How Strengths Become Weaknesses

When it comes to major mistakes—it’s not your weaknesses that will get you—it’s your strengths.  

Most successful people are aware of their weaknesses.  For example, I figured out in 9th grade that math isn’t my strong suit.  So during my sophomore year I arranged to sit at the same study table as a math whiz—and that friendship got me through high-school.  In college, I did some wheeling and dealing with the department chair—who allowed me to substitute some independent research for some of the tougher math courses.  Later, when I ran businesses, I made sure to build an especially close relationship with my CFOs—because I would need to lean on them.  The point here is that we usually figure out early what our weaknesses are, and develop effective coping mechanisms to keep them from hurting us.  

But we are often clueless when it comes to figuring out our strengths, and how they our strengths can actually undermine us.  

To understand how strength can become weakness, we need to first understand a bit about how stress affects people.  We know from 40+ years of research on high-performers in athletics, the military, and business that as stress increases, people tend to overuse their strengths.  Under stress the range of people’s behavioral responses tend to narrow—they become less flexible, less adaptive to the situation at hand.  It’s easy to understand why.  When there’s a lot at stake, people will go with what has gotten them out of a jam in the past.  They don’t stop to evaluate whether that particular strength is appropriate for a given situation—they simply react.  And that’s where they get into trouble.

To predict the kinds of mistakes a person is likely to make under stress, you first have to understand his strengths.  Under pressure, people will tend to default to their strengths, even if those strengths are inappropriate or counterproductive in the situation at hand. The best way I know to get a handle on someone’s strength is the Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS).  TAIS was developed to help Olympic athletes find and exploit the mental edge in performance.  The test is now also being used widely in military and business settings.  

I once administered the TAIS to 250 CEOs of Inc. 500 Companies.  I found that the strengths that help the nation’s most successful growth CEOs become successful are the same strengths that can sabotage them as pressure mounts.

(1)    They Want to Win at All Cost.  The relentless drive fuels the growth company CEO’s can also cause her to derail.   Under normal circumstances, most CEOs are able to keep this drive under control, and to effectively pick their battles.  But as pressure increases, they may become so focused on winning that they may lose sight of the bigger picture.  Under high levels of pressure they won’t tend to listen, will seek to control people and situations, and may lose the very adaptability made them successful in the first place.

(2)    They Want to Juggle A Lot of Balls.  Leading entrepreneurs are great at multitasking—otherwise they would be unable to cope with the demands inherent in the fast-growth environment.  As stress increases they will tend to continue to take on projects and responsibilities to the point that their effectiveness will decline.  They may also overestimate their organization’s ability to absorb all of their ideas and initiatives—resulting in a decrease in quality of service or execution.

(3)    They Want to Take Care of People.  When I began my study, I believed that great entrepreneurs led by articulating a new and exciting vision.  While many are great visionaries—I learned in my study that most entrepreneurs lead by developing strong and supportive bonds with the people around them.  They are loyal to their people, and the people reward that loyalty with exceptional commitment.  But when times get tough, often loyalty can become a liability.  Too often leading entrepreneurs are slow to recognize when the company has outgrown a long-time employee, and slower still to deal with the situation.

To lead his company past the entrepreneurial stage of development, the entrepreneur must gain insights into his own behavior. Because the attributes that produced success in the entrepreneurial stage may be the very attributes that sabotage him in later stages.  As the old saying goes, to a person who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.