Today I’ll cover an exercise I do in my seminar and when I address a group of professionals. You can do it while reading this post. It teaches you about
- Teamwork, especially team building
I can cover it in a few minutes or can use it to discuss teamwork, self-awareness, and my experience for thirty-minutes or more.
I start by telling the group
“I’m going to ask you to tell me what you do best. Then I will tell you what you do worst.”
I say it provocatively to get a response and set expectations high. A few people respond incredulously. I point out that someone did the exercise with me. I was equally surprised — how could someone tell a room of sixty people what they did worse — but it affected me profoundly, mainly because he got it right. More because it told me more about myself than I expected.
What they do best
Next I ask them to write one to three things they do best — what they do unconsciously well, that people know to come to them for, that when things need this done they can do it, that they enjoy doing even when challenging. I give them a few minutes to write them down.
I suggest you, my blog reader, write a couple things down to experience the exercise and learn more from it.
I point out no one else will look at their responses and there’s no grading. It’s just for themselves.
Next I ask if anyone will volunteer their answers. A few people always do. (If no one did I could skip to share my example.) I thank them for volunteering.
I ask the first person a few questions, allowing them time to answer. You, my blog reader, can answer the questions yourself too, again to experience the exercise and learn more from it.
- What did you write?
- Can you give an example where you used this skill?
- Can you describe situations where this skill would help?
- Can you describe situations where this skill might not help?
For example, if their strength was
- Doing detailed work
- An example where they used it might be doing their taxes or proof-reading a report at work
- Situations where the skill would help might be work for a manager or customer with an attention to detail
- Situations where the skill might not help might be where the problem needs big-picture thinking, like when planning a new project.
I then repeat the series of questions with one or two more volunteers. With at least one volunteer I comment how their strength is different than mine so I’d want them on my team. Since I tend to think big, I’d make that comment with the example volunteer I just described.
I’ll add what I wrote as my strength when I did the exercise, which was abstract thinking, which math and physics training develop.
With one of the volunteers I pursue deeper about when the strength might not help. For the volunteer above, I’d ask if they had an example where the skill didn’t help. If they didn’t have an example, I’ll suggest one. Then I suggest how the would-be strength can dig them deeper into the problem.
I might say, can you imagine if your team is starting a year-long project and trying to project out nine to twelve months. Imagine people are disagreeing and you start trying to get into day-to-day details that far out. They might say you don’t understand.
If another volunteer said they strength was getting people talking to each other, I might suggest if a project needed focused individual work from different people, if when they got to work you started calling them to meet, they’d get annoyed at you. If, seeing the discontent you thought, “I know! To resolve discontent people need to talk more and tried to resolve the conflict through discussion,” you’d unwittingly find you exacerbated the problem.
I point out that for my strength, abstract thinking, when people need to work together and use their emotional and motivational skills, or compassion, abstract thinking and problem solving doesn’t help. Picture a quarterback playing football in a huddle. Abstract thinking doesn’t help. Everyone on the field needs to know exactly who will be moving where and when.
This exercise teaches you about yourself, self-awareness, and team building.
Now I transition to the big lesson. I tell people “Is everyone ready to learn what you do worst? Okay, think of a situation where your strength is counterproductive, like in the examples we just saw. Now imagine that situation arose and got worse — maybe time or some resource was running short.” Now I slow down. “What you do worst is what you do best when the problem doesn’t call for that skill.”
I let that sink in and repeat it when people ask since it takes a few seconds of thinking to get.
Then I explain further.
Imagine a problem comes up where your strength doesn’t help. If the problem is easy enough it will get solved. If it isn’t it will grow. Most people, when faced with a growing challenge, fall back on their greatest strengths. They may not consciously think it, but something inside says ‘This problem is getting bad. You know what you’re good at. Use your strength to solve it.’ and they act with their strength.
Only now the strength exacerbates the problem. That voice inside repeats that the problem is getting bad, better go with what we’re unconsciously good at.
And the cycle continues with you unconsciously trying to help, yet continually worsening it.
Usually a few people have a-ha moments as the pattern dawns on them and they think of a time the situation happened to them. It bears repeating:
What you do worst is what you do best when the problem doesn’t call for that skill.
Besides teaching a nearly universal pattern that traps everyone — maybe the last section should say it teaches about the human condition more than about yourself — this exercise teaches self-awareness, particularly in stressful situations, when self-awareness typically drops.
When you find yourself in stressful times, this exercise helps you realize a tendency you might fall into. You realize that just because you do something well doesn’t mean that solution fits that problem.
The more you know your weaknesses, the more you can build effective teams. I don’t recommend every time you learn a weakness to work on it until it’s a strength. Everyone has weaknesses so you’ll always have them. Great teams build on strengths.
Build teams with people with strengths where others have weaknesses. This exercise reveals weaknesses in the person hardest for you to see them in — yourself. Remember when I wrote “With at least one volunteer I comment how their strength is different than mine so I’d want them on my team” above? At the end of the exercise I remind people that I said that.
I enjoy thinking long-term, with sweeping vision. I don’t enjoy working on low-level details as much. Most projects need both. I look for people who like to work on details to partner with. I try to know teammates’ skills so we can work in teams together. Rarely does a project need many people with equal skills.
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