Strengths Can Be Weaknesses

It’s widely known that strengths taken to an extreme become weaknesses. But you wouldn’t know it from talent management theories and practices.

The reality of overplayed strengths has not been integrated into talent management’s conception of performance, and it has not been consistently applied to talent assessments or development.

Think about it: nowhere in the common conception of talent is there a place made for strengths taken to an extreme. In most organizations, strengths and weaknesses are a constant refrain. The concept of weaknesses is a catch-all repository for both true limitations and for strengths used to excess. It’s a confused mess.

The idea of strengths-based leadership, made popular by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton’s book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” succumbs to the same blind spot: “Don’t bother with fixing weaknesses because that will never spell success; far better to capitalize on your strengths.”

Painfully absent from this argument, however, is the ever-present risk that what you’re best at is what you’re most likely to take too far — and that can cripple your effectiveness. If you’re demanding — you won’t settle for anything less than high performance — inevitably you are in danger of being too tough on people. This is what the sage Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he warned: “Stand in terror of your talents.”

Most 360-degree surveys are sucked into the same black hole. One common type of 360 asks respondents to rate the person on a five-point scale: “To what extent does the individual … take charge, delegate, plan ahead, follow through, etc.?” An average score of five or close to five looks ideal when in fact it could, and often does, also indicate overuse. Because there’s no way to tell, strengths taken to an extreme go dangerously undetected.

When it comes to identifying and correcting overuse, talent management falls down on the job. Leaders themselves generally aren’t up to the task either. The greater their strength, the more strongly they identify with it, and the harder it is for them to imagine taking it too far. Dangerously, leaders left to their own devices fall prey to the assumption that more is better.

When strengths taken to an extreme make it onto someone’s development plan, talent management practice is hindered by another blind spot, a massive collective one. Leaders are expected to rein themselves in or take a behavioral approach. Take the leader who has to be the smartest guy in the room. Conventional wisdom says put a lid on it — talk less, listen more.

That willpower-driven approach is fine as far as it goes, but it ignores the underlying causes of the behavior, which are often rooted in a skewed mindset. In that regard, what leaders and their talent managers often overlook is the developmental value of positive feedback.

There aren’t many universals in talent management but, in our decades of experience consulting to senior leaders all over the world, the universal assumption is that the value of feedback resides in the criticism. For managers everywhere, positive feedback feels good but is somewhat irrelevant; on the other hand, negative feedback is “what I can do something about.”

Positive feedback can fix a strength taken to an extreme because people who overdo it are often overcompensating for an imagined inadequacy. In our experience, the executive who has to be the smartest one in the room often privately worries about being smart enough. Reassured by plenty of praise for brainpower, he or she stops trying too hard.

How can an organization avoid these blind spots in talent assessment and development? In our new book, “Fear Your Strengths,” we outline a multifaceted approach. First, incorporate a measure of leadership effectiveness that captures strengths taken to an extreme. Second, harness the power of positive feedback to allay the unwarranted sense of inadequacy from which overused strengths often spring. Never assume that praise given is praise received. Third, implement performance-improvement practices that maximize a leader’s strengths while avoiding the collateral damage from overusing those strengths.