Lopsided Leadership: When Strengths Fail

In the last decade, leadership-development experts have enthusiastically pushed to improve their clients’ strengths instead of addressing their weaknesses. This approach may have some success in growing individuals’ effectiveness, but it’s fundamentally flawed.

Strengths training and coaching have somewhat of a cult-like following among HR and coaching professionals. Leaders are encouraged to develop their unique strengths and focus on fortifying areas in which they’re naturally talented.

Amazon sells almost 8,000 books on the subject, including several bestsellers published by Gallup, whose StrengthsFinder assessment tool is now used by 1.6 million employees every year and 467 Fortune 500 companies.

In some companies, even the word “weakness” has become politically incorrect. Staff is instead described as having strengths and “opportunities for growth” or “challenges.”

It’s easy to see why concentrating on leadership strengths is popular. It’s more enjoyable to hone in on innate strengths and avoid discussing weaknesses. But when strengths-oriented programs emphasize a single leadership area, they bypass others—usually to a manager’s detriment.

When strengths are overemphasized, they’re often overused.

“We’ve seen virtually every strength taken too far: confidence to the point of hubris, and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We’ve seen vision drift into aimless dreaming, and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength and we’ll give you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career.”
—Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan, “Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses,” Harvard Business Review, April 04, 2013

Too Much of a Good Thing

Doing too much of something is as much of a problem as doing too little of it. Most managers can point to a leader who takes things too far: the supportive boss who cuts people a little too much slack or the gifted operational director whose relentless focus on results leads to micromanaging. It can be extremely difficult to recognize these behaviors in yourself.

Other leaders underestimate their assets, downplaying their efforts or deflecting positive feedback. They fail to understand and own the extent of their impact on others.

Successful leaders recognize and accept their talents. They learn how to fine-tune their strengths, becoming self-aware and attuned to appropriate context.

Management assessment tools are usually ill-equipped to pick up on overplayed strengths. Feedback and performance reviews are commonly structured on scales that range from “never” to “sometimes” to “always” (or “doesn’t meet expectations,” “meets them” or “exceeds them”). Assessment scales rarely indicate that a leader exercises too little, the right amount or too much of a quality.

Career Derailment

Overplayed strengths are often at the root of career failures. Analyses of derailed leaders show they often rely excessively on qualities linked to past successes but less relevant to current roles.

“What got you here won’t get you there,” Marshall Goldsmith famously stated in his book by the same name (Hachette Books, 2007).

Many leaders fear they’ll lose their edge if they stop overplaying a strength. They must instead learn to use this strength more selectively.

This may be the hardest developmental work you take on. Behavioral changes are a demanding goal, and it’s even harder to change or modulate what you’ve always done well. You must trace your leadership behavior back to the faulty thinking that led you to form false assumptions at some point in your career. This doesn’t mean you have to go into therapy. You can work with an executive coach to realign your leadership strengths.

Lopsided Leadership

All managers, regardless of level, are likely to overuse strengths. Doing so not only corrupts these strengths, but creates specific weaknesses. If you believe your strengths are the only way to manage people, you’ll ignore equal, but opposing, strengths. This leads to lopsided leadership, Kaiser and Kaplan explain in Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013).

Most leaders are familiar with the concept of skill sets coming in pairs. Multiple assessment tools classify people’s preferences as either “task-oriented” vs. “people-oriented,” “big picture” vs. “detail-oriented” or “analytic” vs. “intuitive.”

Our preferences are usually unconscious, reflecting our experiences and innate qualities. We’ve learned to define ourselves as one thing and not the other. Over the course of our careers, one strength grows while the other decays.

Let’s look at the positive and negative characteristics of four personality traits, as explored by Drs. Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner in Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst (McGraw-Hill Education, 2002):

Leadership Dualities

While there are many different models of leadership competencies, the one proposed by Kaiser and Kaplan illustrates the tension of dualities that arise in the execution of leadership responsibilities.

“…there are two core dualities that confront all leaders: the need to be forceful combined with the need to be enabling, and the need to have a strategic focus combined with the need to have an operational focus. Together these dualities constitute the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of leading.”

The authors have used their Leadership Versatility Index (LVI), a 360-degree assessment tool, with more than 7,000 managers who have been rated by 60,000 coworkers. Their results show that the more forceful leaders are, the less enabling they’re likely to be. Strategic and operational leadership are also inversely related.

Big-picture/visionary leaders tend to struggle with implementation, while masters of implementation tend to ignore or underplay strategy. The same holds true for the forceful/enabling dynamic, Kaiser and Kaplan note.

