Positive Psychology Coaching: An Introduction to Approaches, Concepts, and Practices

Positive psychology coaching (PPC) Research Domains

Positive psychology coaching interventions (PPCIs) are guided by four broad research domains:

(a) The constructs introduced by positive psychology: an example is the PERMA conceptual model introduced by Seligman (2011), emanating from the research exploring how to live an optimal flourishing and thriving life. The five dimensions of PERMA may guide the client’s coaching focus, the selection of interventions, and define the client outcomes. Positive Psychology is “… the science and practice of improving wellbeing and optimal functioning.” The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, cultivate what is best in themselves, and enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. Concepts studied include positive emotions, mindfulness, strengths, resilience, hope, and flourishing.

(b) The construct of character strengths, classifying six value or virtue domains of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence, and 24 character strengths as distinct routes to the virtues enabling individuals and groups to develop their potential. As described by Peterson and Seligman (2004) and assessed through the Values in Action questionnaire, character strengths may guide the client’s coaching focus and selecting interventions.

Developing realized and unrealized strengths affect engagement, self-esteem, life satisfaction, wellbeing, and stress levels.

Using strengths language, connecting strengths to striving for particular goals, and combining strengths with a growth mindset impact the coaching outcome.

All character strengths are malleable and have the potential to be developed, learned, and used when challenges arise.

(c) The construct of positive organizational behavior (POB) defines measurable, state-like strengths and capacities that can be developed and effectively managed for performance improvement in the workplace (Luthans, 2002).

(d) The construct of psychological capital, as a specific cluster of positive psychological resources and capacities, includes hope, efficacy, optimism, and resilience (Luthans et al., 2015).

Future of Positive psychology coaching (PPC) 

Coaching and positive psychology research both ask questions to shine a light on what goes right with people and what is the best we can expect from people.

These inquiries lead to personal change and growth guidelines, harnessing resources, striving for excellence, and growing in the most dynamic ways possible. They also orient us to living the engaged and meaningful life.

The research base of PP broadens our understanding of what, how, and why coaching interventions work, giving us a reliable repertoire of coaching practices, assessments, and possible workshop contents.

Traditionally coaching focused on building client strengths and looking at past successes, rather than failures, as a road map for the future.

PP now offers the research and language to describe what coaches do, methods to determine why it works, and with whom.

Its application to the workplace has given us the new research domains of Positive Organizational Behavior and Positive Organizational Scholarship, linking individual wellbeing to employee satisfaction and welfare, positive work culture, and productivity.

Strengths-based interventions beneficially affect positive emotions, engagement, and meaning in the workplace, directly affecting creativity and productivity, resilience, efficacy, and other capacity gains.

These findings make for a robust business case to infuse PP into talent management processes, growth and development interventions and programs.

The three main elements of a positive psychology coaching engagement are assessments, interventions, and service delivery.

Assessments of positive attributes, measures of coping, individual potential, professional growth, determination, curiosity, positivity, optimism, and other related subjects provide coaches with new validated ways to ask clients about their resources and help coaches to identify how clients can harness these skills and talents to maximum benefit.

Empirically validated positive interventions are a coach’s reliable tools to tap clients’ inner resources, strengths, potential, and feelings of wellbeing.

Service delivery is the coaching conversation and all that comes as input to this conversation or as an outcome. 

Looking from 2021, mobile communication technology, internet-based voice and video conferencing, group messaging and collaboration software are extensively used in personal and professional settings. As scheduling, meeting, and information sharing have become easier, data privacy and security issues have become new and serious concerns. These create new frontiers for coaches to upgrade their technical skills and procedures and become vigilant in following their obligations to the client and their organizations regarding safety, security, confidentiality, and other ethical issues.

Positive psychology coaching (PPC) for Health and Wellbeing

Have you ever successfully improved nutrition or physical activity behavior in your life? How did you do it? Why did you do it?

Think about what did and did not work for you and why.

What is the level of individual responsibility in lifestyle behaviors, e.g., how much is an overweight or obese individual “to blame” for his excess body weight?

What is the difference between being focused on your lifestyle behaviors for improved health versus excessive focus on eating and physical activity in disordered eating?

Consider how a client may feel when considering whether to increase the intake of healthy food or decrease the intake of unhealthy food.

Lifestyle behaviors such as nutrition or diet and physical activity have physiological and psychological outcomes related to these habits.

Wellbeing involves what people think and feel about their lives, such as the quality of their relationships, positive emotions and resilience, the realization of their potential, and overall life satisfaction.

Positive health (Seligman, 2008) can be operationalized by a combination of excellent status on biological, subjective, and functional measures, mapping into the person’s physiology, psychology, and behavior.

Adding positive health and vitality to PERMA, the model becomes PERMAH or PERMA-V.

Health and wellness coaching tackles lifestyle behavior change.

Evidence-based theories and strategies support long-term positive change for optimal health and wellbeing.

Lifestyle behaviors of nutrition and physical activity are, for the most part, choices an individual makes daily.

Coaching Through Developmental Transitions

Life-course development entails transition periods with varying degrees of opportunity and challenge, sometimes arousing intense feelings accompanying structural changes in self and world, asking us to appraise our commitments, opening up and closing down a range of possible selves.

