When strengths are overdone or used in the wrong way, they can lead to negative unintended consequences and undermine performance and relationships. In fact, this is arguably the greatest source of performance and relationships problems for individuals, teams and even whole organisations. And the higher one progresses in an organisation, the greater the impact of overdrive behaviours. Our history is replete with examples of leaders who have failed because or lopsided leadership, including Margaret Thatcher, Silvio Berlusconi and the ex-CEO of RBS, Fred Goodwin.
We have found that there a three types of overdrive risks that show up most often:
Many people, especially those who don’t engage in much reflection and self-improvement, develop deeply habituated ways of dealing with tasks and decisions based on what’s worked for them in the past. These habits are often developed over years, and even decades, and are therefore stubborn and difficult to change. For example, a newly promoted technical manager might continue to apply their Results-focus and Decisiveness strengths in the same way they used them before assuming people management responsibilities, as these worked well for them in an individual contributor role. However, the effect of these strengths in their new role are likely to demotivate members of their team as decisions are made autocratically and without any attempt to involve the team.
Stubborn habits involving one or more strengths in overdrive are often difficult to shift, but can be shifted by ensuring heightened awareness of the new behaviours required for the role and how these relate to one’s strengths, ensuring regular feedback (ideally 360-degree feedback from a broad range of co-workers) on how effective these behaviours are in improving performance and relationships and through regular practice of new skills and behaviours. Through learning to better monitor their strengths ‘gauge’ across different situations and practising the art of dialling back on strengths that are over-used, people can minimize the risk of overdrive behaviours showing up.
Research shows that it takes around 3-4 months of regular practice to unfreeze old behaviours and replace these with new behaviours and habits, as anyone who has taken up a new sport like running or going to the gym knows. Practice truly does make perfect, but only if it is intentional and accompanied by regular check-ins, feedback, self-reflection and evaluation of progress.
Stress or pressure
Stress and pressure often accentuate overdrive behaviours. For example, if someone in accounts who has high Detail Orientation is put under pressure to produce a crucial financial report for the executive team, their focus on detail might lead to perfectionism and over-checking. This may slow down their work and cause them to miss the deadline for submitting the report.
Stress and pressure don’t always arise from excessive work demands or fast-changing work conditions. It can also arise when people feel their values and beliefs are being threatened at work. For example, if someone has a strong fairness value, this may result in their Courage strength going into overdrive if their manager gives them what they perceive to be an unfair performance review and/or pay rise. This might cause them to be unintentionally brazen and forceful towards their manager because of the internal stress and dissonance they are experiencing.
Awareness of what happens to your strength/s in times of stress and pressure is key. Once overdrive behaviours are understood, it is important to take action to minimize the risks of overdrive. Specific actions a person can take beyond awareness of specific triggers include: getting feedback from others on when and where their overdrive behaviours are showing up; specific actions to deal with stress responses such as meditation and relaxation exercises prior to engaging in a stressful task and developing complementary skills and behaviours to deal more effectively with stress, e.g., resilience and stress management skills.
Company values and cultures can reinforce overdone strengths. For example, we have witnessed several examples of strongly execution-oriented environments that value short-term execution and results over everything else. These companies favour people with Strengthscope® strengths like Results-focus, Initiative and Decisiveness and put less emphasis on relational strengths like Collaboration, Compassion and Empathy. This lopsided approach to hiring, performance management and development can trigger overdrive behaviours including rash decision-making, directive management, and short-termism. People in this type of environment with the strengths that are aligned with the culture are likely be reinforced and rewarded for overdrive behaviours, even when these are damaging to the organisation’s longer-term future. Extreme examples of this include Enron, Sports Direct and some of the investment banks prior to the financial crisis.
This is a challenging trigger to address, as an employee is likely to remain unaware of their overdrive risks if these are being encouraged and rewarded. Even if they are aware of the risks, they will have little incentive to change their behaviour if it is actively promoted by the company’s values and culture. It is only when they change jobs or the company suffers a catastrophic failure as a result of the cumulative overdrive effects, that the employee will recognise the wrongs of their ways. A good example was Enron where overdrive behaviours associated with Decisiveness, Courage and Self-confidence led to a toxic culture characterized by hubris, greed, rash decision-making and narcissistic behaviour. It was only when the company failed that leaders (and employees more generally) took time to recognise the dire consequences of their dysfunctional behaviour. This is one of the reasons why it is important for leaders, teams and employees at every level of the organisation to be aware not only of their strengths, but also the overdrive risks and when these are showing up so they can put in checks and balances to ensure overdrive is not amplified throughout the organisation, resulting in lopsided behaviour and decision-making.
The risks and dangers of overdrive behavior need to be understood by all leaders and employees to help them guard against dysfunctional outcomes associated with lopsidedness and ineffective use of strengths. It is only through helping leaders and employees become more self-aware of their strengths that they can understand what their overdrive risks are and when these might be triggered. A good starting point is to ensure all management and career development programs (particularly personal/career development, coaching and management training) include strengths assessment and development exercises, as this will help reduce ‘blind spots’ and empower employees to understand and reduce the excesses of their strengths, improving both their performance and relationships.