Coaching Positively #2: The Value of Strengths.

In the world of sports and entertainment our eyes often gravitate towards the specialist, over the generalist and we are prepared to forgive someone of their weaknesses, when we know that they can deliver when their strengths are played. Talent itself is not alone – and nor dreams or positive thinking, it is the application of it and the flexing of our strengths.

Emerging in the 1980’s, Positive Psychology, (as explored in my blog earlier) is not grounded in  magical self-belief, but emphasises the importance of accepting reality, and is routed in rationality.

Philosophically, it is aligned to a grounded ethos of ‘knowing thyself’ and acting on what is the best ‘inside us’ the basis of wisdom, found in the philosophy of Aristotle and stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, and the character archetypes and insights into human behaviour of Carl Jung. And too, it adds from the rational approaches of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy developed by Albert Ellis, and shares also  the holistic Japanese approaches such as Morita Therapy and the concept of IKIGAI, which stress the importance of action, and principles of purposeful living and focus. As Shona Morita, the founder of Morita Therapy says; ‘Accept your feelings, know your purpose, and do what needs to be done’.

CBT, Seeks To Recognise The Distinction Between
Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviour

Mirroring the thoughts of Morita, practitioners of Positive Psychology encourage reflection and self-knowledge, and engaging in our interests and with others, with intention and purpose. Positive Psychology encourages recognising the best of us, avoiding neither catastrophising nor irrational over optimism. And this naturally connects to the belief, that we should be acting on the basis of seeking to know well, our true strengths. It is no surprise therefore, that Positive Psychology has always had an interest in knowing our strengths and how this can be used to build less anxious, more happy and purposeful living.

Management theorists such as Bernard Haldane (1947) and later the legendry Peter Drucker (1967), had long promoted the view that leaders were at their most effective when they knew and applied their strengths.

Through the 1980’s-1990’s, strengths-based approaches to recruitment, social work and counselling began to be applied and in 1999, Professor Martin Seligman, then President of the American Psychological Association, identified the thinking behind what was to became known as the Positive Psychology movement, famously advocating a deliberate move away, from ‘fixing people through therapy’, and towards considering more the individual’s capacity for growth and change, achievement, their character and virtues and building on their own positive qualities and attributes – a focus on well-being, not problems.

Seligman’s PERMA Model Is Often a Central Point In The Practical
Application Of Positive Psychology

Through the research of Martin Seligman, along with others, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Carole Dweck, a common theme is the acknowledgement that individuals are more likely to live and work more happily, when they are operating from a place of purposefully engaging, learning and growing, being challenged and operating from a position of knowing their skills and strengths. A substantial industry-based international study (Corporate Leadership Council, 2002) highlighted that when managers emphasised and used their own strengths more, their performance was 36% higher – and Seligman’s research from 2005 supported the view that working on strengths increased both reported levels of happiness and decreased instances of depression and anxiety. This important point has been validated in further studies; by Proctor et al (2009), Minhas (2010), Park (2004) and research supports the view that focusing on individual’s strengths, also promotes an improvement in; self confidence levels (Govindjii and Linely, 2007), goal setting (Madding et al, 2011), resilience (Elson and Boswell, 2011), mindfulness practice (2012), engagement at work (Gallup, 2012) and in productivity (Cappfinity/Strengths Profile, 2018).   

So, when coaching with a positive psychology frame in mind, it is no surprise that a key element of our practice is to work with a coachee on understanding themselves and their strengths. It leads to a better sense of self-identity and supports a growth mindset, that crucial ability to act on the basis that one can change and learn new skills (through small steps and action, practice and habit, not just ‘positive thinking’). These principles are valuable to apply during the coaching conversation, spending time in early sessions, when building the relationship and trust, eliciting the coachee to understand their own motivations and directions. In my own practice, I have often used simple open questions, active listening and discussion tools such IKIGAI and the Wheel of Life, to help promote initial reflection and then, applying strengths assessment, to build deeper questioning of purpose, engagement and relationships.

