Don’t Let Strengths Become Setbacks

Many of us exercise to improve our strength and overall health, but there’s a break-even point. When we over-exercise, we no longer become stronger; instead, we strain our muscles, incur pain and actually decrease our performance. The same can occur with over-exercising our strengths: Performance could decrease after reaching a break-even point.

Consider the characteristics of the following three leaders:
• Mary, a director of volunteer services, is a warm and giving team player.
• Jack, a sales manager, asserts his independence and self-reliance to produce outstanding sales results.
• Donna, a nursing coordinator, is a passionate advocate for her profession.

It appears that any of these individuals would be a valuable contributor to the team, but the same strengths that support their successes can also act against them and turn into a professional liability.

For instance:
• Mary’s desire to help becomes intrusive when she involves herself in other people’s work without being asked.
• Jack disregards teamwork and often will follow his own agenda, instead of seeking input and fostering collaboration among his colleagues.
• Donna is narrowly focused on her own profession and alienates colleagues from other functional areas, such as finance and human resources.

We can see from these examples that over-exercised strengths can decrease performance effectiveness. But addressing these situations constructively in the workplace is delicate. On one hand, leaders need to be able to build, grow and flex their strengths to achieve personal satisfaction and professional success. On the other hand, they also need to discern when over-exercising their strengths will decelerate their professional momentum and impede their overall success.

How can talent managers effectively support leaders in changing their approach while still maintaining confidence in their own strengths? A few simple coaching techniques can help strike the right balance:

Focus on how the strength has contributed to the leader’s success. Ask the leader to describe the strength. When does he or she normally exert it? How has it contributed to his or her success? In which situations does the strength have the most positive impact? How do others react to this strength? What are the outcomes after flexing the strength? After assessing the leader’s perspectives, consider sharing your own observations of when the strength was demonstrated appropriately and effectively.

Focus on when the strength has detracted from the leader’s success. Ask the leader to describe a time when exerting the strength did not produce the intended results. What was the circumstance? Who was involved? What was his or her response? What was the ultimate outcome? After engaging the leader in dialogue, talent managers can consider sharing their own observations of when the strength was demonstrated without achieving intended or desirable results.

Identify the cues that emerge when the strength becomes a liability or when the break-even point is reached. Ask the leader to compare the successful and unsuccessful scenarios. How did the circumstances or environments differ? How did the individuals involved in each circumstance respond differently? What other cues were present to reflect whether the strength was exercised effectively or not?

Ask the leader how he or she will become more aware of the break-even point in future situations. How will the leader modify his or her approach when cues arise indicating that the strength is becoming a liability? What feedback or other information will the leader need to ensure he or she is flexing strengths to support successful outcomes? Who will provide this feedback and when?

Taking a thoughtful, strategic approach to this coaching interaction is critical because leaders who have exerted strengths and subsequently reaped intrinsic or external rewards in the past initially might not be receptive to this constructive feedback. They may defend their approach, blame others for being jealous of or threatened by the demonstrated strengths, or excuse their behavior by explaining that others are misinterpreting intentions.

Regardless of the excuses, effective leadership requires constant reputation management. If over-exercised strengths are damaging productivity, effectiveness or working relationships with others, then it’s time to consider a modified approach. A well-planned coaching interaction can support behavioral change through mutual dialogue, empathy, a blend of positive and constructive feedback, accountability and commitment toward improvement.

Anthony M. Gigliotti is an HR professional with more than 15 years of experience primarily within the health care industry, and has served as guest lecturer at several universities, including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at