those strengths. Most leaders are already familiar with their personal strengths and can share examples when the strength served them well. However, we often get more value when we explore, strength by strength, the potential over-extensions that can create challenges for the leader. Just like the examples shared above, I have the leader brainstorm the potential challenges that can unintentionally be created when they take their strengths too far. And, often the leader can recall specific situations in which they can see evidence of the over-extension. This exploration of strengths and strengths taken to far, raises the leader’s awareness of the potential for the over-extension. Increased awareness can aid the leader in avoiding the over-extension before it happens.
Reactively: In coaching, when I am working with a leader who has a specific challenge to address or improve upon, I begin with questions around the strengths that might be related to the challenge. For example, I have worked with many leaders who want to increase their skill at having effective, but difficult performance conversations with others. As we explore the scenarios, we often uncover their hesitation in having these types of difficult conversations is grounded in another strength they have – namely, building relationships at work. They may like to be liked; they may be good at getting people to work well together. And, both of these strengths, when taken too far, will make a leader hesitate to have difficult conversations for fear of losing the close relationships or having people ‘revolt’. The coaching conversations I have in this reactive scenario focus on how the strengths of a leader can create challenges and how the leader might use the strengths to achieve the improvement. Most leaders who are great at building relationships at work can be confident that an occasional difficult conversation, when delivered effectively and appropriately, will actually improve relationships as employees are confident the leader is coming from a position of support. Again, raising awareness is typically enough for the leader to build habits that help.
What strengths do you have as a leader? Have you thought about the danger of over-extension? It’s worth the time spent!