To support open questioning, a variety of assessment tools can also be used to help identify strengths characteristics. For many people, they are often unaware of the strengths characteristics they may have, and an assessment helps pull out those important questions. They are broadly psychometric instruments but do not purport to be complete personality tests, in the manner of Myers Briggs or Belbin. Strength assessments do share the use of survey weighted measures on reported behavioural preferences (often combined with classic OCEAN based personality measures too, dimensions of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) – to build profiles of strengths traits. The strength definitions are often developed and tested across industry groups and professions, to create rich profile archetypes and based on the career preferences and attributes. Gallup’s Clifton Strength Finder (1999) was the first and still widely used such test, and this has been followed by alternatives such as; the VIA-Inventory of Strengths (2004), StrengthsScope (2006) and the StrengthsProfile (2009).

Strengths Profile – Sparking The Coaching Conversation…

The Strengths Profile Report, Outlines Strengths Across Four Quadrants

In my own practice I use Strengths Profile during the first few weeks of an assignment, to help build the relationship, encourage self-knowledge and reflection. I have found that it helps ease the topic of conversation towards behaviour, in a supportive but open way and it sparks interest in the coachee’s perception of themselves, and why they have certain strengths, more than others. Strengths Profile provides a rich 20-page report, with the individual report highlighting the top 24 strengths (from a total pool of 60 overall, broader than other tests) – as distributed within the four strengths quadrants. The Realised Strengths are those that the coachee is already using and enjoys doing, the Learned Behaviours, those that they can do, but may find draining or require lots of focus to perform. The Weaknesses are areas that are difficult or not enjoyed, but crucially this is not something that is over examined, but rather recognised. However – it is the Unrealised Strengths, that always provides the most rich and deeper points of any coaching conversation – these being the strengths that the coachee has, but they are under using or not using at all.

I have seen that discussing these Unrealised Strengths in the report, often leads to questions of why that may be and what would happen, if they could be used a bit more? In some cases, they may be reluctant, for whatever reason, to ‘dial up’ these strengths, perhaps because they have overused them so much in the past? Or maybe, they have fallen out of the habit? In some environments, when we operate well using our strengths, bosses can overload us, and this seems to often appear in the Unrealised Strengths. However, through reflection and thinking positively about their own purpose and ability to change, coachees will often recognise that they can tap into their unrealised strengths again – and add these as powerful additions to their mix. It is about recognising and dialling up the positive traits they have and often, these strengths can also serve to combat the stresses and strains of Learned Behaviours and even counteract some of the Weaknesses.

In most cases, discussing a Strengths Profile with a coachee, helps support a reflective coaching conversation, often opening up more personal insights and motivations, which for some people, may be something they are not accustomed to talk about. In my experience, the report makes the conversation easier to build and provides an anchor to come back to and move the coaching conversation forward. The test is certainly not the provider of a complete and simple answer. It is however a highly valuable catalyst that in my experience, leads to greater insights into self and can move the individual positively, to action. Giving space for this self-reflection, I have also seen initial conversations of career and work, evolve naturally into broader and more holistic themes that often may have been present but unknown, at home, in our relationships as well as at work. Questions invariably arise around topics such as; family life, home and environment, health, engaging in a neglected hobby, focusing more on their partner.

Often though, in a world that can be at times harsh, fast paced and critical, individuals often forget who they are, and their positive characteristics and abilities. We are not set to be masters of everything, capable of anything and placing ourselves in situations and environments that ignore who we truly are. And you don’t believe the philosophical wisdom of Greece or Japan, or appreciate the application of Positive Psychology. As the Latin-soul legend Jennifer Lopez puts it in simple terms, ‘Don’t push your weaknesses – play to your strengths’

To learn more, see; Positive Psychology ≠ Positive Thinking and Coaching Positively #1: Applying Positive Psychology and Coaching Positively #3: The Value of Habits.

For more about how positive psychology, Strengths Assessments and coaching programmes, can help you, your team or your business, contact Andrew Armour, Benchstone Limited

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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