Confronting Our ‘Overplayed Strengths’

It has long been asserted that a weakness is an overplayed strength. It is, arguably, how weaknesses actually become weaknesses: we don’t know when to stop, and so we keep on doing what got us there in the first place. Confidence becomes arrogance. Perspective becomes paralysis. Knowledge becomes blinkered. It’s an important concept, even if it is an unpopular one. Accepting weaknesses is hard at the best of times; thinking our weaknesses actually derive from our strengths is downright debilitating.

A recent blog post at the Harvard Business Review brilliantly showcases this problem, through an exploration of the leadership style of Abraham Lincoln. While a much-admired leader who was broadly recognized for his people skills, the same skills that made him successful at times possibly got in the way. His capacity for perspective, to look at all sides, to trust others, to forgive and to assume the best in people at times actually got in the way. In particular, these traits which were his source of strength also led to some of his greatest blunders, some of which had far-reaching and tragic consequences.

If we accept this cautionary tale, however, the larger question is what to do about it. How do we know when we are leveraging our strengths, or when they are being overplayed. Or—stated differently—how do we know when we are using our powers for good and not evil?

It is a tough question to ask, and an even more difficult one to answer effectively. It is one that—if I am honest—I struggle with. I am familiar enough with my gifts: I listen well; I can synthesize a number of perspectives and see the larger picture; I have an abiding belief in being fair, trustworthy and principled; I can empathize with the perspective and position of others, and broadly look for win-win solutions. All of that is all well and good, and some might considerable it admirable. At the same time, there are times when those very qualities get in the way. Or, more particularly, where my endeavouring to keep those principles front and centre lead me to being taken advantage of.

Choosing how to behave on that basis becomes hard. I have experienced a number of situations where, because the other party approached a conversation with a win-lose, take-no-prisoners approach, I have been unfairly treated. There are instances when I have come out of a negotiation with less than would be considered reasonable or fair. There are certainly instances when my good nature was presumed, and as a result was taken advantage of in order to further the position of someone else. It is awfully tempting, in these circumstances, to drop your principles entirely and give as good (or as bad) as you get. Tempting, but dangerous; when you abandon your principles, you also lose any semblance of a compass to guide you forward. And there is a very real risk that while you won’t respect those you deal with any more, that you will respect yourself a whole lot less.

If we keep our principles at the forefront, though, what is the answer? Certainly, we can be particular about who we negotiate with, and limit our dealings to those whom we trust and who we consider to be trustworthy. That doesn’t necessarily get us further forward, however, in that we don’t always get to choose who we deal with or the situations in which we deal with them. If we still have to deal with others, then we need a pathway forward that lest us accomplish our goals without compromising our principles.

But how? The kernel of the answer in actual fact lies with that last statement. If we are to succeed, we need to know what our goals and outcomes in fact are. Sometimes, the reason that we get taken advantage of is that we allow ourselves to accept a position where our own interests are being compromised. We give up too much of what is important to us for the sake of finding agreement. Unconsciously, agreement winds up being framed as ‘win-lose’ rather than finding a solution that actually works for all concerned.

In any encounter, of course, we can only control ourselves. We can control our actions, and we own our objectives. But we need to be clear about these objectives if we are to also be able to maintain and defend our interests. It is here that we miss out. If we know what we want, then we can effectively evaluate whether or not a proposed agreement or outcome is good or bad. In the context of negotiation, this is known as the ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’. In other words, if you can’t get to an outcome, what’s your next best alternative? If that alternative starts to look better than what you are being offered, then the agreement probably doesn’t work.

Weaknesses might indeed be overplayed strengths. And people may, in sensing our strengths and our weaknesses, endeavour to take advantage of them. That only works when we don’t know what we want in the first place, and whether what is in front of us moves us closer to that goal or takes us further away.

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