The LVI data reveal a strong association between strategic leadership and high scores on curiosity and open-mindedness, coupled with low scores on rule-abiding/detail-orientation. The opposite associations were found for operational leadership.

Forceful and enabling leadership were related to a different set of traits. Forceful leadership was associated with high scores on ambition and low scores on interpersonal sensitivity. Enabling leadership was associated with the opposite scores.

  • Strategically oriented leaders are often lauded for their aggressiveness and vision, but criticized for not being sufficiently grounded in reality.
  • Operationally oriented leaders are often admired for their focus and ability to systematically drive an organization toward its goals, but they are also faulted for having tunnel vision and a lack of strategic boldness.

LVI research also reveals 97% of managers who overdo forceful leadership in some respect also underdo enabling leadership, according to their coworkers.

Additionally, 94% who overdo operational leadership in some way also underdo strategic leadership. Yet, only 55% of the managers rated by coworkers as using too much of a leadership attribute rated themselves as overdoing that attribute.

Goldilocks Leadership

How can you manage people “just right” and take full advantage of your natural talents, without going too far?

The first step is to acknowledge where you overuse your strengths. Start with a review of the ratings on your most recent 360-degree report. Ask coworkers:

  • What should I do more?
  • What should I do less?
  • What should I continue doing?

Ask yourself whether you privately pride yourself on being superior to other leaders in any way. This is precisely the attribute you’re at risk of overdoing. Take a look at its polar opposite. Explore with your coach how you can experiment with new behaviors that have been underused.

Fine-tuning your strengths is an art that requires a blend of self-awareness and situational awareness.

  • Self-awareness allows you to handle challenges by responding appropriately rather than reactively. When you know what your default tendencies are, you can pause and mindfully choose a response instead of acting out of habit.
  • Situational awareness helps you regulate the “volume controls” of your strengths with regard to audience and context.

It would be unrealistic to suggest that everyone can become fully balanced. LVI research finds only 5% of executives get it right on forceful vs. enabling leadership, as well as strategic vs. operational leadership.

Most managers lean one way or another. This lopsidedness hurts your personal and team effectiveness. Sound leadership depends on learning how to stop overdoing a given attribute and underdoing its polar opposite.

Shifting your preferred mindset is no doubt challenging, but you can successfully conquer this goal with your coach’s help.

Overcoming Boredom at Work

Even though you may have a great job, you can still experience boredom. Who hasn’t been sitting at the computer when a restless feeling starts gnawing away and thoughts meander anywhere but on the task required? A feeling of boredom can cause one to question the meaning and value of just about everything.

Boredom isn’t just wasteful, it is stressful. If you’re busy, and yet still bored, it’s even more so.

"My boredom stems not from having nothing to do but from having nothing that seems worthwhile doing. We human beings are addicted to meaning, and this kind of existential boredom signals its unhappy retreat." ~ Mark de Rond, "Are You Busy at Work but Still Bored?" Harvard Business Review, July 2012.

Boredom can come not only from having nothing to do but from having nothing that seems worthwhile to do.

If boredom came solely from a lack of things to do, we could eliminate boredom by simply having more to do. But this solution only works in the short-term when what we are asked to do does not feel meaningful.

What Causes Boredom?

Boredom is not something to be taken lightly. Research suggests that many areas of a person’s life can be seriously impacted by feelings of boredom. In studies using a boredom-process scale, those who rated low were better performers in areas such as education, career and autonomy.

Let’s explore three types of boredom. The first type shows up when we are prevented from engaging in wanted activity. The second type occurs when we are forced to engage in unwanted activity; and the third type is when, for no apparent reason, we are unable to feel engaged for any length of time in any particular activity.

A 1989 study indicated that an impression of boredom may be influenced by an individual’s degree of attention. A high acoustic level of distraction from the environment correlates with higher reports of boredom.

One study suggests that boredom has an evolutionary basis that encourages humans to seek out new challenges, which may, ultimately, influence human learning and ingenuity. Perhaps it was boredom that propelled Christopher Columbus to explore new continents. Many of today’s innovations may stem from people who seek out new challenges.

Are Some People Prone to Boredom?

Is there such a thing as boredom proneness? Apparently so, and it is defined as a tendency to experience boredom of all types – typically assessed by something called the Boredom Proneness Scale.

Boredom proneness is clearly associated with attention problems. It has been shown to be linked to symptoms of depression.

Although boredom is often viewed as a trivial and mild irritant, proneness to boredom is linked to a diverse range of psychological, physical, educational, and social problems.

Boredom at Work

How can we adjust work when boredom strikes, even though we may have more than enough work to keep us busy all day? How do we escape that feeling when we have a task that doesn’t excite or engage us?

