Given the choice, most people try to play to their strengths. A naturally athletic child will sign up for lots of sports teams; a friendly, outgoing college student who loves being surrounded by people will likely prefer a career in teaching over a job in IT.
For the past 20 years, this philosophy—strengths-based theory—has dominated everything from career development and leadership to education and psychology. But research suggests that relying too much on our strengths can lead to major blind spots.
A client who I work with as a career coach, “James,” is a great example of a person who can take his strengths too far. Like many managers, James is an expert problem-solver. In every personality assessment he’s ever taken, being analytical is a quality that comes forth as his dominant strength.
But at times, James’ tendency to rely on logic in every situation, no matter the context, becomes a roadblock. Type A to a fault, he values structure and planning above all else, which is hard to come by in the fast-paced tech company he works for. And so he can get tripped up when he needs to respond quickly to change, and perhaps alter his previous plans. He becomes paralyzed because he feels out of control. And so his problem-solving strength becomes a handicap.
Too much of a good thing
In this sense, we’re all a bit like Wonder Woman. The DC comics superhero is masterful warrior because she grows up on the all-female Paradise Island. Her physical strength and moral conviction are the direct result of being raised there, isolated from machinations of the “real” world. But the idealism that makes her powerful also makes her vulnerable.
This concept is referred to as strengths in excess. I see this same pattern in people at all levels, no matter their rank, industry, gender, or role. A doctor who excels at staying calm and even-keeled in high-pressure situations may also struggle to express emotion with patients who crave empathy. A landscape architect who’s highly detail-oriented will excel at her job, but may sometimes veer into counterproductive perfectionism. A marketing assistant who’s a loyal team player is admirable—but not if he puts so much value on trying to fit in that he has no boundaries, and lets other people push him around.
Strengths in excess can lead to inflexibility. If left unchecked, we become susceptible to overconfidence or arrogance. Lack of self-awareness leads to tone-deaf tweets at one level and groupthink that shuts out new perspectives at another.
The solution is not to fixate obsessively on our weaknesses—according to research, overly harsh self-criticism undermines motivation and can lead to procrastination. Instead, what we need to do is change our understanding of our strengths. As author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham explains in his book Now, Discover Your Strengths, “Strengths are not activities you’re good at, they’re activities that strengthen you … after you’ve done it, it seems to fulfill a need of yours.”
Put simply, it’s rewarding to do things that we find difficult. In psychology, this is called self-efficacy— and it’s the foundation of confidence.
To gain a better understanding of how to put your strengths to work, I recommend following these steps.
We tend to have a one-sided view of our capabilities, whether positive or negative. Get a well-rounded assessment of your strengths and weaknesses by taking evidence-based personality assessments. Even better, conduct a 360 review with your friends, colleagues, and family.
I’ve done a makeshift version of this in the past by sending an anonymous survey to people in my life asking a few simple questions:
- What do you think are my three best qualities?
- What’s one thing I could do to be a better colleague/partner/friend?
I let them know I’m not fishing for compliments, and ask them to please be as honest as possible.
When you get feedback, don’t freak out
Nobody likes negative feedback. It hurts our ego and feels like rejection. Deep down, we all want to be good—so even constructive criticism can leave us feeling vulnerable.
If you find yourself getting upset because your partner thinks you watch too much TV or your co-worker thinks you procrastinate too much on projects, curb the desire to ruminate. Accept your emotional response for what it is: normal.
Mind the gap
Next, identify specific behaviors that you can change or improve upon. For example, since James is so analytical, he worked on loosening up his well-intentioned inner control freak. This meant he had to get a grip on his insecurity about delegating, for starters.
He started by making a list of all the meetings he currently attended. Then, he honestly assessed if his presence in each meeting was necessary. If it wasn’t, he assigned it to someone else or said no to attending altogether. Not only did he free up hours of time in his schedule each week, he also realized that stepping back actually gave junior staff members a chance to take on more responsibility—a sign of true leadership.
Seek out activities that don’t come naturally
Focusing on your strengths to the exclusion of encountering new experiences is how many people end up feeling stuck in their lives and careers. If you care about growing and changing, it’s best to intentionally put yourself in challenging situations.
For instance, even if you weren’t great at math in school, prove to yourself that you can still learn to deal with numbers by managing your own finances. If you don’t think you’re “creative,” volunteer to be a part of creative projects at work—precisely because you want to push your limits. And remember—even superheroes have their weaknesses.