The Practical Manager – By David F. Kohl
Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness
It sounds not just paradoxical but actually perverse to suggest that one’s strengths can, and in fact actually are, weaknesses as well. But that is in fact the case. A strength, in Western culture at least, is invariably considered something good, a positive feature. A strength is something we are good at and proud of. And it would be foolish indeed in a job interview to list personal strengths and abilities and then to conclude with something like “but they are also my greatest weaknesses.” And yet, as managers it is important that we keep this paradox regularly in mind.
Probably one of the most well known examples of a strength turning into a weakness is the example of George Armstrong Custer at the battle of the Little Bighorn. Often and simplistically portrayed as an example of white arrogance which met a fitting end at the hands of victimized Native Americans, the actual facts are more complicated. While Custer’s decision at the Little Bighorn was indeed arrogant and reckless, the underlying question is why did he act this way. During the Civil War Custer had been a capable and successful leader. He had demonstrated great strengths in leading men into battle characterized by a particularly audacious kind of courage. The problem of the Little Bighorn for Custer was not that these strengths deserted him, but that he over relied on these limited strengths – and all human strengths are limited ones -- to bring the battle to successful conclusion. The additional strengths of careful reconnaissance of the enemy and reasonable caution in approaching and engaging his adversary provided by his superiors in the Civil War were missing when he alone was in command in the West, and, in their absence, catastrophic. By an over reliance on his real but incomplete set of strengths, Custer led his men to disaster. To see Custer as merely arrogant, provides us with no real lessons. It allows us to dismiss him as a fool, rather than gain an insight into why he was seduced into overconfidence and what the consequences of such seduction are.
Less dramatic, but closer to the experience of most of us is the example of Russ K. Russ was a bright and energetic library administrator. He was in the office early and often stayed late. He was well connected in the library profession, up on current issues, had a good technological background and was filled with ideas. Hired with great enthusiasm he was let go two years later amid much unhappiness and regret (though also with some unacknowledged relief as well) on all sides. What happened?
Russ's strengths were clearly his energy, intelligence, and technical organizational skills. Almost as soon as he arrived in his new job as unit head providing central services to an external group of organizations who were the unit’s clients, he recognized inefficiencies in office procedures, a number of dysfunctional mismatches between individuals and assignments, and an agenda of activities which were increasingly out of date and inappropriate. He immediately went to work to shape things up. Arriving early and leaving late he clarified and reorganized job descriptions, put an arbitrary and confused budget into coherent and working order, and set up programs of continuing education for the staff. He was a whirlwind of productive activity and he knew it – working hard and fixing problems was what he was good at, indeed excelled at.
Unfortunately, the staff felt increasingly left out of this top-down decision-making and so did not seem entirely convinced that this sudden influx of new ideas was what was needed. For example, the review and rewriting of job descriptions to be undertaken by each staff member after a planning retreat scheduled by Russ bogged down. Consequently Russ first scheduled time with each staff member to help them rewrite their new job description and then for many who he felt still “didn’t get it” he ended up doing the rewrite himself and just reviewed it with the affected staff member. When he sensed that the reorganization and new job assignments were causing low level grumbling and a certain tension in the unit, Russ identified a morale problem in the unit and so he announced that there would be two hours during work time each month for an employment anniversary party for those staff members whose employment had started that month. Staff were told that for the party they could select the kind of cake (or other treat) they wanted which Russ then provided – at his own expense.
Things did not improve and when the external client base which the unit served began to ask questions about what was going on since they were in regular communication with Russ's staff, Russ realized that a potential political problem with the unit's paying customers was developing and undertook an extensive series of flying visits to each of the clients to explain the organizational changes and new ideas he was implementing. Time for Russ at these sites was limited and since he felt that the clients were not well informed Russ felt it was necessary to spend his time bringing them up to speed, explaining his changes and pointing out how these would solve any problems they might be encountering. Efficiently focused on procedural mechanics and his own agenda of issues he had little or no time for onsite give and take. Russ often didn’t even time to have lunch with the clients, much less casual conversation or even relaxed socializing.
These client visitations which Russ arranged as efficiently as possible nevertheless required a large amount of time away from the office where in his absence things tended to relapse into the old order and way of doing things since there appeared to be little staff buy-in to the new routines or job descriptions. In order to keep things "on track", Russ found himself taking on more and more of the office tasks as well as the client relationships. In order for him to keep things manageable efficiency and office discipline became even more important as he repeatedly stressed in staff meetings. Instead of the tight ship he insisted on, just the opposite seemed to be happening. Productivity declined, staff seemed more stressed, deadlines were increasingly missed and relations with both unit staff and clients spiraled increasingly into unhappiness. The more Russ used his energy and clever ideas to solve problems himself -- and he was a very creative person -- the worse the situation seemed to become. He began to feel that he was at the Little Bighorn without even the Seventh Calvary. And, as it turned out, he was! The unit's overseers, responding to staff complaints and member concerns, ultimately felt that Russ should leave. A frustrated Russ agreed.
