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Using Our Gifts for Good

We’ve all probably heard some version of the advice that we should play to our strengths. As we grow in career and leadership, we learn more about ourselves and what we’re great at. It makes sense to lean into these things and develop them as part of our personal approach to work. We experience ‘flow’, deep involvement, and a sense of timelessness when we’re working in our strengths. We’re contributing, and people know what to expect from us. Other people notice that we do those things well, and more of this work comes our way.

It feels good – mostly.

But it IS possible to have too much of a good thing. If we lean on our strengths too much, we can become overdependent on one way of doing things, or even take things too far, adding stress to our relationships and holding ourselves back.

How Can a Strength Be a Problem?

One of the best pieces of feedback I ever received came in an informal conversation with my manager a few months into a new job in a new organization. We were walking back from presenting at a sales leadership meeting, and during our debrief, she stopped us in the hallway and said:

I’ve noticed something about you I want to understand better. You ask a lot of questions. Like a LOT of questions. All kinds of questions, from details to foundational understanding… everything.

Sometimes I’m really into the questions, they help me check my own thinking. But sometimes I’m overwhelmed by them. It can feel as though maybe you don’t trust us, or we’re not rowing in the same direction…at its worst, I think some people may even see it as threatening. Do you ever notice that you may be overworking it?”

This gave me pause. I know I ask a lot of questions. This helps make me a skillful and supportive coach, a curious researcher, an open-minded leader, a great friend.

It’s partially my nature, I’m wired to want to understand a lot of things, across a wide range of topics. Also, after an enormous number of years in graduate school, I’m trained to design good questions, to seek and evaluate data, and to be open about what I might find. Historically, being willing to pause a conversation to ask some core questions has served me very well.

What my manager was telling me though was that this strength of inquiry and questioning - an asset and gift of mine – could be used for great things, and could also create unintended negative consequences. When I started paying more attention, I could see that this gift, if overused, didn’t invite people in to explore and create with me, but started to create distance instead. I had to pause and determine which questions to ask, of whom, and when.

In leadership development, we recognize that some of our growth areas come from mismanagement or overuse of our strengths. Most of our strengths are like this: best if deployed intentionally and in the right time and amount. Their overuse can become limiting.

I see this all the time:

  • A client who identifies as a truth seeker in the organization tips from being an advocate for what works to becoming a reporter of anyone who violates the organization’s culture…

  • An out-of-the-box thinker becomes reckless, controversial for controversy’s sake…

  • Another client who over the years has leaned on an uncanny ability to anticipate risk for his team now struggles to innovate when risk is necessary.

  • A generous friend, who says yes whenever she’s asked to chair a committee, wears herself out in a self-defeating pattern of over-extending or even interfering when it’s not necessary.

How Can We Be More Sure That Our Gifts Are Helping, Rather Than Hurting?

You have natural strengths you’ve carefully developed over your life and career. Your goal is to use them to grow your effectiveness and satisfaction and limit the times when your gifts get in the way.

Here are a few tools I use to strike the balance:

Pay attention to internal feedback. After you’ve done “that thing you do” (asked a lot of questions, organized the team, told the truth, anticipated the future, helped someone solve a problem…), how do you feel? Do you feel fulfilled and settled? Relaxed? Or do you feel a little regret, like maybe a pit in your stomach telling you that you came on too strong, or withheld too much?

Notice this in your body. For instance, if I’m being utterly honest with myself, I can tell the difference between when I ask something from a genuine place of interest, or if I’m asking to be obstructionist, or worse, to prove I’m right. A little unsettled stir in my chest is the clue.

Gather some external feedback. Ask someone who both cares about you and is committed to telling the truth. “Do you ever see me lean too heavily into this strength? What’s that like? What might I not see about the impact that has on the people around us and the work we do?” Be ready to hear that the gift you cherish and think of as your biggest asset isn’t always your favorite attribute to those you work with.

Practice. We get better at most things through incremental effort, being willing to be wrong, and trying again. Finding that fine line between letting your gifts shine and letting them overpower is no different.

With the client who is a truth-teller, we used an image to help her practice hitting the right note. Was her action like a truth bomb, providing light, but pushing people away, or like a campfire, inviting people in to have the important conversations, bringing both warmth and light to those she worked with? On her way to creating more campfires, she stumbled off course. She’d make note of when she inadvertently pushed people away and adjusted her approach.

As you start to see the impact of your gifts with a more complex and nuanced eye, you’ll be able to grow into a more discerning and effective leader and human. Start watching how, at work and in life overall, your gifts serve and stop serving you. Make room to strengthen other gifts....and keep paying attention.

And tell me, how are you seeing your gifts, in all their power, in use? How do keep them in check? I’d love to know (email me).


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