I know many very talented people. I’m sure you do, too. In fact, I believe that every person is gifted in some particular fashion according to God’s design for that person’s life. In this sense, no one is average and every person is great in some meaningful fashion. Sadly, most people stumble through life never gaining a clear understanding of their natural talents. These people are most likely to fall victim to what I call the “destructive strength paradox.”
There is a lot of discussion in business circles today about “strengths.” The strengths idea is that every person has natural abilities, which, if realized and utilized, can catalyze increased job performance and career satisfaction. This idea was popularized several years ago by research and books from Donald Clifton and Marcus Buckingham. Perhaps the most widely read of these is “Now, Discover Your Strengths.” Buckingham’s books remain some of my personal favorites and are very helpful in my coaching and consulting work.
As I said above, I believe that most people never get in touch with their talents and also their natural “wiring” (personality and style). Not being in touch with these elements does not mean they don’t get expressed. In fact, they tend to run amuck, uncontrolled and even destructive. Picture the young teenager who is exceptionally strong and talented in football, beyond his years. Not understanding his power or how to control it, he can actually endanger others and himself on the field! However, wise coaches and proper training will help him learn to use his strength in the right ways, control the power, be an asset to the team, and enjoy the game to its fullest.
Usually, though, physical strength isn’t the issue that adults in the working world must learn to control and wisely apply. We’re dealing with much more subtle issues. Some of the most destructive forces in the workplace are people’s strengths that have not been consciously identified and, when uncontrolled, eventually damage relationships. Here are examples of strengths that, left uncontrolled and hyper activated, become destructive tendencies. This is the “destructive strength paradox.”
- Decisiveness turns into an uncaring attitude.
- Empathy for others leads to being afraid to make decisions that might hurt others.
- Creative thinking limits the ability to deal with practical realities.
- Discerning right and wrong produces inflexibility.
- Plain-spoken approach leads to being insensitive toward others.
- Humorous and good-natured manner appears to not take important things seriously.
- High standards of performance create perfectionism.
- Deep thinking comes off as being unapproachable.
Note that none of these strengths and talents, by themselves, is wrong. They are good! In fact, in many cases these are elements that God himself has hard-wired into the individual. How can that be wrong? However, these become destructive when they are uncontrolled and hyper activated; they become too much of a good thing and turn into the destructive strength paradox.
People often think that the solution to the destructive strength paradox is to develop other abilities that counteract and balance the hyper-activated strength. Buckingham’s research shows that this is an ineffective approach. It doesn’t work to try to become good at something you’re not naturally good at to balance the downsides of something you are good at. For example, it doesn’t help the creative thinker to develop concrete, practical thinking skills. It will only frustrate the individual and others they work with.
It is better to develop greater self-awareness and to understand the signals of your strength becoming hyper-activated and how to contain that, how to back off. The first step in facilitating this ability is to have honest conversations with trusted coworkers and family members. Ask them what the signals are. What situations lead to hyper activation of your strength? Which people (and their hyper-activated strengths) are likely to cause you trouble? With this knowledge you will have the beginning of a plan, and hopefully a partner to work with, in learning to control the wise use of your greatest assets.
What are your strengths? Would you be willing to share a story of when they became destructive?