Mindset: Positive Motivation in Coaching

{Driver, 2011. Coaching Positively: Lessons for coaches from positive psychology.} 


The coach encourages positive client emotions by having a growth mindset, embodying positive capacities, and nurturing their psychological wellbeing. The coach’s mindset directly influences the client’s mindset. It shapes the coach’s attention, focus, and judgment which concretizes in the questions, summaries, paraphrasing, feedback, acknowledging, challenging, proposed exercises and fieldwork, and general attitude expressed in word and deed and non-verbal ways.

What positive client emotions and capacities does the coach want to evoke?

Intrinsic motivation, vitality, efficacy, implementation intentions, curiosity, creativity, courage, hope, optimism, savoring, appreciation, celebration, and gratitude are desirable positive experiences that enhance client resourcefulness.


Mindset drives performance. A fixed mindset sees talents, skills, and abilities as fixed assets one either has or does not. Consequently, failure is an indicator of lacking ability or talent. People with a growth mindset see everything as flexible. They believe the right focus and effort achieve results. They see intelligence and ability as things to be developed and failures as learning opportunities.

Mindset affects motivation, aspiration, and achievement by influencing one’s readiness to take on challenging tasks and continue goal pursuit when faced with obstacles. With a fixed mindset, tackling anything tricky means potential failure that indicates a personal, permanent deficit. In contrast, with a growth mindset, failure is just a sign to do something different and not an attack on one’s identity.

People with a fixed mindset focus on a specific result instead of learning and thus use a range of strategies to get the result which does not exclude cheating.

How is mindset generated? In experiments, even simply praising an attribute rather than the effort quickly and consistently induces the “clever” group to reduce their effort and refuse to take on harder tasks.

For the coach, it is important to acknowledge the effort a person has put into achieving a good performance rather than an aptitude, skill, or talent, and also help the client to do the same, for example, with their staff. How the coach responds to the client’s success and failure influences the client’s mindset. Acknowledging the client’s effort, courage, and perseverance helps to drive their future performance. Similarly, the coach should help the client understand how they impact and may even impede team performance through their current strategies.

Focused practice, not just doing things mindlessly, improves skill and performance. With the right work amount and playing to your strengths that give you energy, you could raise your performance significantly in most life areas.

Most people can achieve far more than they realize. Most of our limitations are self-imposed. Setbacks and disappointments can be springboards rather than barriers. Coaches must have this mindset for themselves and their clients, which means seeing beyond their clients’ believed limitations and helping them develop this growth mindset for themselves.

So the coach must see beyond the stated problem and engage the client’s most resourceful part to achieve the stated goals. The strengths approach tunes into our deepest capabilities and potentials, supporting the focus on a growth mindset instead of what is absent and lacking.  

Coaching positively requires the coach to follow up, for example, when a client uses a powerful emotional word or phrase; challenge, for example, when noticing inconsistencies, and guide the client’s goal setting appropriately. The coach must gear their mind frame to the coaching, noticing their inclinations for giving advice, focusing far too early on solutions, pushing the client toward actions, or trying too hard for the client to succeed. Coaching is not about displaying the coach’s usefulness or knowledge; it is not an expert role. The coach must also refrain from taking the presenting problem as given or trying to fit the client into a neat box of personality types and styles.


Work motivation sometimes means cheering people up for their work or getting them on board for a decision when all that is needed is for people to commit more focused energy to their work which can be achieved by clarifying where to focus their energy and what is expected of them.

Motivation is the willingness to put effort into achieving goals. Positive motivation is about helping people rise to their best and supporting their autonomy. Coaching must engage the client’s being instead of driving them toward action without understanding their thinking, fear, or blocks. The coach understands how to create the motivation conditions rather than feeling responsible for creating the client’s motivation on behalf of the organization.

What are the conditions that help one to be motivated? How does one keep oneself motivated? What can other people do that supports one’s motivation?

Doing something one values while others enable oneself in some way can be a starter. However, three things must be in place to motivate the client: The client needs to have clear goals, think positively and resourcefully about themselves and their competence, and know what to do next.

How goals are constructed is important; for example, waiting for someone to tell you what to do is disempowering. In addition, believing one can achieve what one wants and being robust enough to overcome setbacks is important. Finally, identifying ways to effect the changes one wants and perceiving the next step as more valuable than the status quo is important.


Spending more hours increasingly at work to the detriment of home and private life can be wrongly construed as over-motivation when it indicates merely motivation toward the wrong things or motivation out of alignment. As a result, suffering burnout, exhaustion, and confusion while failing to achieve the performance they mistakenly aspire to might follow.

The issue for coaching is what is working or not working for the client. Lack of balance over an extended period does not promote wellbeing. The data needs to come from the client, and any feedback must serve the client’s agenda. The coach’s opinion or agenda should only manifest as a curiosity for the client’s wellbeing.

