Sustaining through the School Year and Shadow Sides

Dalton Goodier has a candid post about the effects of his competitive streak on his ability to sustain. It is well worth reading, and we encourage you to drop over and see what Dalton had to say. This post got us here at SMART Strengths thinking about how the shadow sides of strengths can affect our ability to sustain and about how we can use other strengths to regulate the shadow sides. Dalton’s post is a good example of both. Although he does not name them as such, it sure sounds like Gallup’s theme of Competitive or the VIA strength of Zest may be high in his personal ordering of the strengths. And he mentions focusing on building relationships this year, and that would pull on other strengths such as Kindness or Social Intelligence from the VIA and perhaps WOO or Developer from Gallup’s framework.

Shadow Sides

We can overuse a strength, use it in a wrong context, or use it for an unacceptable purpose. We refer to these uses as the “shadow sides” of strengths. (We bring up the shadow side of strengths in SMART Strengths throughout, but see specifically pp. 48-50, 74-80, 87.) Taken to the shadow side, Social Intelligence can become manipulation, Creativity can cause us to reinvent the wheel or fail to follow standard procedures, and Kindness can allow others to take advantage of us.

Sustaining Requires Balance

We are not big fans of the phrase “work/life balance” – work is life just as much as recreation. Friendships, camaraderie, and achievement with colleagues build up our lives along with the intimate relationships of family and non-work friends. That said, sustaining commitment, energy and engagement does require balance. When, either through our own focus and choices, or through the demands of situations, challenges in one area of our life dominate for an extended period of time, it can wear us down. When the shadow side of our strengths kicks in, they can exacerbate situational demands.

Managing Shadow Sides

Let’s turn to the “M” in the SMART model – managing. It is not easy to suppress a “signature strength.” These strengths – typically those at the top of your personal listing of strengths – are always on and operate as our default setting. Although we can consciously tone them down if we need to, they come back on when our attention goes elsewhere. When we try, Dave can focus his Curiosity and Creativity on one aspect of an endeavor and John can tone down his Fairness and recognize exceptions to the rule. But holding a signature strength in check is just what it sounds like, a continuous and focused effort. It is like holding your breath; eventually you are going to stop holding back and breathe. Plus, trying not to think, feel and act in the pattern of a strength does not help you decide how to think, feel and act!

As we were writing this post, we started to go down the list of all the VIA strengths and identify the ways in which each one could, if taken to the shadow side, contribute to an inability to sustain over the course of a year. While for at least one of us (Dave!), this was an engaging intellectual exercise, it quickly became clear that not all of the strengths are equally likely to result in over-commitment or failure to disengage in ways that limit a teacher’s ability to sustain through the year. Further, strengths do not operate in isolation. Rather, the way any strength pairs with our other signature strengths, our deep beliefs and core values, and the culture of the organization in which we work help determine whether a strength is expressed in a way that facilitates superior performance or goes over to the shadow side. So, if you know that you are facing a challenge and sustaining commitment, energy, and engagement over the course of a year, and you’d like to use your understanding of your strengths to help improve your performance that regard, here’s some action steps that should let you move forward.

As always, bonus action step in our newsletter this week! Sign up and we will send you a copy.

ACTION STEP: Activate a different signature strength or set of strengths to change your pattern of behavior. This seems to be the approach Dalton took as he started to use his strengths that focus on relationships in order to put boundaries on his competitiveness. A similar approach would be to use Forgiveness to allow oneself to dial back slightly on concentration, effort and focus when those things are threatening to wear you out.

ACTION STEP: Re-focus your strength. If you know your strengths or strengths that are driving over-commitment and a failure to disengage are going to be hard to turn off, redirect them into a new area. For example, if curiosity, creativity and love of learning have combined (along with your deep beliefs about teaching, learning, and your role in that process) to make you overly focused on developing you pedagogical approaches, lesson plans, etc., find another outlet for them. Given that those three suggest someone for whom the life of the mind is very important, perhaps taking a course that would deepen your background knowledge in a content area such as history or art would be acceptable to your deep beliefs, utilize your strengths, and still let you switch-off when needed.

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