January 9th, 2013 | 1:00 pm

Your Strengths & Triple Chocolate Cake: When Less is More

filed under Expert Answers

Contributed by Sara Canaday

You know what they say about too much of a good thing… Besides triple chocolate cake, that concept also applies to our behaviors in the workplace.

Our peers and supervisors might tell us how much they appreciate our unstoppable enthusiasm. We have been rewarded for this attribute, so we crank it up. Then we discover later that our great reputation as an energetic team member has somehow morphed into a reputation as someone who drinks too many Red Bulls before 9 a.m.

Without realizing it, we have crossed the line. Our positive attribute starts having a negative impact. Even if it’s inadvertent, it can be just as devastating to our careers.

This is an example of what I call our professional blind spots – the unintentional behaviors that hold us back, even when we seem to be doing everything else right to get ahead. Sometimes we simply can’t see what’s blocking our success. It might be very subtle, but our colleagues have the advantage of an outside perspective. And they notice. Sadly, those subtle behaviors can have enormous negative impact when we are being considered for jobs, promotions, bonuses, or stock options.

While we may be able to think of people who don’t recognize the impact of their own personality quirks, this is much harder to pinpoint. Overdoing our own strengths is a seductive blind spot that can sabotage even the most promising careers. As women, we have enough challenges moving beyond the glass ceiling without undermining our own efforts with hidden blind spots. So how can we avoid this trap, allowing one of our best assets to silently become a liability?

I want to share two strategies that can help you capitalize on your strengths to accelerate your career without unknowingly dragging down your forward momentum.

Strategies for Success

First, balance is a critical factor when we shift our behaviors, even in response to positive reinforcement. Whether we are talking about enthusiasm, decisiveness, or the ability to remain calm during a crisis, we shouldn’t strive to reach the maximum level of those attributes. We should be searching for the optimal level to enhance our careers.

One way to think about finding that balance is by imagining a radio tuner knob (the traditional kind, before everything had digital buttons). If we wanted to listen to whatever songs were playing on 102 FM, we had to adjust the knob back and forth until we found the area with the best reception. It wasn’t a single point but a “sweet spot range” where the signal came through loud and clear. Turn too far to the left or too far to the right, and we got that annoying static and white noise. We had to pay attention and listen closely to find that perfect range.

Adjusting our behaviors requires the same judicious movements, especially when it comes to our strengths. More is not always better. Without balance and a keen sense of awareness (about ourselves and the people around us), our clear path to the executive suite can become clouded and fuzzy. In fact, we might be unintentionally creating our own roadblock along the journey toward success.

Second, while finding the sweet spot range for our strengths is often the key, there are exceptions. The most successful executives bring depth and dimension to their leadership roles by knowing when and how to exhibit varying shades of their strongest attributes – even when those variations might seem like opposite ends of the spectrum.

For example, a mid-level manager within a company might be lauded for exhibiting high levels of confidence even under the most challenging circumstances. However, her true executive presence becomes crystal clear when she demonstrates the ability to balance that confidence with a sense of humility in the right situations. Sharing credit with her team when she steps to the podium to accept a performance award. Being able to graciously admit making a mistake. Taking time to consider the ideas of other team members even though she already has a solution in mind.

This manager understands that finding the optimal level for her strengths is only the first part of the equation. She also knows how to identify situations that call for tempering her fierce confidence with a generous splash of humility …just enough to be open to the possibility that, despite her own expertise, the best solution might come from a different source. Timing and finesse are critical as leaders strive to master the delicate art of balance – knowing when, where and how to offset certain attributes for greater impact.

Examples of Balance

When we think about leaders who have used their personal strengths to achieve the highest levels of professional success, we can find excellent examples of how to balance complementary (or even opposite) behaviors in certain situations:

  • Strong yet able to show vulnerability
  • Decisive yet willing to be flexible
  • Highly energetic yet calm in a crisis
  • Competitive yet empathetic
  • Task-oriented yet people-sensitive
  • Strategic yet conceptual/creative
  • Visionary yet realistic/practical

The next time you feel driven to capitalize on one of your most-complimented behaviors by giving it greater emphasis, pause first. Think about the potential impact for your current situation and for your career long-term. Do you have an accurate picture of whether your approaches are actually blocking your progress? Watch and listen closely to the people around you for feedback about how your behaviors are being perceived. And most importantly, strive for balance as you make changes.

To accelerate your professional success, consider whether increasing your behavioral strengths will add value and marketability to your personal brand. Or are you really just adding hot fudge sauce to the triple chocolate cake?

Sara Canaday is a recognized expert and author in leadership development and strategic personal branding. Specifically, she helps high-potential professionals integrate the traditionally undervalued “intangible” leadership skills that research proves are critical for their success.

Sara’s professional career spans 20 years and includes sales, leadership, and executive roles at USAA and Texas Mutual. She served as principal consultant for Empowerment Enterprises before beginning her own consultancy, Sara Canaday & Associates, in 2009. She has been featured in a number of publications and broadcasts, most notably Forbes, CNBC, Psychology Today, the Wall Street Journal, and American Management Association’s Leadership Wired. Sara’s new book is You—According To Them: Uncovering the Blind Spots that Impact Your Reputation and Your Career, and is now available on Amazon.com.

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