What Is A Strengths Based Approach To Coaching?
The strengths-based approach to coaching has foundations in positive psychology, which posits that not all psychology relates to illness and disorder, but is also about understanding flourishing and wellness. The strengths-based approach assumes that there’s more satisfaction and performance gain for an individual who focuses energy on developing their proficiencies, rather than over-identifying with weaknesses. The idea is: what we focus on grows!
There’s a lot of debate however, around how we define ‘strengths’. The literature and corporate resources can be quite reductionist, with many attempts to create strengths taxonomies. For example - the VIA character strengths, Satisfaction with Life Scale or Gallup Clifton Strengths Finder tools (used variously for individuals privately and in organisations). In some cases these tools mix values and strengths and virtues, although they all position strengths as universal and timeless, and even having evolutionary importance. For example, at the highest clustered level of the VIA character strengths tool we see wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, transcendence and temperance - you can see Marcus Aurelius would be approving of our modern and enduring concepts of strengths!
While these taxonomies can be valuable as a starting point and give language for describing strengths, there’s limited support materials for coaching and development the strengths themselves. They can be valuable for case conceptualisation, as the coach builds their understanding of the ‘starting point’ of the coachee in relation to their goals, and the resources available to them, but in terms of how to develop and enhance those strengths, the research is still being developed.
However it’s easy to understand why strengths are attractive as a development concept. Individuals enjoy things they are strong at - they’re more likely to practice them, solicit feedback on them, and that enjoyment and feedback cycle results in motivation to keep practising. As the individual progresses towards mastery of a skill, it becomes more enjoyable, and therefore the cycle continues. When an individual employee is motivated to use their skills or perform a task to the benefit of the business, it’s a performance win:win for everyone. As opposed to focusing on developing weaknesses, which can feel like drudgery and not create the conditions for motivation.
This is not to say that weaknesses should never be addressed. It there’s serious skill deficits for a role, or character based issues that are causing issues at work, they should be identified and a clear plan of action put around them. However with a focus on strengths, we give the individual resources already at their disposal to counterbalance the emotional effects of working on weaknesses (e.g. frustration, tiredness and embarrassment of a weakness can be aided by pride and enjoyment of spending time on strengths).
So with a concept that’s so confounded, where does the popularity and utility come from?
- It’s a good exercise at the start of coaching as a warm up, while both coach and coachee are defining goals and building rapport.
- An appreciative emphasis on strengths anchors coaching on self-efficacy, and can build a coachees readiness to tackle challenges
- Strengths are always in antithesis to a weakness, and therefore defining them reminds an individual of their resources
- An understanding of strengths gives an indication of how satisfied a coachee will be with their life and career - for example, love, gratitude, hope and zest are highly correlated with satisfaction and wellbeing (Peterson, Park and Seligman, 2004) while bravery, open-mindedness, love of learning are highly aligned with managerial positions (Ruch et al, 2004). There’s evidence that these strengths may also enable an individual to respond to challenge and bounce back from adversity.
- A strength in one context can be more broadly explored through coaching, to consider how it can be applied to other parts of the coachees life, opening up options for growth.
- An exploration of when strengths are overused can broaden awareness in the coachee about where the strength is best applied.
Some of these discussion between coach and coachee enable a more nuanced discussion around strengths, which takes the concept far beyond the categorical assessment only, and enables a personalised application. This is where a skilled coach can work in context with an individual to think about how they apply their strengths to the best application, with regulation (i.e. the right amount of the strength at the right time) and particularly bring those strengths into the workplace. This ensures the coachee is engaged and supported, and sets up an environment for them to do their best. The coach then continues to have these strengths in their ‘back pocket’ to bring out throughout the engagement as a reminder or utility tool through critical conversations.