When your Strengths are also your Achilles Heel

Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.  Exquisite. At 80 decibels, beautiful.  Increase the volume on that same classical piece to 140 decibels – the volume of a jet engine – it can quickly shift from a pleasant experience to one that is excruciatingly painful. In the same way, some of our most admirable and enjoyable qualities can be perceived negatively by colleagues when we have the volume turned up too high.

The number one cause of unwarranted conflict at work and in our personal lives, are our ‘overdone’ strengths. This concept belongs to a body of work called Relationship Awareness Theory, developed by Dr Elias Porter 40 years ago. Porter was a world renowned psychologist, clinical therapist, educator and author. His theory is a group of ideas that help people build productive relationships and manage conflict by providing a window into the motivation that drives behaviour. It helps us understand who we are and what motivates us when things are going well and conversely, when things are not. The insights generated about ourselves and the people around us make us more tolerant and patient with each other. It also provides tools for building better relationships by helping us choose behaviour that will make the most positive impact.

As with all theory, practical examples help us understand it better. I have chosen a few examples from clients to illustrate the third premise that a “personal weakness” is no more or no less than the overdoing or misapplying of a personal strength.

Client One was having a difficult time at work relating to and building respect with his colleagues. His personal life was falling apart. His 20 year marriage was about to end in divorce and the ensuing court battle destined to break him financially. His confidence had been shattered. At work, no one knew a thing. He was professional at all times, his chin was up and he never exposed his personal tragedy to a soul. In fact, he was so professional and contained his emotions so well, that no one guessed what he was feeling or experiencing. This made it difficult for people to connect with him in the workplace. It also affected how he saw colleagues who showed emotion at work, judging them as unprofessional and refusing to engage with these ‘emotional wrecks’. The thing is, no one likes collaborating with or working for a human robot. Icy is not well received in a corporate setting. Technically his work was excellent but his people skills were so bad he was like the pariah amongst peers.  His professionalism got in the way of building rapport and relationships to the degree that he was overlooked for promotions. In this case, the strength of being ‘professional’ was overdone in intensity. His great strength was definitely not working in his favour.  The irony is that my client thought he was doing the right thing by veiling his personal dramas at work. There is, however, a way to engage authentically with others in an appropriate and real way, without the histrionic emotions my client abhorred. He realized that being interested in the lives of others – and allowing them to be interested in his – was not about superfluous gossip, but about trying to connect with his colleagues in order to earn their trust and respect. These were the qualities he had been lacking and those that he would need to embrace as he aspired to become a leader.

With Client Two, we discovered the need to be fair as a core strength. ‘Fairness’ is a quality which can become, when it’s overdone, ‘unfeeling’. My client believed it was fair to constantly see both sides of a story, but her fairness left colleagues with the impression that she didn’t care about them and that she had no sense of loyalty. Fairness is a wonderful trait until it’s time to pick a side. When the side that needs support, loyalty and conviction has fairness to contend with, fairness is loyal to no one. It is loyal only to itself, regardless of any time invested building a business together. Fairness is able to see both sides of the story, to recognise how everyone contributes in some way to the problem. It does not take sides. People take sides. When fairness is a core strength, it can be perceived as unfeeling, uncaring and unsupportive. My client may have succeeded in keeping her principles in tact, but she lost the friendships she had spent years nurturing when she didn’t support her business partners in an internal political furore. Eventually, she succumbed to the pressure and stepped up in her partners’ defence. Overdone in duration, the strength of fairness nearly cost her the respect of her team and her reputation as a dependable partner. Paradoxically the most principled people can often be the most headstrong and inflexible. Even perseverance can be perceived as stubbornness if you are on the wrong end of it. These can be viewed as weaknesses when they impact severely on relationships that expect your loyalty.

Client Three is a kind, generous, warm and giving individual. She was so sensitive to other peoples’ needs that she often gave up her own in an act of selflessness. Amidst her kindness, she forgot that her needs were as equally valid as anyone else’s. At work, she found it impossible to say ‘No’ because she was so eager to please. She took on more things than she should. She found herself working overtime to complete all the work she had taken on, over and above her own. In her personal life, family also took advantage of her generous nature. Not ever wanting to run the risk of being perceived as selfish, she would run herself ragged so as not to disappoint others or let them down. However, her frustration would build until it could not contain itself anymore. Her resentment would explode at the wrong time, in the wrong place and with the wrong person. Unsurprisingly, it never went down well with anyone.

When we deny our own needs, hold others’ wants and desires as more important than our own, or resist the urge to say “No” and take on more than we can handle, we deprive ourselves of a basic human need. Self respect. Feeling deprived of sleep, emotional support, physical energy, time for oneself and peace of mind, to name a few, is not Self caring. Being so caring, supportive, devoted to others that we become respectively submissive, subservient and self- sacrificing does not benefit anyone. Overdone in frequency and context, the strength of caring can be catastrophic. Ironically, in order to live an authentic and meaningful life we need to live with the reality that we will not be able to please everyone all the time. Disappointing or upsetting others is essential if we want to create a life that we love as well as nurture relationships based on mutual respect.

As part of the strategy to manage our strengths, we need to be mindful that:

  1. We may overdo or misapply some of our strengths
  2. We may deny self-worth to ourselves and others by overdoing strengths
  3. We can prevent some conflict by increasing our awareness and making better choices (which includes reducing the frequency, intensity, duration and context of our overdone strengths)

Pachelbel, Arno Carstens, Snoop Dogg, Barbra Streisand and even Justin Bieber all have one thing in common. They know where their strengths lie and the volume their supporters can tolerate before they become unbearable. Being mindful of the appropriate amplification for the setting and context of the audience will ensure we don’t become oppressive to our friends and colleagues. Because sometimes, too much of a good thing can be bad, especially in the case of overdone strengths. Good can be great but it can also be pretty grim.

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