Learning to offer feedback rather than advice often brings new insight and takes the conversation much deeper.

Causal attribution

In par with the importance of the client’s growth mindset and strong motivation is their causal attribution of events. The stories we tell ourselves determine future behavior, not so much the matter of facts. Beliefs tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and people tend to engage in behaviors that undermine their success, for example, not planning-in time for preparing a presentation or exhausting themselves by staying out late the night before and then arriving too tired to present well.

Attributions give the coach clues about how a client is contributing to the issue they face or failing to achieve the goals they set.

Two main attribution dimensions are relevant for coaching. First, the internal or external dimension indicates the client’s belief whether the event outcome was down to themselves or rather to someone or something else. For example, an external attribution for success might discount recognition of one’s contribution. When considering successes, internal attribution is more motivating and builds more efficacy than external ones.

The coach’s job, in this case, is to help the client take greater ownership of their success, attributing more of it to their action than to fortune. This unlocks their ability to handle current and future issues and challenges more effectively. Simple questions like, “What was your contribution to this success? And what does this tell you about how you can tackle the coming year’s challenges?”

The second attribution aspect is whether a person attributes something to enduring factors such as social attitudes or temporary factors such as a short illness or unexpected circumstances.

When dealing with a failure or difficulty, the coach helps the client surface enduring attributions and replace them with more temporary ones without denying the external factors. Some kinds of attributions leave the client in a more resourceful mind frame, and others leave them stuck and not resourceful. The work is to identify how their beliefs about these factors may be more or less useful and how they may limit their action scope.

The coaching issue for attention is how the individual can be more successful in the future, not colluding with the client to find all the external factors for failure. For example, if the client believes in the “glass ceiling,” it will be hard for them to be promoted whether or not that ceiling exists.

In summary, the research tells us that internal attributions work better than external ones for successes, and external, temporary ones work better for failures. Therefore, the coach must spot attributions and highlight or challenge them as appropriate.


High expectation of success influences motivation and becomes important when encountering difficulties. A person with firm self-efficacy beliefs will keep putting in the effort and not be discouraged. Even positive illusions can be more beneficial as they often help people achieve more than would seem possible.

Clients must believe in their ability to do what they want. Most people can do most things if they want to. People retain their learning ability right into later life and are capable of far more than most believe. Most talented sports players, musicians, and artists are only distinguished by the amount they have practiced and the quality of that practice.

If people ally a growth mindset with their motivation, passion, and strengths, they can achieve far more than they believe.

The coach’s role is to encourage their client’s resourcefulness, including their self-efficacy and belief that they can take necessary action to achieve specific goals with the right effort and focus.

The coach supports self-efficacy by challenging soft goals or goals that do not align with the client’s values, inviting them to make goals more engaging, challenging, and valuable. When clients are allowed to think higher, they know what they want and what to do. In addition, keeping the client in touch with the resourcefulness they have demonstrated in other situations raises their self-efficacy and sense of competence. A simple technique is to ask the client about a time when they achieved something similar or made partial progress. In examining that success, they find ways to bring those personal resources into the present challenge.

Approach versus avoidance

The client’s goal quality fundamentally affects their motivation. For example, clients might begin a coaching session by focusing on something they do not want or “avoidance goals” about getting away from something undesirable. Then, to harness motivation, the client establishes an approach or “toward” goal, expressing what they want. The more specific and vivid this goal can be, the more motivating it will be.

Supporting autonomy

Autonomy means “coming freely from and owned by the self.” It is not about independence, individualism, or self-centeredness, and it does not mean doing things in isolation from others or merely in one’s interest. Autonomy within the client is something to be encouraged. Harnessing the client’s autonomy in pursuing their goal results in positive motivation. For example, autonomy rather than dependency is vital for people entering the job market to build sustainable career skills that will serve them across jobs, roles, and sectors into the future.

Dependency reduces motivation and lessens achievement. Enabling the client to think and retain control of the goals and strategies they set enhances the result.

Implementation intentions and priming

Motivation must be translated into positive action. The coach encourages clients to be specific in their next actions. Vague intentions rarely result in action. Asking for a specific action description and a time frame might concretize the client’s intent and commitment. Alternatively, ask a scaling question, “On a scale of 1-10, how committed are you to doing this?” Another way to challenge a client for commitment is to provide feedback about how they show enthusiasm about their action decision, revealing possible fear, confidence, or a lack of self-concordance.

Even with highly motivated implementation intentions, things can get in the way of acting. To prepare, the client can identify the trigger for a new behavior in advance so that they will carry out the behavior immediately when the trigger event occurs. In addition, priming the client for action readies them to use a specific situation or opportunity to act, making them more likely to seize the moment as they will have a better sense of when it is coming.