Article - Intermediate

Too Much of a Good Thing – Managing Your Strengths with the Enneagram

By Megan Biffi | 25 July 2019 |
managing your strengths

When we are naturally good at something, we tend to think of it as a strength – and to keep doing it as much as we can. For instance, a child who is a natural athlete would in all likelihood participate in as many sporting activities as possible. Someone who is compassionate and loves caring for other people would more likely be drawn to a career in nursing than a career in the financial sector. A seasoned professional who can communicate complicated information and help others learn new skills would be happy to be part of a company’s mentorship programme. Given a choice, we would always prefer to play to our strengths.

Sometimes, though, we rely too much on what we perceive to be our greatest strength. So much so, that instead of taking us further, it begins to hold us back. An example would be an accountant who is highly detail-orientated. Although it may allow her to excel in her job, or it could also potentially cause her to veer into counterproductive perfectionism at times. Or, consider a manager who prides himself in always being confidently decisive. This strength can become a weakness if his team perceives his confidence as arrogance.

Take a moment to think about which of your skills you may be relying on too much. Keeping this in mind, try to recall a situation during which you relied on that strength more than you possibly should have. Ask yourself whether there have been occasions when a strength has become a liability. In fact, there is a growing pool of research and evidence that relying too much on our strengths can lead to major blind spots and weakness.

“Certain skills relied upon too heavily can become weaknesses.”
~ Sylvester Taylor, Expert for Center for Creative Leadership

Don’t get us wrong; you should appreciate your strengths. Without an appreciation of your strengths, you could find yourself wasting time and effort attempting to improve the skills you have already mastered. Or, in the absence of understanding and appreciating your strengths, you run the risk of failing to leverage them when you could do so to your benefit.

Strengths need to be understood for what they are: wonderful if leveraged appropriately, potentially damaging if overused. The trick is to find a balance.

The Enneagram and strengths

Historically, the approach in the world of self-development tended to focus on discovering an individual’s deficiencies or weaknesses and then working to improve the ‘gravest of the bunch.’ This approach seems logical, right? We know that our flaws and weaknesses play a significant role in holding us back. Therefore, it is likely that if we can correct them, we would be more likely to make considerable progress on our self-development journey.

Here’s where things get fascinating. According to research from the Positive Psychology school of thought, focusing on our weaknesses, lowers enthusiasm, and resourcefulness, resulting in a self-critical view that can undermine our motivation.

As time has progressed, however, a different approach has emerged. The strengths-based theory has dominated many areas for the past 20 years, from career development and leadership to education and psychology. The Positive Psychology school of thought says that individuals should ‘play to their strengths,’ building on who they already are. Research supports this. People who ‘play to their strengths’ are likely to perform better and feel far more energised, as opposed to when they try to use their weaknesses as a catalyst for growth.

In other words, we should identify our unique strengths and then leverage them to tailor-make our development strategy. In doing so, we are more likely to find the journey to self-discovery and -development, satisfying, and productive.

Using a strengths-based approach, the Enneagram helps us discover and highlight the natural, innate, and diverse strengths, key gifts, and talents attributed to our Enneagram Type. The Enneagram gives us insight and teaches us that each Enneagram Type has specific natural strengths that arise from its internal worldview or perspective. When exploring your Type, you not only open a pathway to self-discovery and greater personal awareness, but you also grow your understanding. You let go of old, habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour and open yourself up to your inherent strengths and gifts.

Too much of a good thing?

As was pointed out earlier, overusing our strengths can turn them into weaknesses, especially if you neglect other important areas of responsibility. There is a line made famous by Spider-man comics: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It reminds us that playing to our strengths is where we will find personal growth. However, we also need to recognise that doing so, it may not always have the desired outcome. Any positive quality tends to have unintended and often frustrating qualities when taken too far or not balanced by other perspectives. (Think of the manager who is supportive and empathic – but also unable to have tough conversations with their staff when necessary. As a result, the team might not have the opportunity to hear valuable feedback.)

We need to realise when too much of a good thing is not good for us. While focusing on our strengths is a good strategy for self-development, we need to be wary of overusing our strengths – including our Enneagram Type-specific strengths.

Each of the nine Enneagram Types has core beliefs, issues, or fixations that we need to become aware of, and consciously develop. For example, Enneagram Threes, who are motivated by being the best, often become fixated on the idea that to be the best, they need to throw themselves into their work and work harder. On the other hand, Enneagram Sevens, who are motivated by experiencing life to the fullest and avoiding pain, often become fixated on the idea that they need to keep moving forward and remain flexible.

An overused strength also tends to imply that we only see one side of duality or two-sided coin. For example:

icon enneagram type 1
Being overly self-controlled and disciplined may block your authentic self
icon enneagram type 2
Overdoing empathy and care for others can, in fact, be disempowering
icon enneagram type 3
Being too efficient and goal-focused can blind you to more complex issues
icon enneagram type 4
Being overly authentic and true to yourself can lead to alost connection with others
icon enneagram type 5
Over-analysis may lead to being stuck in the detail, resulting in slow decisions
icon enneagram type 6
Being over-prepared may cause you to miss spontaneous opportunities
icon enneagram type 7
Overdone enthusiasm may lack the balance of rigorous critical thinking
icon enneagram type 8
Overdoing decisiveness often means losing out on consultation and collaboration
icon enneagram type 9
Over-adapting to others may lead to self-forgetting

When an Enneagram Type focuses solely on their strengths to the exclusion of encountering new experiences, they are said to be fixated. Sticking to fixed behaviour patterns that lead to becoming fixated is like putting on a set of blinders and seeing all challenges through a limiting filter. It is acting as if you only have ONE strength, and, as we all know, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. What we need to be doing is encouraging fixated people to appreciate that they CAN be successful by using other strengths. As we discover our strengths, we also need to learn to understand and appreciate their balancing counterparts.

In conclusion

It could be said that by offering a lens on our blind spots and deepest behavioural drivers, the Enneagram fast-tracks self-awareness of where we get stuck and how we can change.

When it comes to an effective personal development plan, it will devalue the process of growth and development to ignore our weaknesses. However, working on your weaknesses alone could potentially be very demotivating. On the other hand, using our strengths to promote a positive growth mindset as part of an effective personal development plan should increase resilience and resourcefulness. But it would not be helpful to work on our strengths alone, as they could be overused and become weaknesses.

Therefore, we should work on balancing our strengths as part of a holistic development journey. We should build them until we have a vast repository of well-managed strengths rather than just that only one superpower. This approach will allow us to become aware of potential imbalances and, importantly, to leverage the most out of our unique strengths.

As we embark on a development journey using the Enneagram, the goal is not to try and turn ourselves into what we are not, but rather to bring out the best of who we are. This approach to personal development and growth forms the basis of a deeper, more complete understanding of who we are. And it is also an essential first step towards discovering how best to use our strengths.

Remember – even superheroes have their weaknesses!

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