Not long ago, I had dinner with an unusually charming friend. He entertained us with stories of arctic adventures, and he captivated us with commentary on how the Lannister-Stark conflict in “Game of Thrones” could explain foreign affairs in real life.
But I left with a nagging feeling that something was off. One of the other guests pinpointed the issue: In more than two hours, he didn’t ask a single question. A few weeks later, at dinner with another friend, I had déjà vu: In three hours, she posed a grand total of zero questions.
I might’ve expected that from a pair of self-absorbed narcissists, but neither friend fit the bill. He goes out of his way to recognize others and give credit where it’s due, and she goes far above and beyond as a mentor — she takes complete strangers under her wing. What the two friends have in common is that they’re both dynamic speakers. On a stage, they’re at their best when they’re interesting. But in a small dinner, that same quality made them come across as uninterested. It wasn’t because their social skills were weak. It was because they were misusing their greatest strength.
In the past two decades, a movement to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work. It’s a travesty that many people are fixated solely on repairing their weaknesses and don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. But it’s a problem that many people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best.
Aristotle argued that virtues lie between deficiency and excess, and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that success doesn’t come from playing to your strengths. It comes from playing your strengths in the right situations.
[Like what you’re reading? Sign up here for the Smarter Living newsletter to get stories like this (and much more!) delivered straight to your inbox every Monday morning.]
In an important study, managers were rated by over 1,500 of their co-workers on four key leadership behaviors: taking charge, empowering others, creating a vision and executing. The researchers asked a Goldilocks question: Did the managers do too little, the right amount or too much of each behavior?
More than half of the managers were overdoing at least one leadership behavior — and their strengths predicted which one. Ambitious managers tended to overdo decisiveness and underdo empowerment. Sensitive managers had the opposite problem: They were too encouraging and not forceful enough. Inquisitive managers overemphasized innovation and underemphasized results. And conscientious managers did the reverse: They were so busy trimming the weeds that they paid too little attention to the big picture.
Strengths are like muscles: If you focus only on your triceps, your biceps will suffer. As Melinda Gates put it recently on my podcast, WorkLife: “Often our greatest weaknesses are the other side of our strengths.” If one of your strengths is openness, remember that there’s a fine line between sharing and oversharing. If you have a flair for moxie and chutzpah, watch out for moments when you’re imposing on others. And if you’re a spellbinding storyteller, you need to ask whether a dinner party is the ideal time to perform.
Confidence comes from recognizing your strengths. But true power depends on knowing when and how to use those strengths.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, is the author of “Originals.” For more on building your career and connections, listen to WorkLife with Adam Grant, a TED original podcast on the science of making work a little less awful. You can find WorkLife on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.