The topic of strengths, whilst becoming more prevalent is, at the same time, becoming increasingly muddy. Much of this confusion is caused by the use of that same word ‘strengths’ when describing character, talent, competency or even behaviour – quite different concepts. It doesn’t help when data from one field is used as ‘evidence’ in another.
This lack of clarity opens the door to some common themes of debate; ‘Overuse’, for example. Mostly, I see overuse applying to competency or behaviour but there are circumstances where it can apply to character too.
You may become predictable - so others include or exclude you on that basis; consciously, or not.
The faster you can respond to a given challenge, the more likely it is that you used ‘reflexive’ resources – habitual behaviour. As long as the environment doesn’t change too much, this is fine. But who of us has that luxury? Fast thinking as Daniel Kahneman calls it, is addictive. You somehow (quickly) make sense of scant evidence, almost instinctively. You recognise the patterns and based on your previous successful response (for which your brain received a healthy dose of dopamine) the solution this time seems obvious – to you.
So, what’s wrong with this scenario?
Reduced vigilance: Psychology Professors Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons present some startling examples of how intuition can be remarkably deceiving in their book “The Invisible Gorilla”. Yes, they created THAT video.
The more you think you know about the situation, the more you assume, the less you will actually notice
Is it even a good solution? Assuming you have correctly identified the ‘same problem’, you may have lost an opportunity for ‘reflective’ thinking which may have uncovered better solutions and broadened your perspective. Perspective is a critical leadership skill.
In the 1950’s Benjamin Bloom created the ‘Taxonomy of Thinking’ which identified 6 levels of thinking ranked in order of increasing difficulty. The higher levels take practice.
Your brain is wired to conserve energy and find the simplest solution. Only you can choose to make it work harder.
And there is the risk of a nastier trap. If you only do the things that you think you are good at you run a risk of falling victim to what Carol Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset’. This condition will actually see you subconsciously avoiding opportunities where you may have been challenged and grown, out of fear of looking less competent in the moment. Her work has shown some concerning consequences of fixed mindset compared to the alternative, growth mindset.
“You need different strengths to succeed in different circumstances” (increasingly senior roles, for example). This is generally far truer of competencies than of character, although Authentic leadership certainly brings character to the fore. There is also an argument that talents are innate and that self-awareness and/or changing circumstances will provide opportunities to leverage them.
My real message here is to be clear about how you think about strengths. Are you really talking about character, talent, competency or behaviour? There are great resources out there on any of these. Unfortunately, very few combine them and that is the great loss here. The real value lies at the intersection of them all. Imagine situations where you are able to apply your strongest talents in ways that resonate with who you are, as a person and fit the circumstances - this is where you will have experienced the state of ‘flow’, or optimal experience.
One final comment:
If you ever need to assess whether you are overusing any strength – talent or character - ask yourself this question:
When I use this strength, is it for the greater good … or primarily for me?