PPIs focusing on optimism, such as the “Best Possible Self” exercise, continuity and growth rather than change, and transferrable skills and strengths, all build up and highlight resources.

Emotions are a normal aspect of personal transitions, involving stress and coping with stress by building coping strategies and resources. These strategies and resources include learning to maximize the benefits of social support and asking for help, physical exercise, and cognitive strategies for challenging unhelpful thinking styles.

Four factors impact a person’s ability to cope with a transition – situation, self, support, and strategies.

PP is particularly relevant for transitions and developmental coaching:

PP acts as a coping resource by building skills such as gratitude, optimism, and savoring pleasure to increase positive emotion in daily life and by engaging in PPIs such as “writing down three good things” and “using signature strengths in a new way.”

PP supports self-awareness and decision-making through identifying strengths and values, as in Acceptance and Commitment Coaching (ACC); these help answer questions, such as “who am I” or “what is my place in the world,” focusing on meaning and purpose, which are key aspects associated with negotiating life transitions and facilitating positive development.

Positive aging emphasizes the effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility with well-observed benefits in nursing home residents, including increased happiness, active participation, and mental alertness.

Social support, sociability, and social engagement are important wellbeing factors.

Humans need support from others and also need to support others for their own wellbeing. To repeat, helping others is an important factor in one’s wellbeing.

Values: what is important to me?

Identity: who am I; who do I want to be?; work with VIA strengths.

Purpose, meaning: what is the purpose of my life and work?

Coaching practice is about facilitating positive growth in the client, perceiving the transition positively, and gaining self-insight.

The coaching tasks include successfully identifying, navigating, and managing transitions, clarifying the social and cultural context within which the client is operating, avoiding stereotypes and generalizations, and recognizing each individual’s experience is unique.

INSIGHT Framework

The goal is to facilitate a positive transition experience and enable self-management of future transitions.

Increase self-knowledge

The aim is to gain greater self-insight and highlight the value of self-insight as a basis for life decisions in contrast to external expectations.

Techniques include exercises and psychometrics to surface values, strengths, motivators, and drivers and Lifeline tools to promote learning from past transitions.

Encouraging clients to consider transferable skills, knowledge, resources, and experiences supports building confidence and reducing feelings of overwhelm during any transition.

Identifying and applying strengths through tools such as VIA for character strengths, or Strengths Profile or StrengthsFinder for performance strengths or talents are methods to instill a positive self-view in clients and to raise strengths as a basis for future decision-making.

Exercise: Use the Lifeline map to build self-efficacy: Events and milestones across the client’s life span are noted on a line. Life stages and labels are assigned from the client’s perspective. Finally, the client produces a map of this lifeline’s future goals and expectations.

Exercise: Use the Transition triangle: the client reflects on their resourcefulness and learned coping from previous transitions and how this might help their development and goal achievement. Transitions are grouped along the dimension of impact from minor to major and rated for the required coping, including positive coping such as humor or distraction or going to the gym. Situations will fall on a rising line with less coping required for minor transitions and more coping required for major transitions, a new team member joining the team, a new role or assignment, redundancy in the workplace, or retirement, all in rising order of majority.

Both lifeline and transition triangle tools support the client’s insights about how transitions in other areas of their life might be helpful in their current coaching situation.

Reflecting on strengths helps the client feel more grounded and confident. When working through transitions, Kindness to oneself, Bravery, and Hope are valuable and worth actively developing.

Normalize transitions

The aim is to counter feeling isolated by creating awareness of life transitions as an integral aspect of development and acknowledging the range of associated emotions.

Techniques include discussion of developmental models, e.g., Erickson’s, or transition models, e.g., Bridges’.

Seeing change as a process involving a range of emotions is a useful insight. It can allow the client to view her feelings as normal aspects of change and address her beliefs and judgments about success and failure or the pace and how fast it should be over.

Many transitions, which may seem at first personal, involve either interpersonal aspects or imply a similar transition for others; in those instances, getting support is helpful, as well as giving support to others; the team members, family members, spouses, and colleagues become a source of strength, such as growing your strength of leadership.

Support positive coping

The aim is to build positive coping strategies to deal with transition challenges.

Techniques include health (nutrition, exercise), social support, relaxation, and cognitive re-assessment. The three good things exercise can shift focus on the positive.

Integrate past, present, and future.

The aim is to promote positive evaluations of the whole life trajectory.

Techniques involving gratitude exercises and positive reminiscing promote positive views of the past. Taking stock, optimism, and three good things helps focus on what is positive in life currently. Future-focused techniques include visualization, visioning, telling of stories that link across the lifespan and multiple transitions, purpose work, and possible selves. Discussion of time orientations; considering longer-term goals and multiple pathways, lifeline maps, and transition triangles help reflect on past transitions to uncover insights about how the client has coped previously and remind them of the social support sources available.

Give time and space.

The aim is to allow sufficient time and space to work through the transition process.

Techniques include MAC techniques and creating opportunities for reflection.

Highlight broader context

The aim is to draw attention to wider influences and expectations impacting the transition.

