When strengths go too far – tips to avoid the overdrive trap

Your strengths are your greatest gifts…and your greatest risk areas too – how so?

So…..your strengths are your greatest gifts, the very best way you can bring value to your role and to your team, using them helps you feel at your most authentic best, right? Yeah, strengths can bring you all of that. And, use them too frequently or in the wrong way at the wrong time or with the wrong people and your strengths can lead to outcomes you didn’t want or that you weren’t expecting.  That’s what we call strengths in overdrive. And there are several ways that you can avoid the overdrive trap.  Today’s podcast is about exactly that – how to stay authentic and true to yourself without your strengths being turned up to 11 out of 10 all the time.

What’s happening physiologically when we’re using our strengths at their best

There’s a thing about strengths – at Strengthscope, we define your strengths as those qualities that energise you (that’s part of the definition anyway, we also include aspects of skill and mastery in how we think about strengths), so let’s think about that for a minute a bit technically. If you’re energised, then at the physiological level, you’re in a heightened state of activation of your autonomic nervous system, which is part of the nervous system that regulates breathing, heart rate, digestion rate, those kinds of things. So – when we’re using our strengths at their optimum, our autonomic nervous system is going to be in a good place…geared for high performance, maybe even for ‘flow’ experiences where we’re ‘in the zone’ and time is distorted because we’re so focused on what we’re doing. All good. Except…there’s a fine line between optimum autonomic activation and the beginnings of over-stimulation which can all too quickly lead to more of a stress response…that is, flight, fight or freeze.

And what happens when they tip into overdrive?

Bringing that into a strengths context then, it’s 100% possible that when you’re using your strengths super-well, and you’re focused, engaged, at your best, the introduction of something new or unexpected could tip you into what we’re calling strengths in overdrive. So – stress is a trigger for strengths in overdrive appearing. How can we get over this? How can we overcome the effects of stress and how that might affect our performance, behaviour and in this case our effective use of strengths?

What can it look like when a strength is at its best?

First up, know your strengths – what do they look like at their best?  And what about when they go too far? So for me, let’s pick one at random – Collaboration is really important to me…finding things in common with other people: common goals, interests etc.  And that can be great for building rapport, driving towards a shared objective, overcoming conflict and tension in a group – whole load of positive outcomes.

And how might that change under stress?

But under pressure, it can become less helpful – I might be looking for common ground when there’s none to be found…or trying to connect with someone who doesn’t want that connection…oversharing perhaps to do that, which just makes it worse. Again, it will depend on the situation and the person but I know that those are tendencies that relate to my Collaboration strength in overdrive. So, I know what it looks like at its best but I also need to be mindful of when it’s going too far and what might trigger that to happen. It could be when I can’t see a way forward or find an answer; it could be when I’m tired and not so conscious of how I’m using my strengths. In either situation, I might be prone to Collaboration in overdrive. So, what should I do about that to avoid the overdrive trap?

What can I do about it to avoid the overdrive trap?

  1. I can develop some strategies to reduce the stress, by buying myself time and not necessarily trying to get to an answer right there.
  2. Predicting the situation because I’ve been there before…maybe it’s with a particular person and I know that can happen, so I choose not to try and Collaborate.
  3. I use a different strength than my Collaboration to get to a good outcome, which allows me to stay ‘in the zone’ but I switch to something else, like Empathy by shifting the focus to the other person rather than me feeling that I need to do all the bridge-building and connecting when actually that might not be what’s needed or what they want.

But that’s just me, and that’s just one combination of a strength in overdrive being countered by a more helpful strength choice at that point in time. You have your strengths to choose from, your stressors and your own tactics as to how to navigate through that. To do that well, it tends to come down to observing your own behaviour in different situations to see what’s going to work for you.

Stress can be a major factor in overdrive

Strengths in overdrive, then, are brought about by at least a couple of big things…

First stress, which actually come from many places. It could be in the moment, like I’ve just described. But it could be more long-lasting that that, say stress that’s brought about by a change of role or a change of circumstances or by events at work or outside of work. So in those situations, being more mindful of you at your best and whether you’re actually at your best or whether in fact you’re pulling really hard on your ‘go to’ strengths when a better option might be to be kinder to yourself and chill out a bit because that will get you a better result.

And so can habit – sometimes you’ll need to build new strengths habits

Second, habit. We get into patterns of behaviour by drawing on certain of our personal qualities, our strengths in order to get a good outcome. And what got you here should get you there, right? Not necessarily because a change in context or people can make a big difference to how your strengths are seen. Imagine the manager who has shown how they can be a really effective team leader with 10 direct reports by drawing on their Leading and Results focus strengths to develop a clear vision and then drive everyone towards it. Because of that in part, they get promoted. And they’re now for the sake of argument in a matrix leadership role with very few direct reports but a bunch of people they need to influence to meet their role objectives. Now those strengths of Results focus and Leading can still be really useful to them, but not in the same way as before.

If they copy and paste their usual behaviour (Leading and Results focus driving things forward) into their new situation, they’re going to risk winding people up and pushing them away – ‘who is this human, they’re not my boss, man they’re shouty, this is actually quite disrespectful’ etc, etc. So, the habits we get into in one context we may well need to look at when we find ourselves in another. If that new matrix leader took a more collegiate, collaborative approach to build a collective vision of what was needed and could spend time understanding their new stakeholders and what success looked like for them, and THEN bring in the Results to help them get there, perfect. But that needs new habits to be built and it needs a high level of self-awareness which BTW, they can being themselves but equally getting feedback from others can be very useful too, just to get a sense of whether you’re getting the balance about right. With strengths in overdrive, someone else’s 11 out of 10 interpretation of you, could feel more like your 6 or 7.  So, observe yourself, ask others, reflect on more challenging situations where things haven’t quite gone according to plan and ask yourself whether a different use of strengths could be in order.

So what are the top tips to avoid the overdrive trap?

In summary then, to avoid the overdrive trap, do these things…

  1. Know your strengths at their best and when they’re going too far
  2. Know what your stress triggers are and tread carefully in situations which are likely to cause you to be stressed – have some stress reduction techniques ready
  3. Understand your audience and your context and choose your strengths accordingly. Some strengths are simply not welcome in some places or with some people. Switch to other strengths in those situations.

Do those things and you will still be living and working and leading authentically, but in a way that is attuned to your setting and the people around you. So a kind of skilled authenticity. Being yourself, more of the time, with skill. Till next time, stay strong, but skilfully.