There is no question that we need to align people with jobs and situations that play to their strengths. There is nothing more powerful than leveraging what people do well: it builds engagement, accelerates projects and initiatives, and significantly increases the likelihood of personal and organizational success. Besides, who wants to spend their life working at things they aren’t good at?
Decades of research aimed at understanding the factors that help make some people so successful in achieving their goals identifies several key differentiators. One of these, an important one, is self-insight. What does that mean, to have insight? Basically, it means you know yourself well. You know what you are good at, and what you are bad at. You understand how your character traits and personality drive your behaviour, and how your actions are viewed and experienced by others.
For example, Sam is a very talented mid-level finance leader with aspirations to become a CFO. He has leveraged his key strengths – intellect, business savvy, high standards, and drive for results – to propel himself forward. What Sam doesn’t know about himself is that he lacks resiliency and perspective under stress. Under pressure, Sam becomes hyper-vigilant. His high standards shift to a level of perfectionism that puts extreme demands on his team. They find themselves working through the night, revising and redoing work unnecessarily with Sam hovering over them, constantly pointing out mistakes. Sam has a blind spot. And this blind spot, which is so obvious to everyone around him, will prevent him from achieving his goal.
Sam illustrates why knowing and leveraging your strengths is not enough. Having shortcomings is not the problem – as humans we all have them. The problem is not knowing what they are. Understanding your weaknesses, your gaps, the ‘dark side’ of your personality as we psychologists label it, gives you a significant advantage over those who don’t. To understand your blind spots is to be aware of how and when they impact your behaviour, and to develop strategies for managing them.
Blind spots are those things others see but of which we are unaware. If we don’t see them, how can we know if we have them and what they are? If you really want to know, here are some exercises to try and questions to ask yourself.
Sit down with a piece of paper. On one side, list all the things you are really good at – your strengths. On the other side, list the things you believe are your weaknesses. Look at both lists (because sometimes we also have blind spots about our strengths). Are these things true about you? Have you over-stated or under-stated something? Is there something you think should be on the list but you are having trouble writing it down because you don’t like it? If there is something you try to ignore, there is a good chance others see it as one of your bind spots.
If you are feeling brave, give your list to someone you trust. Ask them to review it and add anything they think you have missed (for both strengths and weaknesses). Asking others for feedback is the quickest route to learning things about yourself that you may not know.
Reflect on or observe yourself when someone gives you critical feedback. Do you jump to rationalize your behaviour? Do you immediately identify other reasons for what happened (something about the situation, the role of other people, the dog ate your homework …)? People who consistently look externally to justify or explain their behaviour often have blind spots that get in the way of their success.
Knowing your dark side doesn’t mean you won’t ever find yourself doing something you wish you hadn’t – we are not robots, after all. But there is a good chance that more insight will cause you to feel and be more in control of yourself and your destiny. The likelihood that you will succeed in chasing your dreams will increase. And you will probably find that if you are open and honest about yourself – about your strengths and your faults – others will cut you some slack too.
Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.