Being our best

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In the second of our series of articles exploring strengths application in the workplace, Grace Walsh (one of the Bailey & French team) shares a personal story illustrating the difference between weaknesses and overplayed strengths, and how both impact performance:

Some years ago now, before Bailey & French, one workshop to this day sticks out in my mind, as an example of how our behaviour can negatively impact the people around us and how a lack of awareness can be our potential demise.

It was with a senior leader – we’ll call him ‘Andy’ – and his immediate team. In the session we were exploring the concept of strengths, where we asked everyone to identify five strengths and talk more about this strength and how they use it in their work. Some people were tentative in identifying their strengths, taking time to mull over the strengths cards on the table. Andy was quick off the mark to identify his strengths and was the first to be vocal about how he used them and how his strengths had brought him success in their career.

Andy identified ‘Creative’, ‘Curious’, ‘Flexible’, ‘Confident’ and ‘Spontaneous’. The company was a successful, growing marketing and communications business. He spoke fluidly about how being spontaneous and flexible enabled him to adapt and change direction, and ebb and flow with industry trends and client needs. During this time, I noticed the rest of the team quiet and reserved. They didn’t respond to what he was saying or engage with and confirm his thoughts, but merely nodded their heads in agreement when he caught their eye.

We then moved on to exploring and identifying which strengths we can overplay and how that behaviour comes across to others. At this stage, Andy was resolute: he felt he didn’t overplay any of his strengths. He could only see them as such, strengths, and couldn’t give an example of when he had, even once, overplayed any of them. Others in the team were reflective and good conversations formed around the table about not only their effective use of strengths, but also the ones, at times, they overplay.

After the session, when most had left the room, Andy’s assistant came to me and said how working with Andy was becoming more and more difficult and that the company was going through a really challenging time. She said that Andy was constantly changing his mind and that his impulsiveness was causing huge stress and strain, as others in the team were running around after him, picking up the pieces. They already had people leaving the team and in many ways his behaviour was impacting the business negatively.

She continued to say that although everyone respected Andy, and that his strengths (he genuinely was creative, adaptable and confident), had won them initial success. He took risks when they needed to at the beginning to make a name in their industry, when the business was a in a different place and needed a different approach. But today, everyone could see the negative impact his behaviour had on other people, though due to his lack of awareness and over confidence he was not able see this.

This situation reveals the importance of understanding our ‘overplayed strengths’. Andy had used his strengths to bring him and his colleagues success. He was able to sell the vision and people in his team had been inspired by his confidence and his willingness to embrace risks. However, because he couldn’t ‘dial down’ his strengths use, his behaviour became increasingly problematic. I later found out that the company unfortunately continued to flounder and eventually the business closed.

There are distinct differences between an overplayed strength and a weakness. A strength is something we love doing and our energised by. We can often be less tuned in to the potential of this being overplayed, or used badly, because it is part of who we are and we love doing it, so why would we not try use it as much as we can? Weaknesses, on the other hand, are often something we are naturally more aware of, because we don’t enjoy using them – it feels difficult and after we’ve used weaknesses we feel drained of energy.

We can learn to use our strengths better, at the appropriate time and being cognisant of the impact of our behaviour on other people. For example, using humour in a meeting can be a great way to put people at ease, specifically in a potentially tense situation. It relaxes people and, and laughing creates positive emotions which, the research now shows, can help enhance our cognitive ability. And yes, humour is a strength! However, if that humour is overplayed and used in too many contexts and inappropriately, it can come across that we are frivolous and unprofessional.

One way to build awareness is to seek feedback from colleagues and friends. The most successful and emotionally intelligent people I’ve worked with and coached look and ask for feedback regularly – feedback is viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow. It is welcomed. With the situation above, Andy didn’t look for feedback. In the workshop, it would have been a great opportunity to ask if other people had examples of when his strength overplayed. However, he didn’t ask and the more he continued to talk only about the upside of his strength the more unlikely people around him were comfortable in saying anything different. And, when challenged, it was unfortunately met with resistance.

To help organisations build awareness around strengths and how to apply that knowledge most effectively, we’ve developed a series of six 45-minute workshops. Click here for the range of workshops. Held via an online learning platform, team members can dial in from wherever they are, making the sessions scalable and accessible across multiple sites. Simple and practical, they are designed to be both enjoyable and highly relevant to day-to-day life – helping the learning to stick.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be posting articles every day, exploring each of these areas from a theoretical, business or personal perspective. Follow us on LinkedIn to make sure you don’t miss them, and for more information drop us an email or give us a call on 01273 830830.

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