Clearly energy, decisive action, and great ideas are true strengths. Just as clearly they will not solve all problems. In Russ's case the technical organizational strengths needed to be supplemented by social and interpersonal approaches. Sometimes sympathetic listening, patience and taking pains to actively involve others in an organization’s decision-making processes are crucial elements for a solution, especially when reorganizing staff assignments or getting acquainted with new clients. But this human side of the equation can be easy to overlook if one’s predominate skill set is more technically focused. A reverse situation where strengths in dealing with the human element can blind one to the need for technical organizational changes can be just as bad. For example, when doing organizational consulting in southern Europe I regularly encountered the problem of organizations and managers so good at and so focused on protecting workers jobs and rights that vast and costly organizational inefficiencies resulted.
Whatever our strengths happen to be there is always a great temptation to start problem solving with those skills and personality traits we are most comfortable with and which have served us well in the past. And there is an even greater temptation to double down on using our strengths the worse the problems become. It easily becomes a kind of closed loop that reduces our ability to see other approaches which may be more appropriate and productive. Our strength, blinding us to other approaches, then becomes our weakness.
So how do we solve such a temptation, such a dilemma? It certainly makes no sense to either abandon our strengths or our leadership role. The trick is to temper our inclination to automatically go for our biggest gun, to be willing to step back when occasion demands and make sure we have chosen an appropriate rather than automatic solution to the problem. Other people can be most helpful in this regard.
- Encourage honest feedback in meetings
People quickly figure out what is allowed in staff meetings and what is not. They will sense whether you truly want their opinion on a decision or simply desire their acquiescence to a course of action you already have in mind. In fact, aside from the loud mouthed egotist who is always willing to hold forth in a staff meeting, you may need to signal very clearly that you are taking their comments under careful consideration. Pay attention to each individual as they express themselves, nod if in agreement, ask questions to draw out details, verbally reinforce any particularly useful or insightful elements. In addition to the good will created by the fact that everyone likes to be taken seriously, such information will likely broaden your perspective on the problem, providing a broader context which may lead you to find a more nuanced and appropriate solution.
- Identify knowledgeable and sympathetic individuals with whom you can have a quiet word and get some insight into issues when you sense problems
Few of us are so socially clueless that we have no idea at all when the natives are restless. The problem is being willing to pay attention to those signals. This is often easier said than done since none of us likes to acknowledge that all may not be well. Still, as we become aware of persistent signals that there is an organizational problem, a quiet conversation with a knowledgeable and discrete staff member may also be helpful in broadening your understanding of the problem. It’s not that such individuals may have better knowledge than you or are smarter than you (though indeed, both are possible!) so much as seeing the problem through a different set of eyes broadens your context so that you are less likely to automatically resort to your tried and true greatest strength and instead be open to a more appropriate and nuanced approach to solving the problem.
- Find a mentor, not necessarily within the organization, who knows you and your management style with whom you can have a discrete conversation
A mentor is a person who knows you and is willing to spend the time and effort to help your grow as a manager by using their own extensive experience to help you see your issue in a broader context. The way a mentor is helpful is not that they particularly know more details about whatever problem or issue you discuss with them, but that their broader experience can help you to see more possibilities for dealing with the problem – not to mention cautions about various pitfalls that your inexperience could lead you into. As with the two earlier strategies the advantage here is getting you beyond the provincialism of your own experience, thought processes, and inclinations so that you have not only a better understanding of the problem but also a richer sense of possible solutions.
- Pause; deliberately give yourself more time to consider the problem
This is the one strategy which does not rely on others to be helpful but on your own self insight and discipline. We will talk more about this strategy in a later chapter but for now the main point is to use your own resources to make sure that the best possible strategy for dealing with the problem is identified and implemented. Rather than depend on others to help you step outside of yourself and slow down your inclination to automatically react to a problem, it is possible to do this on one’s own. This can be important because there is often a temptation to rush to a decision because the problem makes us personally uncomfortable as managers. In other words, the perceived urgency may not be generated by the situation itself but arises from our own anxiety. The important trick, then, is – within whatever time period is available to you – to step away from your anxiety and slow down your decision making process so that your understanding of the problem and possible solutions can ripen and hopefully expand. Of course a doctor with a patient in cardiac arrest does not have this option, but few management decisions can’t wait for a few hours or overnight or even longer. We are not, by the way, talking about procrastination here (where you put off a decision simply to avoid making it), but rather an active period of reflection where you can allow the sense of the problem and its possible solutions to evolve. It is, in other words, an action oriented time-out, not an avoidant maneuver.
We all have important strengths which we bring to our managerial or administrative duties. We know these strengths and are comfortable, indeed inclined towards, using them because they have worked well for us in the past. The problem is that they may not necessarily be a good match for solving the particular issue facing us. The solution is to expand our understanding of the problem and the possible strategies for solving it. We don’t want to abandon serviceable management tools, just add new ones to our toolkit. We can do this either through the help of others or by controlling our personal feelings and briefly stepping back from the problem ourselves for a brief period of active reflection.
To the man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail.