We’ve all said things like “do what you’re good at.” “Go with what you know.” “Leverage your strengths.” And they all make dead-simple, perfect sense – you’re better at doing things you have an aptitude for. You like doing those things better. You’re comfortable doing them. Thus, you are more successful at them. You get promoted, you get big raises, you retire early, you die happy. QED.
And avoiding things that you are weaker at? Hey, that’s not just smart, that’s a career saver. Steer clear of those things, they’ll only get you into trouble. Showing your weaknesses makes you vulnerable and, well, weaker, right?
Well, I’m here to say that focusing only on your strengths is dangerous, as well. Because people are more likely to get into trouble by misusing their strengths than by stumbling from a weakness. As counter-intuitive as that sounds, it’s true.
Why do I say that? Well, as Michael Watkins says in “The First 90 Days”, every strength has its attendant pitfall, and the qualities that made you successful in the past can prove to be a weakness in newer roles. Over-relying on a strength can cause you, like an overworked muscle, to get out of balance – causing you to avoid other key aspects of a job or task that are equally important. “Certain skills relied upon too heavily can become weaknesses,” says Center for Creative Leadership expert Sylvester Taylor. “Being overly decisive, for example, can lead to the impression of arrogance.” Or, for example, the strongly articulate leader needs to know when to keep quiet, or risk being seen as a know-it-all or an attention-hog.
So, how do you know when you are over-relying on your strengths?
When they become knee-jerk responses. The problem with this is, your strengths may not necessarily be right or relevant to answer the current problem. For example, an agency creative leader who is a strong TV writer may focus on writing TV commercials to solve a problem, when what is needed is a direct marketing effort. Or, a leader taking on a new team uses his attention to detail and organizational strengths – the traits that got him promoted to this new position – and ends up micro-managing and stifling them. As I’ve posted in the past, don’t assume the results you’ve achieved in the past are projectable to current situations. Instead, always diagnose the real problem you’re solving for and what is needed from you and the team for success. It may require you to leverage different skills than you have before.
When your strengths keep you from trying new things. It’s true, when you know what you’re good at, you do it a lot. And you tend to stay away from things you don’t view as strengths. But the fact is, you naturally won’t be good at anything you’re not doing very much. It becomes a vicious circle – the more you rely on your strengths, the less you do other activities, and the less likely you become to do or try them in the future. While it’s important to know what you are not inherently or innately good at, at the same time it’s important to find ways to be good enough at lots of things you don’t see as strengths. And I’ve said before how important it is to try things and do things. Sometimes you’ll find you’re better at them (and enjoy doing them more) than you ever thought.
When your strength makes you seem arrogant. To you, acting on your strength is a way to solve problems, get stuff done, and be successful. To others, it can make you look like a show-off. Never forget your humility – being good at something doesn’t mean you’re better than others, or that you’re allowed to act superior towards those less adept than you. Stay in tune with yourself and others, regardless of how good you are at things.
When you seem like you’re on auto-pilot. Over-relying on your strengths can get you stuck in a rut. Your response to any problem becomes the same. You, and your team, can become predictable – minimizing creativity, open-mindedness and innovation. Again, stop and think about the problem. And, occasionally, flip your strength on its head – what if you couldn’t use it? What else would you need to try?
So what should you do about your strengths? First of all, recognize that strengths are good – you’ll need them to succeed. But be conscious of them. And rein them in, occasionally. This can be hard to do – you’ll need self awareness and self control. But you’ll find that when you dial back on your overused strength, you’ll give yourself space to step-up your other, under-leveraged ones.
What are your thoughts? Care to share any examples?