Using strengths to handle annoying coworkers

On 'Bad' Strengths: The Perception Behind Annoying Coworkers

If you just got into StrengthsFinder, chances are you are all fired up knowing about your top strengths and, maybe, how they compare to others'. Many of us scroll through all the 34 talent themes and then mentally assign some of them to people or teams that we know. 

This tendency is generally okay because our experiences working with people or teams allow us to match up some positive perceptions of their dominant themes, albeit on a surface level. It comes naturally to us.

But when you skew this perception a little bit on the wayward side, what do you get?

Theme bias.

In this episode, host Lisa Cummings and Lead Through Strengths facilitator Sara Regan introduce the different forms and dangers of theme bias and how to reverse a perception of bad strengths or annoying coworkers.

Here’s the transcript of Lisa’s interview with Sara as they exchange views about theme bias and seemingly annoying coworkers.

Lisa: Hello, everyone, it's Lisa and Sara from Lead Through Strengths, and we're here today to give you some fresh ideas about how to apply your strengths at work.

Are Bad Strengths A Real Thing?

Lisa: So you talk about the demonizing of a strength or making a strength the bad guy, or even fearing that there's a bad one that maybe this isn't the good one to have in this organization.

How would you experience that in working with teams and what would you offer them as another way?

Sara: Sure. And I think anytime that I'm working with a team, I am going to bring up theme bias. And that's whether it's the first time I'm seeing them, or maybe the fifth time in a year, I'm going to return to this because I think it's just natural for us.

I can say to groups that if they look through that full list of 34 themes and kind of scan that, I will stop on one or two of them. And they will think, “Oh, I'm really glad I don't have that one.”

Or maybe, "That's good for the work that other people do in a different kind of organization, but for our team, we don't really need that here. That wouldn't fit.”

Or they point their finger to one and say, “Oh, I bet so and so had that theme and that's why I find it so hard to work with them.”

So I feel like all of those are examples of theme bias, and it's really important for people to be on the lookout for it because a little bit of StrengthsFinder language can sometimes be detrimental, where people start labeling each other and making assumptions. It takes a long time to develop the fluency of understanding all 34 themes. 

So for me, what I want people to do is to have that awareness of their own dominant themes. I wouldn't fully understand every other theme that folks have in the room, but that they have an understanding that none are better than others. And all of those themes are neutral. 

So I try to bring that conversation up regularly. If I'm working with a team over time, you know, how are we doing with that theme bias and check in with people. I just feel like it's very foundational to the whole principle. And that we are different people. We bring something different to the party, and we need to be honored and appreciated for that.

I see also some ties in with diversity and inclusion, about how we bring our whole selves to work. And it's really a very profound metaphor, I think, for thinking about diversity. We want to start with curiosity, not making assumptions. We want to ask questions, we want to assume that differences are an advantage, or to know that and to seek that out. 

And so I feel like that's an important message or for teams to take away with this work.

Dissolving Bias By Starting Conversations Through StrengthsFinder

Lisa: Totally. And I see a lot of eyes open when we talk. They'll bring up diversity and they'll say, “Oh, this is a big thing in the organization.” 

And then we can introduce the idea of cognitive diversity, and how you think differently because you lead through these different talent themes. For a second, forget all the other really obvious, surface things that people are talking about. Let's talk about how you think, how you act, and how these things drive you.

And I've noticed that over the years, when we bring up that "theme bias" stuff, you get them to the end of phase one where they're realizing, “Okay, I'm a little bit biased against this other one in other people. I think people who lead through xyz talent are my annoying coworkers."

Then they start to see, “Oh, I have this bias against this talent theme. I had something on my top 5 or top 10 and I like it, but I don't think that it's really going to be accepted well in this work culture, so I think I'm going to turn that one down to a volume-level-one or save that more for my home life.” 

Have you experienced that kind of example personally or with teams? And how do you get them through that bias when they're convinced that they have an annoying coworker who causes all of the toxicity on the team? 

Sara: Yes. Both within myself and with teams. And certainly, the bias can be directed towards other things, but it can be towards our own. And I think what people struggle with is, as you were talking about seeing the workplace and application of a particular thing, you might say, “Yeah, that shows up in my parenting role or as a volunteer or outside of work but I don't know that that is going. I don't know that that's what the team is looking for. Or I don't need to know that I use that.” 

And so I really want people to not dismiss and leave something in the door but to look, I think usually through some questioning and some deeper conversation. They might see the small ways that...and even big ways that they just haven't been tuned into, that something that's really serving them well. 

My personal example was being caught up or when somebody was asking me about Connectedness. I call Connectedness sometimes the "squishy" theme — it can take all different kinds of forms I feel like it's a bit of a shapeshifter. But it was early on when I was maybe like, first few months of doing StrengthsFinder trainings and somebody asked me about Connectedness like, “Yeah, well, how do you use that at work?” 

And I wasn't really sure. And I'm the facilitator, like I should know this stuff. And it prompted me to really do a lot more reflection. Connectedness is certainly a bit of my mindset in which we are all connected. We're all people sharing the same planet at the same time. It's about how we treat each other. It's about reciprocity. 

So it ties into my values. But since learning more, I’ve also seen very strong business applications and have met people in very high-powered jobs who are using things like Connectedness. One of the people that I will often tell a story about was a person who is a chief economist at a Wall Street firm that everybody would know the name of. He had Connectedness in his top 5, and had a lot of thinking themes. But for him, he was able to explain well.  

“Of course, I’m Connectedness. I'm thinking on a macro level. I'm taking things that are seemed disparate to other people, but I'm seeing a connection that other people don't.” 