Methods include reviewing relevant, cultural, and generational factors, identifying expectations of key individuals or society, and surfacing the client’s expectations.

Tailor solutions

The aim is to enable sustainable change via goals, strategies, and solutions.

Techniques include goal setting, solution-focused questioning, action plans, understanding the change process, and celebrating success.

Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology in Practice

PP is a research science investigating the conditions and processes of optimal human functioning. PP is also an umbrella term for multiple psychological constructs, e.g., gratitude, forgiveness, and love.

PPIs are intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviors, or cognitions; these significantly enhance wellbeing and decrease depressive symptoms.

Coaching psychology (CP) relates to the enhancement of wellbeing and performance in personal life and work domains underpinned by models of coaching grounded in child and adult learning or psychological theories and approaches.

PP application is through PPIs, and CP application is through evidence-based coaching (EBC).

EBC suggests the coaching is based on (1) scientific theory and research and (2) an evidenced case conceptualization.

PPC can be defined as the evidence-based coaching practice informed by theories and research of positive psychology to enhance resilience, achievement, and wellbeing.

PP & CP are Best Friends

As disciplines, both focus on cultivating optimal functioning and wellbeing.

In an applied sense, PPIs are planned activities whose end goal is to increase wellbeing, i.e., cultivate pleasure, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment – PERMA.

EBC encourages individuals to set and strive for personally meaningful goals within the framework of a collaborative relationship whose end goal is, first and foremost, goal attainment; wellbeing is often a by-product of the goal-striving process.

Coaching for optimal functioning and wellbeing: Strategic integration of PP and CP

Any organization wishing to enhance the overall wellbeing and optimal functioning of its stakeholders may consider a combined approach of

training or workshops on the science of positive psychology to provide a shared understanding and vocabulary about what the science tells us;

utilizing a range of PPIs in the workplace, such as strengths assessment and development, gratitude, acts of kindness; and

Providing EBC to act as an amplifier and means to increase knowledge retention, enhance training transfer, be an integral part of a sustainability strategy, helping the individual apply their knowledge in a personally and professionally meaningful and relevant way, own the goals more fully, provide the opportunity to set new goals regarding other PP concepts, allow individuals to make meaning of PP concepts in practically applying them to their lives, drawing on the goal-setting and goal-striving methodologies.

Training does support the abstract learning of knowledge. However, to translate learning into sustainable action, coaching helps individuals’ specific application of learning in their personal or professional lives, providing opportunities to practice and gain constructive feedback.

A Three-Component Flourishing Model: Resilience, Achievement, and Wellbeing 

The coach or trainer can introduce the model and discuss the three core components in relation to the client’s current or desired situation. For example, how does the client rate themselves currently concerning these areas, and how do they see themselves concerning their desired outcome? 

The overall aim of the RAW model is to highlight how each component supports the other.

In comparison, the WAR Model of Withering (or Languishing)

Wellbeing sabotaging, e.g., poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and poor sleep patterns.

Achievement blocking, e.g., avoidance, procrastination, lack of prioritizing skills.

Resilience undermining, e.g., undermining thoughts such as lack of self-acceptance and rigid perfectionistic beliefs.

The coach can discuss this alternative model in coaching initially as a stepping stone to RAW if the client has a negative view of her situation.

Who benefits most from PPC?

Model of Goal Striving and Mental Health (Grant, 2006)

Consider a horizontal axis of intentional goal striving from low on the left to high on the right.

Consider a vertical axis of mental health (or illness) from low mental health (or high mental illness resulting in languishing) at the lower end to high mental health (and normal functioning) going up.

High intentional goal striving and high mental health correspond to flourishing.

High intentional goal striving and low mental health (or high mental illness) correspond to distressed but functional.

Low intentional goal striving and high mental health correspond to acquiescent (the boring life).

Low intentional goal-striving and low mental health imply psychopathology.

For those in the “acquiescent” quadrant experiencing good mental health but relatively low levels of intentional goal striving (happy but disengaged), the opportunity lies in exploring values, strengths, and goals that may move them towards the flourishing quadrant.

Those in the “languishing – distressed but functional” quadrant may be highly engaged and experiencing high levels of meaningful goal striving, however, often to the detriment of their wellbeing.

Individuals in the “flourishing” quadrant may seek coaching for development or excellence or coaching with a focus on the quality rather than the quantity of their work performance.

Coaching to Enhance Resilience and Wellbeing

Development of resilience coaching

Resilience is the ability to take on pressure positively and recover from adversity.

Stress is the negative impact of pressure and arises when an individual believes he can not cope with demands.

Access to internal psychological resources or external pragmatic resources balances the impact of challenges and stress. It protects against the adverse effects of stress.

The core coaching goal for resilience and wellbeing is creating a balance between our challenges and the available resources.

Available resources buffering the effect of demands and pressure are our strengths, values, sense of meaning and purpose, positivity in terms of enhanced positive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, mental toughness, and experience of flow.

Coaching aids in identifying and enhancing these resources, enabling individuals experiencing pressure to manage their stress more positively and enhance their wellbeing and resilience. How?

