Coaching Psychology and Strengths Coaching

{Linley & Harrington, 2006. Strengths Coaching: A potential-guided approach to coaching psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review. Vol. 1, No. 1 April 2006} 

What is “Strength”? 

Strengths are inner capacities that can be facilitated and harnessed through the coaching relationship. 

At present, strengths are understood as pieces of a much larger, integrated picture of positive human functioning instead of isolated constructs, such as optimism, creativity, or gratitude, which were researched as individual fragments of psychological knowledge. This understanding provides a holistic picture of positive psychological health locating psychological strengths within our assumptions about human nature and our broader knowledge of human functioning. 

Defining strength  

Clifton and Anderson (Strengths-Quest, 2002) used the term talent to refer to “a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied,” while strength referred to “the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity.” Strengths are produced through the refinement of talents with knowledge and skill; the only value label applied to strength is that it can be productively applied.

In contrast, Peterson and Seligman (Character strengths and virtues, 2004) adopt a more explicit virtue ethics approach in defining strengths as “the psychological ingredients – processes or mechanisms – that define the virtues. Strengths are distinguishable routes to displaying one or another of the virtues.” As such, strengths must facilitate the display of virtue, considered to lead to the good life. This strength definition is imbued with moral valence beyond the typical positive valence.

Building on these definitions, Linley and Harrington (Playing to your strengths, 2006) define strength as “a natural capacity for behaving, thinking, or feeling in a way that allows optimal functioning and performance in the pursuit of valued outcomes.” This definition specifies the process and the outcome of using strength while recognizing that they need not always be morally imbued, considering also productive capacities without inherent moral value.

A strength coaching approach harnesses the inner potential of people, thereby facilitating their optimal performance and wellbeing. It identifies and capitalizes on people’s natural capacities, helping them understand where their capacities may be and building on their existing resources, leading to increased engagement, energy, and motivation. These enhance positive emotion, engendering increased creativity, mental flexibility, resilience, and performance.

A theory of strengths

What does it mean to be human? Can they be trusted? Or should they be controlled and directed?

Drucker (The effective executive, 1967) reminds us that one cannot build on weakness. Still, organizational and individual coaching contracts often have the implicit specification to fix weaknesses because weakness is believed to result in risk and cost. Organizations have multiple and conflicting agendas. They employ coaching mostly to round the edges of your client, addressing the things they are not too good at and that are perceived to be holding them back or costing the organization in some way. Plugging the gaps in employees’ skills and competencies and working with them in their areas of development all point to remediating weaknesses.

To break through this weakness spiral and launch a strengths-based practice agenda, organizations must change their assumption about people. Sharpening and honing employees’ strengths, building on the qualities that have already got them this far, and harnessing their strengths must become the prevalent mindset and agenda.

Horney (Neurosis and human growth, 1951) and Rogers (On becoming a person, 1961) have pointed to the inherent social constructive forces that guide people towards realizing their potentialities. These include the innate developmental tendency within each of us to actualize our potentialities, to become what we are capable of, expressed in strengths psychology as playing to one’s strengths. The fundamental assumption about human nature is that humans naturally want to develop their capacities, exploit their natural potentials, and become all they can be.

If this directional force is not thwarted and distorted through external influences that disengage us from ourselves, we become free to grow ourselves and love and feel concern for other people, ideally liberating and cultivating the forces that lead to self-realization (Horney, 1951). The organismically motivated striving to become all that they can be is the urge in all organic and human life to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, and mature, expressing and activating all the capacities of the organism to the extent such activation enhances the organism or the self (Rogers, 1961).

Organizations continually encourage employees to focus on and address their weaknesses through managerial and HR processes and practices such as performance appraisals and pay and reward schemes instead of encouraging them to develop and capitalize on their strengths and what they do best.

As a result, people find it difficult to know their strengths. A large part of coaching is to strive to re-engage the individual with their natural self, to help them identify, value, and celebrate their inner capacities and strengths.

Adopting a strengths approach engages people with what they do best. The tendency toward self-realization, or the actualizing tendency, is felt in desire as the driving force and natural, self-generating ambition. Talents empower you. They naturally exist within you and are among your personhood’s most authentic parts. They enable you to move to higher excellence and fulfill your potentials. From this basis, strengths are produced when talents are refined with knowledge and skill.

Similarly, a signature strength conveys a sense of ownership and authenticity, a sense of yearning to act according to the strength, and a feeling of inevitability. There is a powerful intrinsic motivation to use the strength.

Strengths are natural, they come from within, and we are urged to use them, develop them, and play to them by an inner, energizing desire. When we use our strengths, we feel good about ourselves, are better able to achieve things, and work toward fulfilling our potentials.

Playing to our strengths enhances wellbeing because we are doing what we naturally do best and generating feelings of autonomy, competence, confidence, and self-esteem. It also enhances performance because we are going with our flow instead of struggling upriver against the currents of our natural capacities.

Strengths coaching in practice

A strengths assessment driven by the client’s agenda provides a context for a depth and breadth of coaching conversations that otherwise would not be possible. For example, the universe of strengths is much broader than could be captured purely by a personality type assessment, such as the MBTI and the Type Dynamics Indicator (TDI).

At present (2022), explicit strengths measures that merit consideration are the Gallup CliftonStrengths (, the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS;, and the Strengths Profile (

The strengths perspective changes the focus from diagnostic and problem-focused to potential-guided and solution-focused.

Examples of questions in a strengths-based approach to the coaching conversation would be:

What are the things you do best?

How do you know when you are at your best?

What key strengths and resources can you draw on to solve this situation?

Tell me about a time when you were successful at doing this before.

Who do you know who has done this successfully? How did they do it?

What do you feel is the answer that is coming from inside you?

Of course, the specific question is always shaped by the client and their context.

Research questions of the strengths approach

How do strengths contribute to achieving goals?

What are the effects of strengths use on wellbeing and performance?

What are the effects of strengths use on stress and burnout?

Does playing to one’s strengths influence people’s motivation?

How best can coaches and practitioners identify or assess people’s strengths?

How best can coaches and practitioners adopt a strengths coaching model?

How does a strengths-coaching approach compare in effectiveness and efficacy with other coaching psychology models?

Is there a downside to playing to one’s strengths?

The prevailing cultural ethos sees no need to get help to do what we’re best at since it should come naturally, but what we need help with is overcoming our weaknesses. The belief is that if we do not manage weakness, it will undo the best efforts of any strength. However, here we must consider the weakness more closely and whether it is integral to successful performance. When we take a second look, it is often possible to redefine roles and positions to accommodate weakness and play to strength so that the real issue may lie in the organizational culture and climate.

On the other hand, there may be situations where a competence level is necessary for one to possess. Such a situation might warrant a remediating approach to limit possible damage.

The coach can deliver difficult feedback within a supportive and facilitative environment that is potential-guided, focused on future achievement based on past success, building on the foundations of what the client does well and the successes that have propelled them this far. In such conversations, clients become engaged, open, and receptive, leaving the coaching session feeling celebrated, valued, and appreciated, with a re-engaged enthusiasm, energy, and motivation, keen to get to work or life and perform even better.

Strengths coaching is an ideal and sustainable way of facilitating positive emotion in clients through harnessing their natural capacities and allowing them to do more of what they do best.