February 12, 2013

Strength or Weakness?

Think about someone you work with and know well. Now think about their greatest strength. Is it a strength or is it a weakness? It’s probably both.

Last week I was talking to a coworker about how “a person’s weakness is an overextension of their strength.” I was surprised to find this was a new concept to her, as it is so familiar to me. The idea that a strength, in excess, could become a weakness was explained to me by my mentor, Jerry Smith, about 20 years ago, and I’ve found it to be true in many situations with many different people.

A manager whose strength is being very compassionate and empathetic (a great trait, we all would agree) may, as an overextension of that strength, find it difficult to deliver bad news or hold people accountable. A super-thorough detail person may take that strength too far and be unable to efficiently make decisions because of “analysis paralysis.” The person with the enthusiastic “can-do” attitude who says “yes” to anything asked of him or her may end up stressed and frustrated by taking on too much and attempting to put 10 gallons in a five-gallon bucket. And the driven, results-oriented performer may create collateral damage with coworkers while doing whatever it takes to get the job done. I’m sure you’ve seen these issues on a professional and maybe even a personal level as well.

Understanding this concept can be useful in several ways. First, it can help in simply relating to others. We tend to notice the flaws in others. When you do, think about whether that “flaw” may actually be the other side of the coin of that person’s greatest strength – a strength you probably value and can really appreciate.

Second, if you are a supervisor, realize this overextension issue is typically a blind spot for people. If you have employees whose strength is being likable and relating well to others, they’ll usually think they should work on being even nicer, as it’s a trait they strongly value. As their manager, if this is becoming an issue (their inability to give constructive feedback, reluctance to call someone on unacceptable behavior, etc.), it is important to help them see the possible weakness that comes with their great strength. Coaching someone on this can be difficult, but it’s ultimately very helpful for employees’ professional and personal development.

Finally, for yourself, it’s natural to identify with and gravitate toward situations in which you can take advantage of your strengths. However, consider the associated weaknesses and attempt to manage those as well. Unfortunately, this will not come naturally, so you will need to put proactive thought into it, putting in place mechanisms to force discipline on yourself. For instance, if someone asks me for feedback, I’m usually not short on ideas and opinions. This is great when people want to brainstorm things or truly want advice, but sometimes people don’t want feedback. They may just want to inform me about what they have decided, or sometimes people just want someone to listen. I’ve tried to tell people to let me know at the beginning of the conversation if they’re not looking for feedback and just want me to listen. I also try (notice I did say “try” – it’s hard to go against your natural tendencies) to remain patient in listening, and ask them what they think they should do before jumping in with my flurry of input. Being open and honest with people (and yourself) about your natural tendencies benefits everyone.

We are all different and we all bring different strengths to the table. For the most part, this is great, but sometimes we bring a little too much of that strength and it becomes our weakness. Understanding that fine line may help you better understand a coworker, coach an employee, or even improve your own performance.

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