Don't Let Your Strengths Go South

By Liz Bentley

When we think about self-improvement, most of us think about our weaknesses.  We focus on the negatives and feel discouraged at the thought of trying to overcome them. In many ways, this makes sense. From the time we are young, we are subconsciously trained to think about working on weaknesses instead of building on strengths. Our educational system expects children to do well in every subject, and it isn't until late in college and graduate school that we acknowledge that people can specialize and become good in specific and increasingly narrow fields. In our work and personal lives, most of the feedback is around "areas of improvement."  It is rare that a manager, teacher, or coach describes our talents in detail. Instead they highlight what we need to do better.  Not surprisingly, research has shown that when people recall important emotional events, they remember the negative ones over the positive.  

So why is there a problem with focusing on weaknesses for self-improvement? For starters, even when we become aware of a weakness, we often find that it can be difficult to overcome. And just the thought of concentrating on weaknesses can be disheartening and overwhelming, which can short circuit the entire attempt. But here's an even bigger reason to flip our approach and build upon the things we do well. Research and social psychologists have discovered that focusing on strengths leads to higher performance, greater productivity, increased satisfaction and improved weaknesses. Yes, leveraging your strengths can actually improve your weaknesses. That's because your strengths and weaknesses are more closely linked than you may realize.

When I run seminars, I often do an exercise where I have attendees partner up and share what makes them great. Then I have them share their weaknesses.  At the end, I ask what they discovered and inevitably they say "sometimes my strength is a weakness and sometimes my weakness is a strength." By listing them out, they come to realize that characteristics that work for us can also work against us. For example, our ability to be detail-oriented is great in many situations except when it turns into micro-managing.

To highlight this concept, I have created a model for our company's coaching that features an equator for our personalities: on the North or positive side, the characteristics are all strengths but in the south or negative side, they turn into weaknesses. We teach our clients to learn where that line exists.  By knowing where our characteristics work for us, we can learn to leverage them and reduce the number of times they go south on us.  It is important in life to know what our greatest assets are. These are what make us unique and special.  But if those same qualities are working against us, we are sabotaging ourselves during what may be pivotal moments in our life and career.  

Here are a few more examples of how this model works.

NORTH                                                SOUTH
Confident ----------------------------------- Arrogant

Spontaneous/Easy Going --------------- Unreliable

Systematic ---------------------------------- Inflexible

Engaging ----------------------------------- Too Talkative

There is one caveat: if you possess a profound weakness, a "fatal flaw," you must focus on correcting that first. A "fatal flaw" is a negative characteristic that is dominating your personality and overshadowing all of your strengths. A weakness like this will make working on strengths relatively futile until it's rectified.  Once the serious weakness is corrected, you can begin to work on developing your strengths. 

There is compelling data to support the idea that if adults focus on their strengths, they will have far greater success in their development. For successful self-improvement, examine your characteristics, acknowledge your strengths and identify where your equator is so that you don't let them go south.