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  • Writer's pictureDr. Mike Patterson

How are You Overdoing Your Strengths?

Four Ways in which You Might be Getting in Your Own Way

Most people like to talk about their strengths. Who wouldn’t? They’re a big part of our success and we feel good when we use them. What’s really great is when someone compliments us for how we’ve used one of them. It’s one of those brief moments of satisfaction when everything in the world seems right.

What’s not so fun is when we don’t use our strengths effectively and things don’t turn out as planned. In fact, sometimes we can make a real mess of things—even though we’re using those same strengths that often serve us so well. I’ve found it helpful to consider where things went wrong by analyzing how I may be overdoing or misusing certain strengths in a particular context. It’s not that I like to beat myself up; rather, it’s an attempt to do things differently—and a little better—the next time I’m in a similar situation.

I like to think of strengths likes tools—tools that help me get things done when I’m working with people. By doing so, I can isolate the behaviors that work and those that don’t work, or maybe didn’t garner the response I expected. With this insight, I can adjust accordingly.

Let me illustrate. Imagine hiring a handyman to come to your home to fix your bedroom window that’s been sticking for some time. It’s been a big annoyance, so you’re excited to have the help of a professional. When the day of your appointment finally arrives, you greet your knight in dirty work boots at the door, but you’re startled to see him standing there with a sledgehammer, hacksaw, and nothing else in his hands.

Something doesn’t seem right, so you ask where the rest of his tools are. His response startles you: “Well…these are the tools I use on all my jobs. I’m going to try to make them work here.” With some hesitation you lead the way to the source of the problem and your handyman goes to work. After a few minutes of pounding with the big hammer and hacking with the small saw, you’ve got a huge mess. You can’t get to Yelp fast enough to give the guy a horrible review!

Funny, right? The reality is that we do the same thing when we don’t bring the right tools (aka strengths) for the job we need to do. Just like the handyman in the story, we can make a real mess of things—even though we have good intentions. We may even think we’re using the right strengths, but if they don’t work in the situation, we’ve made a bad choice.

Here are four ways in which you may be getting in your own way when you’re using your strengths:

1. Frequency.

Are there a few strengths you try to use in every situation? My top strength is quick-to-act and I use it often. It usually serves me well because the faster I can get going on a project or respond to a client’s need, the better.

Sometimes I use it too much though and it gets me into trouble. I’ll jump in and start a project without discussing it with other stakeholders. Why wouldn’t they appreciate my proactive approach? I ask myself. Besides, they’ll just slow me down. And then, when I eventually get around to letting them know about the actions I’ve already taken, they may strongly disagree, have a better way of doing it, or in some cases, it’s already been done by someone else. It’s at that point, I discover that I’ve wasted time, money, and missed an opportunity to brainstorm with my colleagues on a better path forward.

Quick-to-Act is a great tool for me, but I can get myself in trouble when I always use it.

2. Duration.

It’s easy to use the examples of great entrepreneurs that persevered against the greatest of odds to eventually succeed. Milton Hershey, the chocolate king, fits this bill. Overcoming the failure of three failed candy companies, a major pivot from caramel to milk chocolate, and with a lifetime of hard work, Hershey is not only a household name, but simply hearing it now makes our mouths water.

But when I won’t let go of an idea, even though no one else buys it and three other suggestions will clearly work better, I am far less inspiring to my peers. Instead, I become the stubborn guy who resists change. If that label sticks, my reputation suffers.

3. Intensity.

Making the passionate and persuasive plea for additional funding for my pet project—to the point of becoming emotional about its importance—may not always work. This one is tricky in that some people in the meeting might offer a standing ovation after my big finish, while others will rate my performance as an “outrageous, over-the-top approach” to a conversation that should have stayed focused on the facts and strategic priorities.

We’re all wired different and psychology now recognizes that 15-20 percent of the population can be classified as highly sensitive. The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron to describe those who are more emotional sensitive and seem to feel stimuli more acutely. Neither good nor bad, it’s simply a characteristic of their personalities. The point here for the rest of us is that we may need to moderate our behavior to not appear as though we’re coming across as too much.

Too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing with certain people.

4. Context.

It’s about having a sense of time and place. Sharing an embarrassing childhood story might yield a good laugh at the family reunion, but it could be awkward and off putting during an important presentation at work. Likewise, it’s probably inappropriate for the ambitious salesperson to hand out business cards at a funeral. In these examples, an appreciation for the context is needed.

Situational awareness is an understanding of what’s going on in the environment and with people, along with a recognition of the implications of one’s actions within that situation. In some professions, situational awareness is a matter of life and death. But even in the typical office setting, the ability to read the room can become a primary factor affecting one’s success in an organization.

These key words form the acronym, FDIC (thanks to my friends at Core Strengths for organizing these ideas in such a memorable way). Those of us in the U.S. are grateful for the FDIC because they provide assurance that our money is safe in the bank. In the world of strengths, FDIC is a means of understanding how we may get ourselves in trouble when we don’t bring the right tool for the job.

Dr. Mike Patterson is an author, speaker, and master facilitator who helps leaders and teams communicate, collaborate, and manage conflict more effectively. He is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places, and he teaches in the doctoral programs at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and California Baptist University.

© 2021 Michael L. Patterson, Ed.D.

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