What’s Your Work Superpower (and its Shadow Side)?
There’s a reason why superheroes dominate pop culture. It’s exhilarating to imagine having the supernatural ability to take on any adversary, save the world from destruction, and restore the balance of good and evil, all while sporting an amazing supersuit, of course.
While we can’t seamlessly scale skyscrapers like Spiderman or soar from city to city like Superman, we do have unique superpowers to offer. Your superpower is your contribution—the role that you’re put on this Earth to fill. It’s what you do better than anyone else and tapping into it will not only help your team, but you’ll find your work more satisfying, too.
If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “What is MY superpower,” this article will help you take a closer look and start to imagine what we can accomplish together if we tap into our unique superpowers. Keep reading till the end to find out what YOUR superpower is!
In this Creative Confidence Series episode, Sara Kalick, Former Vice President of SYPartners, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard, IDEO Partner & Founder and Dean of IDEO U, discuss superpowers at work—How do you activate individuals in teams? How do you see each individual for their strength? And how do you create teams and systems where those individuals can thrive?
Superpowers is a tool SYPartners developed to help teams identify individual strengths—and the corresponding shadow side—and learn how to use them to be their best. IDEO U and SYPartners collaborated to create the online course From Superpowers to Great Teams to help build the conditions for teams to thrive. Listen to the episode for a quick exercise to help you find your own Superpowers, and check out highlights from the conversation here.
“When you understand who you are it helps you partner with others; you can cast teams in ways where you bring in a diversity of perspective that leads to innovative thinking.”
Superpowers At Work
To build innovative solutions, companies have to move beyond hiring for the same kinds of pedigrees, and think about team building in terms of combinations of individual strengths. To provide a tool to help with that kind of thinking, SYPartners looked at the archetypes of effective leaders and pattern-mapped their attributes to come up with 21 different Superpowers. They range from empathy—a strong ability to understand client/user/team needs—to systems thinking—understanding all of the pieces of a process—to creative thinking, grit, and decisiveness, among others.
Though you might identify with more than one Superpower, it helps to think about them in the context of your work, and specifically what you bring to your team. Superpowers also don’t necessarily conform to roles. There’s no reason someone in the finance department can’t have creativity for their superpower, or the team leader might have empathy. And though it might be easy to think of some strengths as more desirable or more reliable, they’re all valuable to a team—and that’s the whole point.
Cast and Activate Your Team
The concept might have a bit of a “woo-woo,” self-help vibe, but as Sara points out, really, it’s just good business. Companies need to create much more collaborative teams and think about diversity not just in terms of ethnicity, background, or gender, but also in terms of thought. Understanding what each employee brings makes it possible to stack a team with an array of strengths; after all, you wouldn’t want to build a team of three people with vision but only one with grit, or all empathy and no decisiveness.
Having a shared language also makes it possible for team members to learn more about how their colleagues’ strengths can be activated, and acknowledge each other’s best work.
As leaders, we can never say thank you enough.
Recognize the Shadow Side
For every strength, there’s a corresponding weakness, something SYPartners refers to as "the shadow side" of your Superpower. If your Superpower is empathy, for example, your ability to consider everyone’s side or thinking can lead to delays in decision-making. Those who come naturally to systems thinking might focus so much on the process that they hold things up. Understanding your shadow side is just as important as being aware of your Superpower—and maybe even more important to figuring out how best to work with your team. If you’re a great devil’s advocate, how can you make sure your feedback pushes things forward without alienating your colleagues? Think about how you can activate them to push you to improve.
“Understanding your shadow side is just as important as being aware of your Superpower—and maybe even more important to figuring out how best to work with your team.”
Rethink Modern Leadership
After a quarter of a century in business, SYPartners has seen an evolution of what’s most important in leadership. Two decades ago, Sara says, CEOs focused on 10-year roadmaps and financial engineering, and resource optimization. That made sense when things weren’t moving as fast, but when disruption is constant like it is today, it’s time to flip the formula.
According to SYPartners, there are four essential capabilities for leadership:
- Optimism—seeing, possessing, and framing it
- Creativity—a maker’s mindset for everything a company does, not just products and services
- Authentic Communication—for storytelling and activating others
- Humanity—for creating mission-based team models.
Out of the 6 Superpowers Below, Which is Most Like You?
- (A) Empathy: Empathizers have remarkable powers of perception when it comes to other people. With antennae up, they pick up on the needs and emotions around them, even when no one is saying anything.
- (B) Experimentation: Experimenters have a prototyping mindset. They’re able to rapidly generate many ideas, zero in on the most promising ones, put them into motion, and refine along the way. They have high standards, but they’re also not afraid of embarrassment or failure.
- (C) Grit: People with Grit have extraordinary levels of endurance, tenacity, and focus. They are the quiet engine of the team—able to keep pushing themselves and the work until it is truly done. They pace themselves for the long haul, ignoring momentary setbacks and the lure of procrastination.
- (D) Provocation: Provocateurs have a super thick skin. They are much more concerned with being effective than with being liked. And they routinely push the team outside its comfort zone or break up consensus by playing devil’s advocate.
- (E) Systems Thinking: Systems Thinkers are fearless about the unknown. They travel to the outer edges of a problem, then work their way back to reveal all the parts and how they connect. They can see the forest and the trees—and even the underground root system.
- (F) Vision: Visionaries have a kind of crystal ball in their brains. They can see a future destination in vivid color. And while some details about how to get there may be hazy, the visionary’s account is more than enough to start the team on its way.
Suzanne’s superpower is Systems Thinking. Systems Thinkers are fearless about the unknown. They travel to the outer edges of a problem, then work their way back to reveal all the parts and how they connect. They can see the forest and the trees—and even the underground root system.
Sara’s superpower is Empathy. Empathizers have remarkable powers of perception when it comes to other people. With antennae up, they pick up on the needs and emotions around them, even when no one is saying anything.
Take our From Superpowers to Great Teams online course to find out what your superpower is and how to activate it.
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