It is widely acknowledged that teams will play an ever-greater role in the workplace of the future. To compete effective in a fast-changing and unpredictable world, organizations need more diverse, agile, and collaborative teams to tackle greater complexity and adaptive challenges created by disruptive changes and trends, including rapidly changing technologies, new ways of working and shifting employee expectations.
However, teams face a host of risks and blockers that impede their effectiveness. Many of these dysfunctions have been well covered in the literature and include things like poor trust, lack of clarity of goals and purpose, unclear accountabilities, and breakdowns in communication.
Perhaps one of the least known and biggest risks to team performance arises when team strengths are overused and this leads to negative, unintended results. Overused strengths occur when team members use their strengths excessively or carelessly and this unintentionally undermines performance, relationships, and results. For example, a team that has a high proportion of team members who are highly task-focused, driven, and decisive may end up driving results so hard that they overlook the importance of listening to others and exploring creative options that could generate better results. Because they are so focused on driving for short-term results, they may also fail to engage external stakeholders to support their plans, resulting in implementation challenges arising from a lack of commitment. Breakdowns in trust and teamwork with colleagues who are more creative, relationship-oriented, and considered in their approach can also arise, leaving these minority team members feeling excluded, ignored, and unvalued.
The biggest sources of this problem are as follows:
Failing to assess for personal strengths when hiring people and building teams often results in teams that are lopsided. For example, I once worked with a top team of a major Tech company who had plenty of leaders with strengths in Delivery and Problem Solving, but insufficient team members who were strong at building and maintaining positive relationships with others. This lack of softer power skills in areas like collaboration, empathy and consideration, undermined team effectiveness and results.
This problem can even spread to other parts of the business, as lopsided team behaviours at the top tend to trickle-down to other management levels. This happens because managers tend to demonstrate the behaviours that get recognised and rewarded by senior leadership. When some strengths are valued more than others in an organization, these feed through into the way new managers are hired, developed, and progressed, adding to the lopsidedness of the entire organization.
Lack of feedback
Feedback is crucial in order for team members to understand their ‘blind spots’ and overused strengths. Without regular, timely and balanced feedback, it is unlikely team members will recognise behaviours and unproductive habits associated with their overused strengths. In the absence of this awareness, team members are likely to continue to perform the role as they’ve always done, even when these behaviours don’t work anymore.
Stress and pressure
We see many teams, particularly leadership and executive teams, that overuse their strengths because of the huge pressures they are under from multiple stakeholders, including investors and the Board. This causes behaviours such as decisiveness, confidence, and more autocratic leadership approaches to be used excessively, leading to overhasty analysis and decision-making, groupthink (i.e., when teams start to think alike and make decisions that remain unchallenged) and careless risk taking.
Freedoms and constraints in the company culture can exacerbate overused behaviours. It is hard to forget the examples of Enron, Royal Bank of Scotland and more recently FTX, where rash decision making, and over-confidence were left unchecked because of a lack of company ethics, values and boundaries. This resulted in reckless and unethical behaviour that ultimately led to the well documented demise of these companies.
Teams can avoid risks arising from overused strengths in the following ways:
- Raise awareness of overused strengths and what triggers these
Teams should take steps to become more aware of their strengths and the behaviours that show up when they are used excessively or carelessly. By using a valid and reliable strengths assessment profiler like TalentPredix™, teams can build awareness of team member strengths and how these show up when they are overused, as well as when they are used effectively. By developing specific techniques to avoid overusing their strengths, team members can balance out one another’s excesses and avoid the downside of their strengths.
One of the great benefits of this strengths discovery and optimization workshop is that team members start to see their colleagues’ behaviours in a radically different way. Rather than automatically viewing problematic behaviours by colleagues as weaknesses that are difficult to change, they start realizing that some of these behaviours arise from their overused strengths. This provides them with a powerful new ‘lens’ and language to offer constructive and empowering feedback to their colleagues.
- Build diverse teams
Problematic patters of overused strengths in teams often occur when a dominant strength or combination of strengths becomes the dominant way of thinking in the team – the ‘hammer’ the team uses to deal with every challenge it faces. In such cases, everything starts looking like a ‘nail’ and minority, dissenting team members’ views are steamrollered or ignored.
Teams can avoid this danger by hiring team members with diverse strengths. Studies show that more cognitively diverse teams made up of a broad mix of strengths, skills, experiences, and different backgrounds (including ethnic and gender differences) outperform those that lack such diversity.
- Promote an open feedback culture
Teams wanting to avoid overdrive risks should build an open culture of feedback where team members are able to provide constructive as well as positive feedback. It takes times and trust before such candid feedback conversations can occur which is why it is always a good idea to bring in an external facilitator to equip the team with the tools, skills, and confidence to shift to an open culture of feedback. Inviting employees and stakeholders outside the team to provide feedback on team behaviours as well as results can also help guard against excessive behaviours.
- Ensure teams don’t become over-stretched
Teams that are naturally results-focused and ambitious are far more likely to trip themselves up by using their strengths excessively when they are over-stretched and in a vicious ‘do-do-do cycle’. This stress response means that these types of teams allow themselves little time for engaging diverse perspectives, planning and reviewing work and applying creative problem-solving. By helping these teams understand the dangers of this lopsided pattern and providing them with the support to prioritise their work, build resilience and apply creative problem-solving techniques, team effectiveness will improve and the company will minimize burnout, disengagement, and unwanted turnover of key talent.
We have highlighted the risks of overused strengths for individuals in a previous blog about this. Similarly, when used excessively or carelessly, team strengths can undermine results and damage relationships. Yet, the vast majority of teams remain totally unaware of the risks arising when they use their strengths excessively or in the wrong way. By implementing the steps outlined above, organizations can build greater awareness of collective strengths within their work teams, how these can be applied effectively, and potential risks associated with overuse. This approach provides teams with a way of optimizing their strengths while also mitigating and correcting excessive behaviours that may derail the team from achieving and sustaining high performance.