Some children who experience great adversity are able to recover and move forward despite those problematic experiences. Resilience is developed through normal adaptive processes. How can common adaptive processes protect us from the negative impact of stress and benefit our wellbeing?

We can explore resilience most successfully through the study of optimal functioning.

Theory and fundamental concepts for Coaching to Enhance Resilience and Wellbeing

Psychological resilience refers to flexibility in response to changing situational demands and the ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences.

Bouncing back or coming back is sometimes a slow process of adaptation.

Risk factors entail low socioeconomic status or experiencing trauma at a young age.

Qualities of resilient people include their acceptance of reality as it is, optimism without distorting reality (too much), their beliefs or strongly held values that bring meaning to (their) life, and their ability to improvise, adapt, and change in response to a situation.

Individuals can manage, develop, and accelerate these factors in later life. The primary quest is, “How do I manage to balance challenges with resources?”

Resilience is a malleable state-like capacity.

A wellbeing model 

Stable wellbeing ensues when challenges and resources are in balance.

When demands outweigh the resources available, wellbeing is reduced, leading to stress.

On the other hand, a lack of demand or challenge reduces wellbeing due to stagnation, burnout, or boredom.

Challenges include adverse physical, psychological, or social experiences that may be distressing and have associated physiological and psychological costs. However, these challenging experiences or events often stimulate personal growth.

Resources are physical, psychological, or social aspects that help individuals achieve goals, reduce demands, or stimulate personal growth. Examples of resources include feeling valued by one’s organization and having good relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.

Enhancing psychological resources: Strengths and flow

Strengths are the natural capacities we yearn to use that enable authentic expression and energize us.

Positive human traits, such as courage, honesty, perseverance, and capacity for flow, buffer the effects of stress and mental illness.

Flow is a state of being intrinsically motivated in an autotelic activity, i.e., an activity rewarding in and of itself. Flow conditions include appropriate stretch, clear proximal goals, and immediate feedback on those goals.

To experience greater wellbeing, vitality, and authenticity, know and increase your use of strengths; set and strive for self-concordant goals.

Self-awareness of feelings, needs, and values and using strengths link to subjective and psychological wellbeing.

We distinguish between character strengths, e.g., VIA-IS, and performance strengths, e.g., StrengthsFinder or Strengths Profile.

For coaching for resilience, determine which strengths are most relevant to the challenge at hand.

Assess performance strengths in work-related settings; overuse or underuse of strengths might impact client striving.

Enhancing psychological resources: Values

Values are linked to motivation. Deeply held beliefs or values bring meaning to your life. Values are deeply rooted, abstract motivations that guide, justify, or explain attitudes, norms, opinions, and actions.

Values indicate what a person wants their life to stand for, what direction they want their life to go in, and what motivates them.

Acceptance and Commitment Coaching (ACC) or Mindfulness, Acceptance, Commitment (MAC), developed from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), emphasizes taking committed action towards what brings meaning and purpose, i.e., your values. Focus more on living a life that has meaning for you and aligns with your values. First, clarify what your values are and then identify values-aligned goals. Next, consider domains or categories to structure different life or work areas, i.e., career, family, or fitness values. You can develop domains in line with the goals you want to achieve.

Enhancing psychological resources: Mental toughness

Mental toughness is a quality that determines how you deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure; it is characterized as a high sense of self-belief and control over your destiny while remaining relatively unaffected by adversity.

In addition to the ability to bounce back from adversity and negative experiences, described as resilience, mental toughness protects from the challenge of positive pressure and expectations.

A mental toughness model by Clough and associates describes four elements involving control over emotions and life events, commitment to involve in experiences rather than avoid them, response to challenges by embracing the changeable nature of life and seeing the opportunity this provides, and confidence and high self-belief in one’s ability to achieve success.

Develop your mental toughness through life experiences that increase self-confidence, self-esteem, locus of control, and problem-solving skills. Maintain mental toughness using anxiety management, visualization, and imagery. Seek support from significant others. Link success to get intrinsic motivation.

Enhancing psychological resources: Psychological capital

Psychological capital is an aspect of who you are and who you might become and brings together your positive psychological capacities of hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience.

Being absorbed in flow builds psychological capital for the future.

The combination of four factors explains why resilience increases after experiencing an adverse event. Individuals who come back after a challenge increase their confidence and hope, increasing their effort toward achieving future goals. Overcoming a significant challenge can result in a clearer vision of coming back from a similar challenge in the future, resulting in greater optimism.

Practices to enhance psychological resources

Practices and coaching approaches to enhance psychological resources aim to improve the balance of challenges with resources and to address external barriers and psychological blocks.

Solution-focused coaching (SFC)

Identify and access available resources, such as skills, strengths, knowledge, personal qualities, and experiences.

Do more of what works.

Enable the client to realize her potentials and create greater awareness of resources.

Ask the miracle question, “Imagine a miracle happens while you are asleep and when you wake up problems discussed disappear. What will be the first signs that a miracle has happened?”

Help clarify what they want and uncover helpful strategies to achieve it.

Build on existing problem-solving and solution-seeking strategies.

Identify the essential resources available.

