In the first blog post in this series, we introduced the topic of career derailment. This is where our career, performance or wellbeing suffers, typically under the demands of a new working context or a more senior role.
Additionally, derailment frequently involves the misapplication or overuse of our own strengths. In this post, we’ll explore the specific ways that our strengths can start to become problematic for us.
How our strengths can start to work against us
Our strengths can start to work against us in a number of different ways:
1. We take a one-size-fits-all approach
If we have become over-reliant on a handful of signature strengths, it can sometimes stop us from adapting our behaviour to match the context. This can be a particular risk when someone has progressed quickly or has experienced a narrow range of working environments. They are less likely to have developed the rounded skill-set needed in more senior roles, or across different working contexts and cultures.
Think of the technical specialist who is promoted to a managerial position. Their analytical mindset is no longer sufficient to meet the full scope of their new responsibilities. Managing a team or building relationships across an organisation can be a real issue for them.
2. We don’t understand what is needed from us
We also tend to fall back on our strengths when we’re not clear what is required of us in a new situation. This can again be a particular risk if we’ve progressed quickly, or find ourselves in a very different working environment. Without an adequate understanding of how to respond to the challenges we now face, we can easily misread the situation.
Consider the early highflyer who suddenly finds themselves in a stretching role without the support, guidance, or experience to keep them on track. They may misread, or just be unaware of, important social norms and expectations and in turn, take critical missteps.
3. A mismatch between confidence and competence
Confidence can be an extremely helpful attribute but only if it’s aligned with our actual competence. When the two become misaligned, we may start to put ourselves in situations for which we are poorly equipped. Conversely, we might experience undue stress and anxiety if we believe we lack the skills we need to respond to demands.
In both cases, derailment can be a risk. Either because our overconfidence exposes us to more opportunities for poor performance. Or because the stress of being too far outside our comfort zone starts to negatively impact our wellbeing and, in turn, our performance.
4. We overplay our strengths in response to stress
A general theme when it comes to derailment is that it can be attributed not only to us resorting to our strengths, but actually exaggerating them. This is because when we experience stresses associated with a new working context or more senior role, we draw on the resources that have helped us in the past, like our strengths.
For example, someone who is comfortable to challenge others and voice their opinion has probably found this quality served them well in a leadership context before. If, however, they start to experience increased scrutiny from the Board, they may start to become so disagreeable that they see battles where there aren’t any, or even find themselves expressing objections when they don’t really disagree at all.
Our strengths can sometimes blind us to what would actually help us to navigate a new situation and not only that, we can actually start to overplay our strengths in response the stress of these new demands. This increases our risk of derailment.
So, what can we do about it? In the final post in this series, I’ll explore why derailment is not inevitable and share some specific steps that can be taken to minimise the risk.
You can also listen to my discussion with Dr. Richard MacKinnon all about career derailment on the podcast. Check out Ep 128 of My Pocket Psych.