Top 4 strategies for avoiding the strengths in overdrive trap


It used to be that people thought your strengths could never be overplayed…

Once upon a time, some strengths practitioners and thought leaders believed that strengths could never be overdone – that there was almost infinite positive energy to be mined from our strengths and that the more we used them, the better things became. For us, for our roles, for our colleagues and for our organisations.

Now I’m not here to tell you that strengths are a bad thing. We know that the negativity bias that we’re all surrounded by pretty much our entire lives – from parenting, school, college, work, media, really from society as a whole – while it had and has evolutionary benefits, it also pulls us away from our strengths to focus us on continually fixing things in ourselves that after a while give us diminishing returns.

Focus on your strengths at their best before going to the dark side

So it’s really important that first up in your journey into strengths, you recognise the positive form of those talents, energisers, strengths in yourself…how they define you at your best, how you can best put them to use to get more from every day, how you can let others know that your strengths are there for them to draw from too.

A sustained focus on strengths and strengths development is still what’s missing from so many people’s personal development strategy, from their day to day work lives and from their outside of work lives as well. The performance benefit that comes from focusing more on your strengths than on your deficits is significant and it arrives along with an increased ease, a lightness, even a joy that comes from consciously working on, using and sharing your strengths each day.

Strengths can be overplayed…so how can you avoid it?

So coming back to those early strength practitioners and thinkers…in short, they were wrong. Strengths can be overdone. They can go into overdrive – that’s a very specific term by the way. We use it to describe what happens when the energy from your strengths runs away with itself – still bringing you a positive feeling, but not leading to such positive outcomes for you or for others.  So in today’s podcast, I want to bring you 4 top strategies for dealing with strengths in overdrive.

Before you can go to those strategies though, you need to lay the groundwork and that means knowing your overdrive risks and knowing your triggers. So let’s go there first.

Know your strength in overdrive risks

Before you can do something about your strengths in overdrive, you need to know that your strengths are in overdrive. Sounds pretty obvious right? Well not always. I was once doing an introductory strengths session for a group of senior professionals who had all completed Strengthscope360 and had all received feedback on whether the stakeholders they had chosen to give them feedback on their strengths saw their strengths as being used effectively or whether they were not so visible or maybe were in overdrive. One person in the group was shocked and surprised when their report suggested that most (if not all) their strengths were in overdrive for a good proportion of the time. So much so that they vocally disagreed with this feedback and exclaimed – ‘Well all these people are WRONG!’.

Lols. Thing is, often strengths in overdrive are more visible to others than to ourselves. When we’re using a strength, fairly often, this is activating our autonomic nervous system, which controls a lot of our unconscious and subconscious functions. Using a strength positively and productively is likely to give us a rush, sometimes an experience of flow, and this is associated with the experience of ‘eustress’ – that is ‘good stress’ – which can motivate our body towards high performance.

But there’s a tipping point when ‘eustress’ can turn into ‘negative stress’ and this is often the point where a strength can turn into something that’s not necessarily going to lead to such positive outcomes – the state of overdrive. Under conditions of negative stress, our autonomic nervous system moves us onto more of a ‘war footing’, where we’re readying ourselves to fight, run away or reach out to others. It may also shock us into inaction.  That’s the fight, flight, freeze or faun response.  And this can be seen by others as a strength in overdrive…often before we notice it in ourselves.

It can be really helpful to get the kind of feedback that the delegate on the workshop I mentioned got and then take it to the next level with a colleague or two who you can trust and who can observe you and give you honest feedback on what they see when you’re showing your strengths – specifically whether and when they go into overdrive, which will typically be under conditions of pressure or stress.

In fact, I heard a client recently talk about how they had seen a colleague’s strength of Detail orientation go into overdrive when preparing a presentation deck and how they had got themselves into a never-ending spiral of detail.  Not the intended outcome right, but that person couldn’t seem to lift themselves out of the pattern they were in. What she reported doing was to take the person’s laptop (the one they were using to build the slides) and literally pass the laptop to a colleague who could complete the work by using a different strength set. That could be seen as pretty extreme, but if you’ve developed that level of trust and understanding in your relationship, and given permission to a colleague to take that kind of action if they spot you in overdrive, what a help that can be. In fact the person whose Detail orientation was in overdrive was so relieved when the intervention happened that it was evident to everyone around them!