Cognitive-behavioral coaching (CBC)

Use psychological techniques to identify and access internal resources.

Locate psychological blocks or unhelpful thinking.

Enhance positive and resilient emotions through more helpful thinking strategies and reframing.

Identify events that trigger stress; identify the beliefs attributed to the event and the perceived consequences of those beliefs.

Dispute unhelpful thoughts through questioning and cognitive, behavioral, and imagining techniques.

Dual systems approach

Make use of problem-solving, solution-seeking, and cognitive-behavioral techniques.

Categorize issues as psychological, i.e., mental, emotional, or practical, i.e., determine the most appropriate method by type of the problem.

Use parsimony, the simplest, most effective, and proper intervention.

Grow your discernment and ability so you can identify and assess as a coach which models and techniques are most appropriate and when they will be most effective to use.

Use frameworks to address behavioral or practical aspects of a presenting problem or issue.

Acceptance and Commitment Coaching (ACC)

The aim is to focus more on what matters to you and your values and less on unpleasant or difficult thoughts, feelings, or sensations you experience, which could be preventing you from achieving your goals.

Values bring you meaning, purpose, and vitality.

Work towards things meaningful to you.

Increase psychological flexibility, your awareness of present moment and experiences, and either persist or change behavior in service of values and take valued action despite difficult thoughts or feelings.

One path for developing resilience and wellbeing is to increase psychological flexibility as it allows you to adopt a flexible, shifting, fluctuating perspective of self; this is a resilient perspective.

Mindfulness practice focuses on observing and noticing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without automatically engaging or responding. This creates a distance, a space, and challenging thoughts or feelings start to lose some of their potency and become less threatening.

Use this space to reflect on the action you want to take based on values and goals, make decisions, and commit; take a step away from attending and responding to challenging thoughts and feelings.

Which clients benefit most from Coaching to Enhance Resilience and Wellbeing?

Clients who are under pressure, face adversity, or experience stress.

Adversity can be challenging, and coaching can provide needed support. However, coaching can also reveal positive aspects of adversity: look for ways to reframe challenges as providing opportunities for growth and development.

There is an optimum level of stretch just beyond the comfort zone where the challenge will lead to positive change. However, beyond the optimum level of stretch, clients may require coaching to support them in achieving a healthier balance, increasing wellbeing, and focusing on what brings meaning and purpose despite adversity.

Always, techniques should respond to the needs of the client.

Discussion points: Coaching to Enhance Resilience and Wellbeing

What issues must a coach consider before embarking on a resilience-enhancing coaching program with a client?

How might you decide which techniques to use with a client?

Think about your coaching practice; what methods could you use with your clients to enhance their resilience and wellbeing?

How would you incorporate these into your practice, or how do you already?

What are some similarities in the above concepts, approaches, and techniques? Are there any things that seem important to you across the different approaches which may be most effective in increasing resilience?

What are the benefits to the client of spending time reflecting on her values and strengths? What purpose do they serve in moving a client toward her goals?

How does a Positive Psychology Coach work?

Focusing on solutions increases goal approach tendencies, lowers negative affect, and raises positive affect and self-esteem. Enhanced positive affect is a reliable coaching outcome.

What a PP Coach Should Know:

Scientific principles; Key themes of positive psychology; Coaching skills; Conversational framework; Code of ethics.

What a PP Coach Would Do:

Prioritize clients’ wellbeing; Pay particular attention to strengths and existing resources; Encourage the discussion of emotions; Maintain a focus on a positive future.

How a PP Coach Should Work:

Practice ethically and with a high standard of integrity; Become a lifelong learner and reflective practitioner; Role model PP principles through his life and interactions.

PPC highlights the relationship between emotions, performance, and wellbeing, allowing people to feel listened to, explore the meaningfulness of their professional roles, and become aware of their emotions, supporting them to flourish at work.

Thought-Provoking Questions

Emotions. What are your prejudices regarding emotional states? To what extent do you believe emotions are helpful rather than a hindrance? With which emotional states are you personally most comfortable? Which can you most readily accept in your clients?

Strengths. How many strengths can you name? You will only ever be able to identify strengths that you can label. How many client strengths might you be missing if you only know one or two dozen names? 

Wellbeing. What do you believe true happiness is? How might your intuitions about wellbeing interfere with your coaching when your beliefs run counter to or are different from those of your clients?

Optimal optimism. Optimism allows us to take risks. But pessimism can be wisely cautious. How do you know how to balance these two? What would that look like in your coaching?

Positivity. There is a tension between being supportive and encouraging, on the one hand, and validating real struggle on the other. How do you balance upbeat enthusiasm without coming across as being dismissive of difficult client experiences?

Science. Science is a dynamic body of knowledge. How do you keep up-to-date with changes in what we know? To what extent do you access primary sources such as published research and conferences versus popular books, talks, and blogs?

Self-care. All human service professionals must guard against potential burnout. How aware are you of signs of stress and burnout? Do you plan to address periods of high pressure in your life? How do you engage in regular self-care?

Supervision. Learning and feedback are crucial to professional development. How do you engage in these? How do you engage in these specifically regarding positive psychology coaching?

