Character traits you perceive as a strength may be seen by others as a weakness

What you perceive as a personal strength might be seen by another as a difficult and provoking trait, says Sheila Williams

In a season of battling winter elements, I have also been exploring conflict of a different nature - person to person. The type of interpersonal conflict that can spring up in the workplace, seemingly for no reason (at least to the warring parties). This has led me to an exploration of how we deploy our personal strengths and whether overusing them, in certain circumstances, can tip them over into becoming weaknesses.

“I can see why you think I’m stubborn and obsessed with detail. But the way I see it is that I’m thorough and I persevere”

Over time, we develop behaviours that, when used to good effect, become our preferred way of doing things. We consider them our personal strengths. However, the more we use them and the more success we have with them, the more we can slip into autopilot, with an expectation that using them will always produce success. 

In this way, we sometimes overlook the fact that using a particular personal strength may be inappropriate in the context or situation we find ourselves in.

Pat and George are members of a project team tasked with developing their organisation’s outline business strategy and business models for the next five years. The team includes one member from each of five business units. All team members are peers and the chief executive has chosen Pat to lead the project. The timescale for completion is very challenging and conflict between Pat and George is affecting its progress.

The contrast between the two men is striking. Pat speaks rapidly, in short bursts, punctuating each burst with stabbing or pointing gestures. His conversation focuses on the project - he is full of ideas and plans for the future. He projects great enthusiasm. Papers, files and assorted office detritus litter his desk and floor space.

George, on the other hand, selected for the team because of his intimate knowledge of the policies, procedures and operational details of each business unit, speaks slowly and softly. He projects an image of self-containment. His conversations revolve around what is practical, achievable and in line with current policy and procedures. His desk is a vast, uncluttered space.

At loggerheads

In initial conversations, each described the other as the source of the problem.

To Pat, George was unimaginative, stubborn, cold, rigid and obsessed with detail - “always full of reasons why something can’t be done”.

To George, Pat was arrogant, controlling, an impractical dreamer who pressurised the team into adopting his ideas and making rash decisions.

It seemed that the only things they did agree on were the value of the project, its high profile in the organisation and, most promising of all, the need to sort things out between them. This led them to ask for a joint coaching session to find a way forward.

Before the session, I spent time with each of them to discuss the feedback each would like to give the other and how best to do this. I asked them to list their values, motivations and strengths and to bring the list to the session. At the session I asked each of them to provide their feedback, uninterrupted.

There was a long silence when the process ended, which eventually George broke: “I can see why you think I am stubborn and obsessed with detail. But the way I see it is that I’m thorough and I persevere in getting to the bottom of things.”

From that point, we took each behaviour that was described on their lists as unhelpful and negative and I asked them to find a way of describing it in a positive light (see box).

For example, Pat described George’s approach as detailed, obsessed and dithering. For George, detail and in-depth thinking were a way to greater certainty and better decision making.

Where the project needed to take account of a number of statutory and mandatory requirements, George was admirably placed to contribute to the understanding of these. Pat, self-confident, keen to forward his vision and the project, made it very clear that he had little interest in these issues. To George, this was arrogant railroading of key issues and could only lead to poor decisions.

It is essential for us to consider the context in which we apply our strengths. Where the context requires imaginative, large scale thinking, there is less need for depth and detail. If depth and detail form one of our strengths, we need to apply this less vigorously - to turn down the volume, as it were.

If wide ownership of a strategy or project is necessary, there is a need to listen to and accommodate a range of ideas and suggestions from others, as well as describing a compelling vision of our own. However, passionate and committed can soon slip towards dictatorial.

We all have a range of strengths and positive qualities. Where they are well embedded in our behaviour patterns, this can lead to our holding fairly consistent expectations of others. Pat expected others to follow his lead and adopt his ideas. George expected others to value detail, facts and principles and take well considered decisions.

When others do not respond in accordance with these expectations, we get conflict.

Is it worth taking another look at any relationships that you find challenging? Consider how you could describe the behaviour of the other people in a more positive light. Think about how your own strengths, when applied, might appear to some as negative traits.

Then think about the context - has it been appropriate for you to deploy your strengths to the extent that you have? Do you need to turn the volume down a little? Is it possible that you have been overplaying some of your own strengths to the detriment of the relationship? l

How Pat and George’s strengths appear when overplayed

Strong: overpowering

Self-confident: arrogant, doesn’t listen, full of himself

Good organiser: controlling

Persuasive and able to influence: pressurising; riding roughshod over people

Quick acting: rash, taking too much risk

Imaginative, creative: dreamer, impractical

Practical: unimaginative, pedestrian

Self-contained and self-sufficient: cold, aloof

Analytical: nit-picking, pedantic

Thorough: obsessive

Methodical and orderly: rigid, compulsive, inflexible

Economical: mean, stingy