So the first thing here is to get real about which of your strengths has the potential to go into overdrive and be honest about when that might have happened to you and what the result was. Without that, you ain’t getting much further on your journey, because you’ll be in the enviable place of believing that you’re perfect and that you’re never in overdrive. Which is possible but kind of unlikely given that you’re a human.

By the way, the Strengthscope® report gives you some helpful descriptions of each of your Significant 7 strengths if they’re in overdrive form – that should be useful in identifying the strengths that for you have the greatest potential to tip into overdrive under certain conditions.

Know what triggers overdrive for you

It’s most likely that the triggers for your strengths to tip into overdrive relate to experienced stress. Stress is a subjective phenomenon – what stresses out one person may well not have that effect on someone else and vice versa – so the next task is to observe, or ask others to observe, the situations when you’re most likely to see a strength tipping into overdrive.

Once you have a better handle on this – it could be a particular type of person, or situation, or challenge that causes stress for you. And each situation or person may trigger a different strength or strength combination to go into overdrive. Anyway, whatever your research turns up, you’ll be in a stronger position to predict when you’re most likely to experience overdrive and what happens as a result. This should give you some good evidence as to why it’s worth getting your overdrive into a more managed form.

Overdrive strategy 1: Prepare prepare prepare

Once you’ve identified your greatest strengths in overdrive risks and what sets them off, that is, you’ve done the essential groundwork, the best first strategy is to prepare (in situations where preparation is an option) so that your overdrive risks are minimised and you can continue to contribute productively.

What I mean by situations where preparation is an option is when you have identified perhaps people or work settings or meetings or any other situation where you experience your strengths moving into an overdrive state.

When you know, you can make a conscious choice to leave those overdrive risks at the door. To perhaps not even use overdrive-prone strength in that situation but to swap it out for another, telling yourself that ‘I don’t need this strength right now, another one will be more helpful.’

This takes honesty and it takes practice before you can do it easily but keeping your strengths and strengths in overdrive risks top of mind is an essential part of this.

Overdrive strategy 2: Bring in another strength

In situations where preparation isn’t possible or perhaps it hasn’t worked and you’ve been blindsided by a strength in overdrive popping up when you least wanted it.

Now you need to get some space to buy a little time before you can deploy overdrive strategy number 2. So take a breath, reconnect with your body, and feel yourself more in control. And when you’re ready, shift to another strength that can better help you get a good outcome in that situation.

In the example I gave earlier of the guy whose Detail orientation was in overdrive, he continued the story by saying that he was able to quickly shift away from Detail orientation (once his laptop was removed) by keying into his Collaboration strength and supporting his colleague in getting the presentation deck completed.

That’s a great example of staying in the zone but shifting your energy to somewhere more productive for you and others in that context. I often move to Collaboration or Empathy in situations where I’m getting too focused on Enthusiasm or Critical thinking to avoid negative outcomes. But you will have your own patterns and your can make your own choices about alternative strengths that can help in trigger situations.

Overdrive strategy 3: Bring in another human

As well as getting a nod or acknowledgement from a colleague that maybe they’re seeing your strength career into overdrive in the moment, another strategy you can use is to ask for someone else for help. Perhaps someone with a strength that would be more useful to get the outcome you’re looking for. In the Detail orientation example, that was someone with a Results focus strength who could move the presentation to a conclusion without getting caught up in too much detail.

So know who your ‘go to’ people are who can help get you out of an overdrive hole by bringing in their strengths when things are starting to get out of shape for you.

Overdrive strategy 4: Change state and remember that your strength is a strength

Apart from ‘in the moment’ breathing and other state change techniques, which give you greater choice over using an alternative strength or bringing in someone else’s, a more significant state change can help you bring your strength in overdrive back into a more balanced productive form and give you the perspective that you need to recognise that strength as a strength!

Getting space on an overdrive trigger situation also allows you time to reflect and consider how you might handle a similar situation next time, so that you can avoid repeating the same pattern and getting the same outcome.

In conclusion – give it a go and then practice

There are my 4 simple strategies for avoiding the strengths in overdrive trap.  But the most important steps are to get real about your overdrive risks and to get wise on when they’re most likely to show up. Get some feedback from colleagues, start observing your own energy and strengths in different settings and then pick your strategy accordingly. That’s it for this week. Till next time, stay strong.