Introduction to Positive Psychology Coaching in the Workplace

Human capital is a key lever to a thriving organization. Therefore, leadership needs to place the needs of workplace humanity, wellbeing, and development at the heart of organizational decision-making and processes to lead not just to survive but also to thrive.

The quest for what would support wellbeing, engagement, and the development of workplace human capital has made clear the potential that Positive Psychology (PP) as the science of human flourishing, coaching as a process or pathway towards human thriving, and the applied sciences of Positive Organizational Behavior and Scholarship (POB; POS) have to contribute to flourishing individuals, flourishing organizations, and flourishing communities.

If flourishing and wellbeing are one side of the coin, the other side is the prevention of ill-being, such as workplace stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, workplace disengagement, and general life dissatisfaction.

Human thriving is a function of needs and needs satisfaction leading to psychological health and wellbeing. Needs have been studied extensively, and some have been identified as fundamental to positive psychological existence.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000) postulates three basic needs: connection, autonomy, and mastery. In addition, other fundamentals have been proposed due to ongoing research on human motivation, including novelty or variety, morality, and beneficence. Still, none satisfy all criteria for inclusion set by basic psychological need theory (BPNT).

Positive Psychology Coaching in the Workplace (PPCW) is a practice to support the mental health, wellbeing, and engagement of employees and the financial health and sustainability of the organization.

There are reasonable indicators that mental health, employee job satisfaction and wellbeing, employee engagement, and performance (1) are all linked together; (2) are affected by job demands, workplace conditions, and world events; (3) have an impact on organizational outcomes.

Psychological stressors include job demands that are not compensated by job resources leading to employees’ energy depletion resulting in mental exhaustion and burnout, which may adversely affect mental health. In addition, major stressors have been identified to include job strain, job insecurity, bullying or psychological harassment, low social support at work, organizational injustice, and effort-reward imbalance.

It is expected that workers who are consistently thriving or living well despite struggles will have higher ratings on all PERMAH factors than other workers.

Employee wellbeing can be measured as job satisfaction and job-related affect.

Job satisfaction

Job satisfaction significantly contributes to people’s happiness and life satisfaction.

Self-reported job satisfaction is loosely correlated to worker performance or productivity. However, the correlation is contextually mediated; the motivational value added by job satisfaction is dependent on conditions of the labor market, the country and its institutional settings, the state of the economy in terms of blooming times or crises, etc.

{I would surmise that the more you feel confident that your present comfort level will continue into the future, the less impact will have your positive job attitudes, including job satisfaction, on your performance outcomes; mediating factors will probably be conditions of hygiene factors, your purchasing power and income level in comparison to your equal-status peers, your life stage, your career ambitions, your job-specific self-efficacy, etc.}

Job satisfaction is a positive psychological state and describes the level of satisfaction that the employee feels about his professional life; the difficulty is separating the personal life satisfaction component since the personal and the professional are generally entangled. However, satisfaction also implies an acceptance of the status quo and, thus, a minimal incentive to actively tackle, change, or improve things at work.

Good mood, on the other hand, has a robust effect on productivity in general.

Affective happiness has a robust effect on outcomes in sales jobs. Increased reported wellbeing leads to increased sales through efficiency and conversion rates (turning prospects into customers during a sales conversation).  

Employee engagement

Whereas job satisfaction is weakly linked to performance or productivity, work engagement is linked to job performance and organizational outcomes more strongly. Engagement is a more active attitude than satisfaction, characterized by positive absorption in the task at hand and commitment to advancing organizational interests, including employee identification with the organization’s mission and values. Work engagement is a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.

Vigor is about high levels of energy, the willingness to invest effort in one’s work, and persistence in facing difficulties.

Dedication refers to psychological identification with one’s work.

Absorption is about being in flow when working, capable of complete concentration, and engrossed in one’s activities.

The impact of engagement on business performance and outcomes as measured by customer satisfaction, revenue, and profitability is firmly established. In addition to work performance, positive outcomes such as organizational commitment, intention to stay, extra-role behavior, and employee safety are effects of engagement.

Focusing on wellbeing and engagement has a better effect on performance than focusing on either alone.

PPIs delivered through coaching or training approaches and wellbeing programs complemented with PPCW effectively increase workplace wellbeing and engagement.

Workplace coaching

Workplace coaching involves attaining work-related goals regarding skills, performance, or developmental outcomes. Historically, workplace coaching was focused on poor performers and available to middle management and above, sometimes on high-potentials and accelerated talent development.

The evolution of workplace coaching has spanned performance management and command and control approaches with a focus on compelling others to change and deal with difficult employees for remedial purposes in highly transactional forms; to “leader as coach” or “coach-manager” approaches maintaining authority and hierarchy and proprietary models and frameworks with a focus on driving (others to) change and attaining predetermined goals with the use of prescriptive how-to-coach models; to present-day implementations characterized by attraction, not coercion, leaders modeling change behaviors, focus on shifting mindsets, actualizing values, ensuring synergistic goal alignment for change in individuals and systems, unfolding as a quality conversation rather than goal-focused manipulation including an equally important wellbeing dimension.