In a Fast Company article, 6 Ways the Most Successful People Conquer Boredom at Work, Sam Harrison suggests six tips.

  1. Force yourself to be curious, because boredom is oftentimes a loss of curiosity.
  2. You can try putting yourself in the shoes of whoever will benefit from the project you’re working on. How will the choices you make affect them?
  3. Look outside your own world and see how another subject or emotion was approached.
  4. Aim to do something deliberately amusing and make yourself laugh. Interestingly enough, laughter and boredom can’t exist simultaneously.
  5. Take a hike or stroll in new surroundings for fresh perspectives. Even moving to another room or a nearby coffee shop can help. Sometimes a simple change in scenery can reignite those brain cells.
  6. Try looking at your project in a new way; anything that gives you a change in perspective.

When all else fails, commit to trudging through when that seems like that’s all you can do. At times, we just have to keep going—even while resisting it—until something interesting comes into view again.

It’s easy to dismiss critical “stuck points” in your career as temporary boredom. In actuality, boredom is a sign that you need to do something else. Don’t let it become habitual. The longer it lasts, the harder it is to get “unstuck.”

In the end, boredom can seriously undermine others’ perceptions of your potential, as well as your chances for more interesting work opportunities. Speak up and discuss its causes and solutions. Your brain craves interesting things to do.

The Art of Receiving Feedback

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” ~ Bill Gates

Receiving feedback with grace is a valuable leadership skill, yet many managers struggle with it. While we’re often quick to critique others, being on the receiving end involves an entirely different set of emotional and psychological skills.

Few leaders deny feedback’s benefits, but their openness to hearing and applying it may fall short. Accepting feedback is a best-practice skill that requires emotional intelligence, relational aptitude and humility. The benefits extend to everyone in the workplace and beyond.

Four fundamental concepts will help you manage professional feedback:

  1. Recognize feedback for what it actually is: information about yourself. It almost always involves someone’s assessment of you—fairly simple, yet not always fair.
  2. Three types of feedback, with differing purposes, potential benefits and pitfalls, are at play.
  3. Inherent tensions will affect how you feel during any feedback session (i.e., your need to excel, be accepted and be seen as worthy). Each of us has these emotional survival traits, which can cloud our emotions as we listen to criticism.
  4. Consequently, we experience resistance to feedback. Some of us brace for it, some fear it, and others try to prevent its delivery altogether.

Three Types of Feedback

Leadership consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen describe three types of feedback conversations in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well  (Penguin Books, 2014):

Appreciatory:

Benefits: uplifting, acknowledging, reassuring
Pitfalls: can be unspecific or unclear, can be patronizing or inconsistent with the leader’s or organization’s values (a means to an end)

Instructive:

Benefits: can teach and allow growth in skills, knowledge, capabilities or contribution to the organization
Pitfalls: can be misunderstood, misguided or self-serving (know-it-all)

Evaluative:

Benefits: can establish a standard and clarify expectations
Pitfalls: can be harsh, hurtful or unfair

Experiencing unpleasant observations and opinions at work can be painful and hard to take. The need for acceptance is universal, so we instinctively move toward enjoyable encounters and away from those that are painful.

The Driving Force of Resistance

Humans are wired to avoid unsettling issues and, consciously or unconsciously, will avoid pain. These natural survival traits drive us as far away from the feedback loop as possible.

Thus, most leaders are reluctant to receive feedback—a continuing workplace challenge. We generally don’t want to receive difficult information about ourselves, so issues go unresolved and challenges grow deeper. Staff is afraid to approach certain subjects, and trust and unity suffer.

Fortunately, leaders can learn to master emotional conflicts through coaching. Fears can be converted into strengths, thereby creating positive results.

Four Challenges of Receiving Feedback

Leaders must address four primary challenges to conquer their natural resistance to feedback, note Stone and Heen:

1. Listen and learn.

As you receive feedback, consider the positive side of the coin. There’s always something to learn about yourself, and the person providing feedback is trying to help—not hurt—you. This attitude doesn’t come naturally. Work toward picturing a collective interest in making things better, which will help minimize any stigma.

Focusing on personal and organizational improvement can help you overcome resistance, despite any fears or anxieties. Negative feelings needn’t override your ability to learn from feedback. View feedback through the lens of excelling and improving.

It’s important to remember feedback’s purpose instead of retreating into defensive mode. It’s not about your character taking a hit. Try to grasp the feedback provider’s point of view, and recognize that it generally takes sincere concern to muster the courage to offer difficult feedback. Appreciating this will go a long way and set the stage for professional growth.

