What’s happening physiologically when we’re using our strengths

Strengthscope defines your strengths as those qualities that energise you and that you are great at or have the potential to be great at. Physiologically, if you’re energised, you’re in a heightened state of activation of your autonomic nervous system, which is part of the nervous system that regulates breathing, heart rate, digestion rate, those kinds of things. So – when we’re using our strengths at their optimum, our autonomic nervous system is going to be in a good place…geared for high performance, maybe even for ‘flow’ experiences where we’re ‘in the zone’ and time is distorted because we’re so focused on what we’re doing. All good. Except…there’s a fine line between optimum autonomic activation and the beginnings of over-stimulation which can all too quickly lead to more of a stress response…that is, flight, fight or freeze. And it’s 100% possible that when you’re using your strengths super-well, and at your best, the introduction of something new or unexpected could tip you into what we’re calling strengths in overdrive. Stress is a trigger for strengths in overdrive appearing.

What can it look like when a strength is at its best?

Firstly, know your strengths – what do they look like at their best?  And what about when they go too far? Let’s pick one at random – Collaboration…finding things in common with other people: common goals, interests etc.  This can be great for positive outcomes such as building rapport, driving towards a shared objective, overcoming conflict and tension in a group.

“Strengths are the qualities that energise you and that you are great at or have the potential to be great at.”


And how might that change under pressure?

Under pressure, it can become less helpful – it might be looking for common ground when there’s none to be found…or trying to connect with someone who doesn’t want that connection… oversharing perhaps to do that, which can make it worse.

It’s important to know what it looks like at its best but also being mindful of when it’s going too far and what might trigger that to happen, such as when you can’t see a way forward or find an answer; when you’re tired and not so conscious of how your strengths are being used.

Major overdrive factors

Strengths in overdrive are brought about by at least two big things…

  • Stress

    Stress actually comes from many places. It could be in the moment, or it could be more long-lasting that that, such as stress that’s brought about by a change of role or a change of circumstances or by events at work or outside of work. In those situations, be more mindful of you at your best and whether you’re actually at your best or whether in fact you’re pulling really hard on your ‘go to’ strengths when a better option might be to be kinder to yourself, because that will get you a better result.

  • Habit

    We get into patterns of behaviour by drawing on certain of our personal qualities, our strengths, in order to get a good outcome. However, a change in context or people can make a big difference to how your strengths are seen. With strengths in overdrive, someone else’s 11 out of 10 interpretation of you, could feel more like your 6 or 7.  So, observe yourself, ask others, reflect on more challenging situations where things haven’t quite gone according to plan and ask yourself whether a different use of strengths could be in order.


Imagine the manager who has shown how they can be a really effective team leader with 10 direct reports by drawing on their Leading and Results focus strengths to develop a clear vision and then drive everyone towards it. Because of that in part, they get promoted into a matrix leadership role with very few direct reports but a bunch of people they need to influence to meet their role objectives.

If they copy and paste their usual behaviour (Leading and Results focus driving things forward) into their new situation, they’re going to risk winding people up and pushing them away – ‘who is this human, they’re not my boss, wow they’re shouty, this is actually quite disrespectful’ etc.

So, the habits we get into in one context may well need reviewing when we find ourselves in another. If that new matrix leader took a more collegiate, collaborative approach to build a collective vision of what was needed and could spend time understanding their new stakeholders and what success looked like for them, and THEN bring in the Results to help them get there, perfect. But that needs new habits to be built and it needs a high level of self-awareness.

So what are the top tips to avoid the overdrive trap?

In summary then, to avoid the overdrive trap, do these things…

  1. Know your strengths at their best and when they’re going too far. Identify which of your strengths go into overdrive most frequently and focus on developing other strengths to counterbalance this strength eg. if persuasiveness has a habit of annoying others, develop empathy to read your audience more effectively.
  2. Know what your stress triggers are and tread carefully in situations which are likely to cause you to be stressed – have some stress reduction techniques ready
  3. Develop a support network with other leaders who have different and complementary strengths. Regularly ask for feedback so you can start to see patterns and minimise overdrive risks over time.
  4. Understand your audience and your context and choose your strengths accordingly. Some strengths are simply not welcome in some places or with some people. Switch to other strengths in those situations.
  5. Ask yourself the following on a regular basis:
    • Which strengths are going into overdrive and undermining my performance?
    • In which situations does this overdrive occur most frequently?
    • What will success look like if I’m matching my strengths effectively with the needs of the situation?
    • What habits and behaviours do I need to develop to reduce overdrive risks?


You have your variety of strengths to choose from, your stressors and your own tactics as to how to navigate through that. To do that well, it tends to come down to observing your own behaviour in different situations to see what’s going to work for you.

Do this and you will still be living, working and leading authentically, but in a way that is attuned to your setting and the people around you. So, a kind of skilled authenticity. Being yourself, more of the time, with skill.