A meta-analysis indicates that internal coaches are more effective than external coaches, the use of multi-source feedback (a 360 approach) can decrease coaching effectiveness, the format of whether coaching is face-to-face or e-coaching, and the number of sessions does not affect the results.

Positive psychology coaching and resource development

Van Zyl et al. (2020) define positive psychology coaching as a short-to-medium-term professional, collaborative client-coach relationship aimed at identifying, utilizing, optimizing, and developing personal or psychological strengths and resources to enhance positive states, traits, and behaviors.

Personal resources include resilience, goal-directedness, skills, self-development, etc.

Social resources include supervisor support, team atmosphere, etc.

Work resources include job control or autonomy, task variety, etc.

Organizational resources include leadership, value congruence, etc.

Developmental resources include performance feedback, possibilities for learning and development, etc.

Resource development is the main target for PPCW, achieved through interventions such as personal strengths identification, development, and balanced use. These will increase employee wellbeing, job satisfaction, and work engagement, resulting in targeted outcomes of increased job performance.

Wellbeing Theories

People can feel happy (pleasure), they can be happy with (satisfaction), and they can be happy (have a high quality of life).

Subjective wellbeing (Diener, 1984) includes three components: life satisfaction is a cognitive evaluation of one’s quality of life, pleasant emotions, and a relative absence of unpleasant emotions. The emphasis is on subjective experience.

Psychological wellbeing (Ryff, 1989) emphasizes positive functioning in life; a happy life involves progress and satisfaction in mental health dimensions of self-acceptance, positive relationships, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and growth.

Wellbeing frameworks assist the client in thinking through what it means to be happy and to live a good life, even though the client’s agenda may have different concerns.

A coach may use the Flourishing Scale (Diener et al., 2009) to identify a client’s thriving life areas and those that might need attention.

A coach might present Ryff’s (1989) psychological wellbeing model and solicit impressions and discussion of these happiness elements as they relate to the client’s objectives.

Strengths Theories Grounded in Personality Theory

The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS; Peterson, 2006) is a character strengths framework identifying the signature strengths of a person as the active ingredients for positive living.

Other frameworks are the Clifton StrengthsFinder (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001) and The Strengths Profile (Linley & Bateman, 2019).

Assessment tools for identifying strengths effectively raise awareness of clients’ strengths and resources.

Once a person’s strengths are identified, the coaching conversation explores how the client can use this new understanding in service of her coaching agenda or goal, such as overcoming a challenge or obstacle related to her particular situation.

What strengths do you have that can support you in overcoming this challenge?

How can you use your signature strengths in this situation?

Which of your strengths is appropriate in this situation?

How relevant are your signature strengths in this particular context?

How do your team members react to your strengths?

Which of your strengths is most appropriate now?

Which of your strengths might you dial down in this situation?

How can you use your strengths more broadly in your life?

Identifying and discussing a person’s strengths brings positivity and energy into a coaching conversation. In addition, strengths are often connected to deeply-held values and principles, granting access to intrinsic motivation for energy and resources to make meaningful changes.

Emotion Theories

Emotions carry informational messages alerting the experiencer to the quality of the circumstances in which she finds herself. In this view, emotion does not cause behavior but prepares a person for various possible behaviors.

“What is this feeling telling you?”

Emotions are experienced along two main dimensions of valence, pleasant versus unpleasant feelings, and intensity, high arousal versus low arousal emotions.

People have emotional preferences for either relatively high or low arousal emotional states. For example, some people seek out calmer positive experiences such as feelings of contentment, harmony, and peace. Others, by contrast, pursue more upbeat feelings such as enthusiasm, joy, and eagerness.

These preferences can be a topic for coaching conversations since these have a downstream effect on choices, goals, resource allocations, and interpersonal relationships.

Positive emotions are beneficial to health and relationships and broaden and build social and psychological resources.

Negative emotions help avoid risk scenarios, protect what we value, and conserve resources.

Tracking emotions is useful for insight. Example assessments are the Scale of Positive and Negative Experience (SPANE; Diener et al., 2009) and the Affect Intensity Measure (Larsen & Diener, 1987). In addition, coaching conversations can address emotional preferences, emotional volatility, emotion regulation strategies, and even coach-client match in emotional tone.

Theories of Future Focus

Goal setting, planning, decision-making, and motivation are future-oriented psychological processes.

Hope Theory

The cognitive hope theory of Snyder (1989, 2002) considers human behavior as goal-directed and hope in terms of two components: pathways thinking and agency thinking.

Pathways thinking is the ability to conceive multiple routes to a desired future state.

Agency thinking is the belief in one’s ability to pursue those pathways.

Hope is generated when people identify ways to reach a goal and believe they can follow them.

Through brainstorming and agency thinking, the client can explore pathways thinking by identifying strengths, abilities, and resources.

It is not the coach’s responsibility to make the client more hopeful, especially when prudence may be more appropriate and caution and doubt are asked for.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is one of the most developed positive organizational change processes committed to focusing on and appreciating existing strengths and resources.

The AI 5D process includes

Definition – determining the focus for the change;

Discovery – identifying what is already working;

Dream – articulating a desirable future;

Design – creating a plan for moving toward that future; and

Destiny, committing to the plan.