When assessing feedback, note that people say and interpret things differently. They use different verbiage and phrases. What’s heard may not be what’s meant. Asking questions helps achieve clarity. Taking sufficient time before you respond will afford an information-sharing dialogue. You’ll be rewarded with a new perspective, some of the best learning you can receive. There may be something you’re ready to see now that you couldn’t accept in the past.

Great listening skills will seldom let you down, suggest consultants Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford Business Books, 2015).

Listening well permits you to engage your people and learn from them. Some of this learning comes in the form of feedback. Listening builds trust and helps you lead by example.

In summary, you can learn a lot from what’s right in the feedback you receive.

2. Recognize and manage resistance to feedback.

Being aware of your emotional needs and insecurities is the first step in conquering them. Your need to be accepted may present as three significant fears, all closely related:

  • Fear of having to change: Change represents the unknown, and most people dread it. We lack control and are anxious about things going wrong. Change implies your current system is inadequate, so does this mean you’re inadequate?
  • Fear of failure: Significant failure can be personally debilitating for some and regarded as a career killer. If your identity is strongly tied to your position, you may view any failures at work as failure as a person.
  • Fear of rejection: The strongest fear of all, rejection is erroneously viewed as worthlessness or purposelessness. There are few more distressing feelings.

Our emotional needs and fears may cause us to exaggerate or misrepresent the feedback we receive. We turn a specific negative event into a character flaw, engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, note business professors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris in “Don’t Let Your Brain’s Defense Mechanisms Thwart Effective Feedback” (Harvard Business Review blog, August 2016). Black-and-white thinking can induce “catastrophizing” (believing things are worse than they are).

This “selective perspective,” as it’s sometimes called, can lead to unbalanced reactions—and the more unbalanced, the more severe the consequences. With training, you can learn to be calm and reasonable, enjoying the relief that accompanies putting problems in perspective.

Is your situation really that serious? Do other people’s opinions give them magical powers over you? Not really. Recognize that short-term pain can yield long-term gain. A painful comment is not going to take you down. Things will be OK.

These approaches can help you overcome fears and anxieties, thus defeating your  resistance to feedback.

3. Be confident when challenged.

As you receive feedback, three triggers will prompt you to categorize the provider’s comments, note Stone and Heen:

  • Truth Triggers: If feedback is erroneous or off base, you can face it objectively and depersonalize it. Something that’s clearly untrue can be sorted out and dissected. Prompt the feedback giver to explain further or provide examples that work truth back into the equation.
  • Relationship Triggers: Feelings about the feedback giver can taint your perspective, depending on trust levels. Do your feelings call the giver’s judgment into question? Recognizing this pitfall and filtering its effect can help you detach from the relationship and focus on the true issues.
  • Identity Triggers: Feelings of inadequacy often trigger self-worth woes. Always remember that your leadership position doesn’t determine your worth. Questioning ourselves after negative feedback is normal, but relying on the value you’ve offered throughout your life can bring assurance. Screen out as many emotional components as possible.

Being aware of triggers lets you honestly evaluate feedback sources, assess their intentions, compare facts to opinions, and rely on a strong identity and self-worth. Training with a coach or mentor can prove invaluable.

4. Grow despite unfair feedback.

Personal growth may be the last thing you think about after receiving negative feedback. Instead of seeing unfair remarks as a setback, choose to view them as an opportunity to grow smarter, stronger and wiser. The following strategies can help:

  • Filter input. Which information is credible? Which feedback strains credulity? Discard comments you believe to be invalid, using some type of objective measuring stick.
  • Try to see the feedback giver’s perspective. People have reasons for making statements. Depersonalize their comments to isolate nuggets of truth.
  • Identify your blind spots, and do something about them. If you receive similar feedback from multiple sources, there’s likely something you’re not seeing. Rely on a close circle of trusted advisors to set your perspectives straight.
  • Be mindful of your historic response patterns. Others see them even if you don’t. Assess your emotions soberly to determine if they’re justified. Ask for feedback from people you trust. Alternatively, engage a professional coach to help you discover what you can’t see by yourself.

Mastering Feedback

We make conscious choices when dealing with feedback:

  • We can be learners or rejecters.
  • We can grow or get upset.
  • We can listen or ignore.
  • We can be open to seeing ourselves for who we are and who we might become, or we can be comfortable with the status quo.
  • We can establish boundaries and recognize unfairness, or we can accept all statements as criticism.

Making positive choices confers many benefits, including improved self-esteem, aspirations, satisfaction, relationships, trust, accountability, emotional well-being, accomplishment-based thinking, workplace culture and organizational contribution.

These rewards will carry over into your personal life, as well. Great leaders keep their emotions in check, appropriately respond to feedback and appreciate the gift of knowledge they receive.