Can We Overdo Our Strengths?



June 2009

Can We Overdo Our Strengths?

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Does everyone recall the Strengths’ Finder analysis tool? I used that with our staff to consider how well we were doing in balancing the capabilities of each member and addressing areas in which we needed to add strengths. It was a valuable and interesting exercise. In fact, it was easy to see that we were a bit “unbalanced” in terms of strengths—a natural tendency in the hiring patterns of a small group.

Now—in the February 2009 edition of the Harvard Business Review, one of my favorite publications, Robert Kaplan and Robert Kaiser discuss the dangers of focusing too much on strengths. In “Stop Overdoing Your Strengths,” Kaplan and Kaiser suggest that strengths can be taken too far. They point to a supportive boss who lets problems get out of hand by allowing negative behaviors to continue.In many discussions with other CIDM members, we agreed that it was important to identify and build on our strengths rather than focus on correcting weaknesses. As we all recognized, correcting weaknesses is notoriously difficult. Better to build from our strengths.

Not only is it detrimental to an organization when someone takes a strength to an extreme, Kaplan and Kaiser learned in their research that even moderate overdoing can be negative. Let’s consider the supportive manager. She wants to help people build on their strengths so she overlooks clear shortcomings or behaviors that upset others members of her group. She doesn’t press the offenders for fear of increasing their stress levels. However, at the same time, she affectively increases everyone else’s stress levels and ultimately decreases the entire group’s productivity.

Or, think about the distinctly different manager. She is always strong and forceful in creating a sense of urgency among her staff. She points out continuously that if they don’t do better, layoffs and outsourcing is likely. She pushes them to engage in new, costly initiatives. However, just as the hard work seems to be paying off and everyone is engaged, she stops the project. In her rush to judgment, she believes that any temporary decrease in the group’s productivity will be viewed negatively by her management. Her need to appear strong and always in control effectively destroys individual contributions among her staff and turns them off to future initiatives.

Overplaying a strength, as Kaplan and Kaiser point out, is dangerous.

Finding a Balance among Your Strengths

We are often justifiably proud of our strengths. One manager might have the ability to develop rapport with colleagues in other parts of the organization. Another manager might be direct and forceful with feedback to staff members. Another may be proud of her ability to keep everyone happy with the organization and their work. However, each manager might be surprised to discover that others don’t see his or her strengths in as positive a light.

The manager who develops great rapport with other colleagues might be seen as disengaged from the work of his department. Staff members believe he spends too much time “schmoozing” and too little time actually producing any substantive results for the department.

The manager who prides himself on being direct and forceful may be viewed as overly aggressive and combative. The manager who keeps everyone happy with lots of parties, celebrations, and games may be viewed as too little concerned with real productivity and progress toward goals.

Each manager would be wise to look at the reason that he or she values a particular strength. The rapport-seeking manager may discover that he may not be respected if he is not continuously supported by colleagues. When people enjoy talking to him, he views that as positive reinforcement.

The overly aggressive manager also wants respect for his skills and abilities. He wants to be seen as an expert in every situation and feels threatened when others don’t take him seriously.

The manager who keeps everyone happy may be insecure and seeking attention. She wants everyone to like her; as a result, she never criticizes anyone’s work.

Kaplan and Kaiser acknowledge that making a change is difficult since strengths are areas of considerable personal value and hard work. It’s hard for anyone to imagine that what they most value in their own traits may be viewed negatively by others. Or, they may consider all the others to be wrong in their judgment. The authors’ research showed that 55% of the managers were “rated by coworkers as using too much of at least one leadership attribute.” Most of the managers so rated did not themselves perceive that they were overdoing a strength.

Evaluating Your Potential for Overdoing

Does your organization conduct 360 degree reviews? Kaplan and Kaiser suggest looking at the areas in which you receive the highest ratings. Ask your staff about those areas that have potential for overdoing. Ask people if you should do more of something or less of something.

Kaplan and Kaiser outline two areas that you might want to examine. They call these areas the “What” and the “How” of leadership.

The What of Leadership
Are you being “strategic”? Are you concerned about the long-term future of your organization, focused on helping it grow and promoting innovations?Are you being “operational”? Are you focused on short-term results, looking for day-to-day efficiencies in operations and making certain that people follow the correct processes and procedures?

The How of Leadership

Are you being “forceful”? Are you a person who prefers to take charge, defending your positions and setting high expectations for everyone on your staff?

Are you being an “enabler”? Are you the manager who listens to others, gives them lots of freedom to work as they wish, and is sensitive to their needs?

The stronger you are in one area of leadership, the weaker you may be in the opposite. If you are very strategic in your thinking, you may neglect day-to-day operational efficiencies. That neglect may make your strategic goals much more difficult to achieve.

Kaplan and Kaiser report that their research shows that only 5% of managers are completely balanced. The other 95% are much better on one side of the two areas than the other. But being lopsided is not necessarily a benefit to your organization. Achieving more balance may make your organization more successful.

One manager who was very enabling and not very forceful with her staff might recognize that she was keeping her group from becoming more innovative and strategic. The staff was happy, but they were happy doing what was easiest for them to do. Not until she recognized that she was overdoing “enabling” did the staff finally feel a sense of urgency about improving operational efficiencies and introducing innovations. This manager needed to become more forceful if she wanted to achieve her strategic goals.

As the authors advise, it’s your job to “take control of your career.” You need to evaluate and manage your strengths so that they don’t become weaknesses. CIDMIconNewsletter



References:“Stop Overdoing Your Strengths,” Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser, Harvard Business Review, February 2009, pp. 100-103