Could Your Greatest Strengths be Sabotaging Your Success?

Key take-aways:

We all have strengths we pride ourselves on and that make us feel great about ourselves when we use them. Sometimes though, we can "overdo" these strengths in ways that can sabotage our success in communication and relationships.

Overdone strengths (weaknesses) are behaviours we intend as strengths (i.e. we have a positive motivation) but they're perceived negatively by others and could cause conflict.

There are two key ways we can increase our effectiveness around overdone strengths – change our own behaviour and change the way we interpret other people’s behaviour:

  1. If you’re aware of your overdone strengths and how they may be perceived by others in a way you’re not intending, you can choose to do them a bit less or dial them back a bit to turn them back into strengths – you’ll be more effective!

  2. As well as changing your own behaviour, you may also like to consider changing the way you look at others when they overdo their strengths. You could ask yourself, what might be the positive intent behind their behaviour? This can reduce potential conflict as you may be able to understand, or even appreciate, the motivation behind their behaviour.

Have you ever behaved in a way you thought was right and effective, only to have someone else react in a way that totally surprised you because they misinterpreted your good intentions?

For leaders and managers, effective communication and ability to handle conflict in ourselves and others are key for success. This article looks at how our strengths - the attributes we pride ourselves on - can at times be overdone and get in the way of our success.

I recently did an activity where I looked at what my top strengths were. My top strength was "Curiosity" which I was really pleased with as I love learning about new theories and ideas, finding out what people are up to and what makes people tick. As a facilitator and coach, the ability to be curious, ask questions, explore, deeply listen and have courageous, authentic conversations are invaluable skills.

Not long after this, I was having a conversation with my brother Josh. I was asking him some questions about what had been happening with him and did my usual thing of "digging deeper" to find out more and explore what had been going on in his life. Eventually he responded with, "Gee you're being nosy - so many questions!".

My horrified response was, "But Josh, I'm just being curious...........and.........oh my goodness, I can totally see how that could come across as being nosy - I've never thought about it like that before!"

I was mortified that the strength I prided myself on was coming across in a way I hadn't intended.

However that honest feedback was solid gold for me as it revealed some blindspots to me. First, that asking questions may be appropriate when I'm coaching someone but perhaps not in an everyday conversation. The second was that the strength of "curiosity" when overdone and used too much can come across as "nosy". In fact the definition of nosy is "showing too much curiosity about other people's affairs!"

Thank you to Josh for providing me with this invaluable insight and for speaking up! If he hadn't said anything, I would have just kept going, being unaware of the impact that my behaviour was having which could have led to further conflict.

I was also able to explain to Josh that my intention was to be curious because I care about him rather than trying to pry into his affairs.

It was a great example of how being unaware of misusing or overdoing a strength can get in the way of our success. How often does this happen in our relationships. We behave in a way that makes sense to us, blithely unaware that it is being perceived in a negative way by others.

Strengths can be overdone in:

  • Frequency (we use them too often)

  • Intensity (the “volume” of our strength is turned up too loudly)

  • Context (we can misapply our strength - what works in one context doesn’t work in another)

  • Duration (we use our strength for too long)

What also happens is that when we apply a strength and it doesn’t work, we can often try even harder which makes the situation worse! We can also tend to overdo our strengths in stressful situations.

So someone who is intending to be sociable can be seen as intrusive. The trusting person can be viewed as gullible, the methodical person as rigid and the assertive person as aggressive.

Ask yourself – what do you think are your top two strengths? Why are they important to you? When you use them effectively what happens?

If you overdo them what happens? How might your strengths be perceived by others?

What could you do to change your behaviour when you’re overdoing your strengths to be more effective? What counter-balancing strengths could you call on?

For leaders it’s important to develop the practice of reflection, improve our self-awareness and make a conscious choice to change our own behaviour in order to improve our relationships.

Another key way we can be more effective in our relationships, reduce conflict and increase our interpersonal success is to change how we see other people.

Our behaviour is driven by our motives which other people can’t see so they can often make assumptions about our intent. Generally people aren’t trying to be aggressive or intrusive for example. They are trying to use the productive form of the strength i.e. to be assertive or sociable.

Rather than labeling someone with terms like, “She’s so aggressive”, or “He’s really nosy”, we can ask ourselves, “What might be the positive intent behind this behaviour? What might they really be trying to do?”.

When you try this it’s amazing how it can shift your view and reduce internal conflict – you can look at the other person with compassion rather than with suspicion or annoyance.

Who is someone who behaves in a way you sometimes don’t appreciate? What do they do?

What might be the positive intent behind their behaviour?

How might they overdo this strength e.g. in Frequency, Intensity, Context or Duration? How can you use this new knowledge?

The other lesson in this is the ability to have conversations with others where we can explain the intentions behind our behaviour or provide useful feedback about the impact of someone else's behaviour.

The TotalSDI (Strength Deployment Inventory) suite of tools is very powerful for increasing emotional intelligence and improving relationships. I use it a lot in my work with teams, in leadership development and in one-on-one coaching.

It provides an effective way to have conversations about our potential blind spots and also to gain feedback on the impact of our behaviour on others. It provides great insights into the strengths and overdone strengths of individuals and teams to reduce the costs of conflict and improve relationships and communication. I love the way it talks about overdone strengths, rather than weaknesses. I think it’s a very compassionate way to understand our own and other people's behaviour.

Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you'd like to talk further about the SDI.

Taking the time to press pause and reflect on your own behaviour is a key leadership practice. How might others be experiencing your strengths and is it as you intend? How are you experiencing other people's strengths and could you shift your perception of their underlying motivations to see a more positive intent? How would this impact on tension and conflict in your workplace and in your life?