This question came across my desk recently: “Can a strength also be a weakness?” My answer: “Yes, absolutely!” In fact, when a strength goes into overuse, it has become a weakness. Here are a couple of examples:
David has the strength of Communication as about #3 (according to Gallup, our top 5 are considered signature strengths, meaning we draw upon them very frequently). He speaks eloquently, choosing just the right phrasing and everyone appreciates his ability with words. However, in some situations the need associated with this strength, (and every strength has specific needs), is not getting met. David compensates by overtalking. His need to be understood has triggered him. He wants to be understood so much that he is repeating himself with endless examples until the listeners want to cry, “Uncle!”
Janet has Responsibility as a signature strength. She always delivers on her promises, and is a hard-working team member. When this strength goes into overuse, Janet takes on more than she can comfortably manage, and resentment sets in toward others. What was the need of that strength that wasn’t being met? She needed for others to be responsible, the way she defines being responsible. This is where clear communication of expectations is important. Her colleagues may have a different definition of what their responsibility is. A helpful question might be, “For what part of this project are you taking ownership, and what part do you see as mine?” Sounds simplistic, yet we often make assumptions about roles and responsibilities that turn out to be the very points that set our colleagues off.
Some estimate that about 66% of weakness is misapplied strength – where they are in overuse or underuse. An example of a strength becoming a weakness through underuse might be Positivity. When someone has this strength high in their profile and they land in a department that is on the negative side, a lot of complainers, they can get triggered, have low energy and performance. Their need for an uplifting, positive environment may create this kind of reaction, and their strength of Positivity goes missing.
Whenever any of us isn’t performing at our best, one good way to find out what is going on is to determine the unmet need and, where possible, fill it. In the examples above, each person could take steps to get the unmet need filled if they knew that was what was happening. Much of the time, we don’t realize how our strengths are showing up or that they require certain conditions in order to thrive and flourish. When we are leading team members who get triggered, it can be helpful to ask them, calmly, “What is it that you are needing now?” When we, ourselves, have our buttons pushed, before reacting, we can ask that same question. By simply knowing what a particular strength is calling for, we can usually get back on track.
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