So when there is bias about a particular theme, and I'll just ask people, you know, “Are you struggling with any of these things? Is there anything you want to learn more about?”

And in sharing that story, you can almost see the person who's been a little reticent just comes to life like that. 

“Yeah, you know what, I do have that one. And that's okay.” 

And so that's part of what I feel — a value that I bring to this — because I've been asked for a while that I've accumulated a lot of those stories so that if there's people who need a new perspective, I can usually draw upon somebody else's experience with it. And it just puts them to ease. 

Annoying Coworkers: 'Outliers' Who Bring An Important Contribution To The Table

Lisa: Yeah, that is so good. And those examples make all the difference. I mean, sometimes exploring examples of people you respect and admire can turn your stereotype-loving mind in a new direction. Instead of assuming they're going to be the annoying coworker, you instead show up with an open mind about how that talent can bring unexpected nuance.

In fact, often, the teammates who used to be frustrating will suddenly seem ultra-valuable to you because they live in a headspace that isn't fun for you. Isn't it great if someone else can do the work in that space if it sucks the life out of you. So, using Sara's example of Connectedness, I've seen several people get surprised when they learn nuances about this talent theme - how it shows up in different people.

  • This respected economist leads through Connectedness. It helps her see the economy as a complex system with many levers.

  • The software engineer was worried that he would be viewed as "soft" but quickly realized that Connectedness is exactly why he's so good in his coding language. He sees the ripple effect of every action. One character can change the whole app."

  • The business analyst who leads through Connectedness has an outstanding network of peers. She keeps in touch with people across verticals, industries, and past companies. It helps her get things done because she has relationships everywhere.

  • The account manager who leads through Connectedness sees how his answer to the customer impacts people in another department. He understands the downstream impact, and can simultaneously help the upset customer feel like the only person in the room.

Well, it's the same thing happening. It's just different words to describe the same thing. And you have so many rich examples to help people make it concrete. Sometimes you need these examples to allow yourself to see the value. Even if it's not an annoying coworker - sometimes you might think it's your personal talent that is frustrating.

Sara: I've also noticed people might have a harder time coming to appreciate certain talents inside of certain industries (whether inside of themselves or someone else). At this point, I'm kind of prepped that this perception might happen. It's helpful to look at their team charts ahead of time. And I do pay attention to who are those outliers. There is this group where there's a lot of Context, Analytical, Strategic, and some people who have different themes. 

I want to make sure that everybody will understand that they're bringing something different, but something that's equally valued and maybe even more important, because it's an outlier thing. And so I feel like it has helped people who might feel like they're a little bit of a fish out of water or they know they're different than a lot of their teammates. But know that that's bringing a value and helping other people to appreciate that as well. 

Given the language, it's really about the common language because often people have intuited this or they have a sense, but it's being able to put language to it. And because it's a validated instrument, and it's been around and done by Gallup, the polling people, I feel like it gets a little bit of that credibility as well. 

Lisa: And something that you've mentioned often is permission. Sometimes it just allows them to say, “Oh, there's this way I think and this thing that I do,” And instead of feeling like, “one of these things is not like the other, and I don't do this like everyone on my team, so therefore, I should squash it.” 

If it gives them the feeling, “Oh, here's this thing, they're gonna miss this. It’s a contribution I should offer because they're not thinking.” This suddenly gives them permission to use it as a contribution rather than that "annoying coworker" person who thinks of the other things. 

Sara: Oh I think that is so true. Those outline the strengths you know. And if we believe the definition of a strength's near-perfect performance every time, we want everybody on the team to bring that, and that's what's really exciting — it’s when you think about not only your own individual performance, and how that can impact striving for that near-perfect.

But what if you're surrounded by teammates who are also delivering the appropriate performance? What does that mean for what that team can accomplish? And what's possible because of that?

So to be able to tap into that, unleash it to set up the right type of conversations, related to "that is really exciting for me." 

Lisa: So many good ideas from Sara. Now, it's your turn to go apply these and think about how they could show up in your workplace and how you could make a bigger contribution with your strengths by taking these ideas and actually applying them to your real life. Make them real for you.

So let us know how it goes for you as you begin to claim these talents. Do something with them, apply them at work, and share that strengths contribution with the world. 

Bye for now.

More Insights On Theme Bias With These Additional Resources

In an earlier podcast, Lisa exchanged insights with another Lead Through Strengths facilitator Strother Gaines on What To Do When You Don’t Like Your Strengths or when you think you don’t like someone else’s strengths. Strother encourages viewers to bring out what they deem to be their “weird” or “rare” strength, leverage it fully and make it stand out instead of squashing it.

Then Lisa yet again tackles the dangers of strengths-related cognitive biases in another podcast, Do Your Strengths Come With Unconscious Biases? using mostly her own experiences, especially her accidental biases to highlight her points. She's not immune to thinking that there's an annoying coworker out there - it takes effort to show up with your most mature thinking.

About Carmie Carpio

Carmie is a professional writer and editor at Lead Through Strengths. Having spent 8 happy years with a nonprofit child organization as a storyteller and sponsorship relations team manager, she continues collaborating with others across the globe for the joy of human development and connection. Her days are powered by coffee, curiosities, cameras (film and digital), music, notebooks, and a cat. Where books are home, she's home. She calls her Top 5 StrengthsFinder Talents "CLIPS" (Connectedness, Learner, Intellection, Positivity, and Strategic)--you know, those tiny objects that hold connected things together. She'd like to think she's one.