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Learn Your Greatest Strength to Find Your Weakness

The personal qualities that help you excel as an entrepreneur also present serious pitfalls that need to be managed, writes a pair of business school professors.
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Generally psychologists are charged with understanding personality. But perhaps business leaders take a break from pondering profit and loss to think deeply about their own characters.

That's what Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux, two professors at IMD in Switzerland, argued recently in the pages of the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Psychology breaks down personality into five major components, referred to as the "Big Five." These are emotional stability (aka neuroticism), extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Each of us possesses these five traits to some degree or another. Together they form your personality.

That's great for passing Psych 101, but it's also crucial for business leaders and entrepreneurs to understand where they fall on the spectrum of each of the Big Five, according to the article. Why? The traits that dominate your personality are likely to drive your success but also to present the most dangerous pitfalls. "Executives sometimes have difficulty controlling their inherent psychological preferences," the authors write.

Knowing what makes you tick, and how it's likely to get you into trouble can help you monitor and correct for potential problems. Take emotional stability, for example. Toegel and Barsoux write:

Emotional stability can be a valuable quality for executives, helping them cope with stress, setbacks and uncertainty. But it has its drawbacks, too.

You can be too composed. Poise under pressure helps executives project a reassuring image when others may be inclined to panic. Many executives we coach pride themselves on their ability to remain calm. The risk of this trait is that they can appear uninspiring or lacking in urgency. They may have difficulty understanding why others are worried. Moreover, such executives may come across as unduly confident.

A strong tendency to stay calm and maintain your emotional balance may be your biggest asset as a business owner, but ironically it is our greatest strengths that we often take too far, creating potential problems. Understand this and you can better compensate for the possibility, the article says. "One strategy to counter over-optimism is to create mental lists. Alongside three hopeful reasons for why something will work out, an executive prone to over-optimism should come up with three gloomy reasons why it may not," suggest the authors.

And it's not just emotional stability that has a dark flip side. Other character traits that can help you as an entrepreneur can also trip you up. Super extraverted and outgoing? That's great for networking and promoting your product but "can trigger perceptions that the executive is too talkative or domineering--with the added implication that he or she tends not to listen," say the authors. If this sounds like you, the article offers a simple remedy: "The 'four sentence' rule: Whatever you have to say, limit yourself to four sentences. Then ask: 'Do you want me to carry on?'"

How about openness? "Openness includes people’s tendency to show intellectual curiosity, independence of judgment and big-picture orientation," write the authors. Surely that's great for entrepreneurs, but even this quality has a significant downside. "You can be too innovative or too complex. Speculating on alternative viewpoints and seeking additional perspectives can be frustrating for colleagues who are looking for clarity, consistency and direction," say Toegel and Barsoux.

If you want to learn about how each trait can backfire for entrepreneurs, and get suggestions about how to manage your personality, check out the complete article (free registration required to read the piece in full).

What's your best personality trait and does it have a dark side for your business?

 

IMAGE: Jeremy Burgin via Flickr.
Last updated: Jun 22, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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