Can a Strength Become a Weakness?

Can a Strength Become a Weakness?Our work with strengths-based leadership development over the past year has been highly rewarding and sometimes frustrating. It’s rewarding to watch workshop participants connect with the idea of building on their natural strengths. Once most people see the deep and compelling research and think about the personal motivation for growth and development that comes from building on strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses, it clicks and they “get it.”

What’s frustrating is the enduring power of “the dark side” — focusing on weaknesses — to pull us away from building our strengths. We’re so deeply socialized to equate improvement with closing gaps and fixing weaknesses. This is, for example, the very foundation of most training needs analysis and performance appraisals.

As the strengths-based leadership development revolution picks up momentum and increases visibility, another way “the dark side” beckons is through the misconception that overusing a strength can turn it into a weakness. The root of this misunderstanding is the definition of a strength.

In their latest Harvard Business Review blog, Three Myths About Your Strengths Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman show how the confusion stems from the associated behavior, not the strength itself:

“The distinction becomes easier to see if you ask yourself a question like, ‘Can an executive be excessively honest?’ Those who think so might fear too much honesty would lead someone to be overly blunt or boorish. That may be so, but it’s not inevitable, and it’s boorishness and bluntness that would then be the problem, not honesty in itself.”

Another strengths myth Jack and Joe address is that strengths and weaknesses go together as a matched set. This is the belief that people with towering strengths inevitably have gaping weaknesses or counterbalancing flaws. I wonder if this mistaken belief is further reinforced by the very public crashing and burning we see of a few highly talented entertainers or athletes like Michael Jackson, Lance Armstrong, or Tiger Woods.

Three Myths About Your Strengths has a chart with fascinating research Zenger Folkman just completed on whether strengths come with flaws:

“The short answer is no. Analysis of 360-degree evaluations of the leadership abilities of more than 16,000 executives shows that less than 10% of them who display even one outstanding strength also possessed any fatal flaws.”

The research is clear and unequivocal; elevating our natural strengths from good to great always leads to much higher leadership effectiveness. Don’t be seduced by the dark side of focusing on weaknesses. May The Force (of strengths) be with you!

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