While using a future-focused orientation, the coach also has to respond to the need of the client at the moment, which may require acknowledgment of the distress the client is experiencing. Prematurely directing the client toward solutions or emphasizing the positive without hearing the negative disrupts the rapport and blocks the engagement with the process. Listening to and valuing the client is primary to adhering to any conversational framework or approach.

Theories on Human Behavior Relevant to Behavior Change

Conservation of Resource Theory (COR; Hobfoll, 2002) states that individuals are motivated to protect and strengthen themselves through acquiring, maintaining, and replenishing internal resources, e.g., self-efficacy, and external resources, e.g., organizational support, to cope with and adapt to environmental conditions.

COR theory argues, proposes, and suggests that (a) resources are malleable and can be increased or decreased personally, and are accessible to interventions;

(b) resources do not exist in a vacuum but rather develop and co-exist in an ecological system with strong interrelationships called resource caravans; and

(c) there exist ‘gain spirals’ which occur when an individual can cope successfully with environmental conditions and strengthens their resources.

{Hobfoll, 2002. Social and psychological resources and adaptation. Rev. Gen. Psychol. 6.

Hobfoll, 2011. Conservation of resource caravans and engaged settings. J. Occup. Organ. Psychol. 84.}

Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions (B&B; Fredrickson, 2001) postulates that positive emotions (a) broaden peoples’ scope of thoughts and actions or thought-action repertoires; these broadened repertoires stimulate experimentation, risk-taking, and innovative behavior resulting in the (b) discovery of novel strategies that one can use to adapt effectively to the environment and build the resources needed to deal with challenges in the future.

{Fredrickson, 2001. The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Am. Psychol. 56.

Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002. Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychol. Sci. 13.}

{The form and function of positive emotions, including joy, interest, contentment, curiosity, pride, and love.

Broadening of an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire.

Promote the discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas, and social bonds, which build the individual’s resources.

Conducive to further altruistic, cooperative, conciliatory behavior.}

Intentional Change Theory (ICT; Boyatzis, 2006) is an individual-level change theory that postulates that change is often a non-linear and discontinuous process. ICT places ‘discoveries’ as central to sustainable individual-level change; these comprise the ‘ideal self and personal vision’ discovery, the ‘learning agenda and plan’ discovery, and are used to create a ‘personal balance sheet’ as a motivational tool for driving the intentional change process.

{Boyatzis, 2006. An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective. J. Manag. Dev. 25.

Boyatzis & Akrivou, 2006. The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. J. Manag. Dev. 25.

Boyatzis, Smith, & Blaize, 2006. Developing sustainable leaders through coaching and compassion. Acad. Manag. Learn. Educ. 5.}

{Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors, PEA and NEA, Boyatzis

PEA state will support open-mindedness along perceptual-cognitive and social-emotional dimensions.

The attractors create self-perpetuating loops influencing mood, feeling, thought, and behavior.

PEA and NEA move along three continua; positive-negative affect, parasympathetic-sympathetic arousal, and low-high intensity arousal.

PEA NEA balance will affect wellbeing and ability to learn, develop, and create.}

The Trans Theoretical Model of Change (TTM; Prochaska & Velicer, 1997) posits that behavior change occurs in five distinct stages. It was developed initially to conceptualize and study behavior change and to assess individuals’ readiness to change across multiple health behaviors. It was created in the context of the cessation of unhealthy behaviors. The model is built on the notion that behavior changes as individuals contemplate and weigh the gains and losses of their behaviors. Individuals may be in varying stages of change, which involves gradual movement through specific changes (Prochaska & DiClemente, 2005).

The pre-contemplation stage aims to become aware of a need for change and increase the pros of behavior change.

The contemplation stage is meant to explore one’s motivation further and to decrease the cons of behavior change, e.g., giving up favorite habits associated with the behavior.

The preparation stage involves setting specific goals and planning for action, including concerns about possible failure.

The action stage is about setting the first small steps toward attaining goals and starting to exercise and practice desired behaviors. In this stage, individuals must work hard to avoid returning to earlier stages.

The maintenance stage concerns preventing relapse and consolidating progress.

The Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) argues that individuals’ behavior is goal-directed and guided by behavioral intentions if this behavior is under voluntary control. Behavioral intentions refer to the effort individuals are planning to exert to perform the behavior. Volitional control refers to individuals’ beliefs in their self-efficacy to execute a certain behavior.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000) states that humans strive for the fulfillment of three basic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to a sense of volition and self-endorsement of behavior, competence refers to support for the efficacy of autonomously selected goals, and relatedness concerns the sense of being cared for and connected to others. These needs play a crucial role in the types and strength of people’s motivation. Intrinsic goals are aligned with satisfying basic needs, whereas external sociocultural norms drive extrinsic goals.

SDT specifically focuses on the content of goals and the degree to which this content aligns with basic human needs and an individual’s interests and values.

{A macro theory of human motivation and personality development.

Three fundamental psychological needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

These will influence a person’s level of wellbeing and optimal functioning.

Linking values, strengths, aspirations, and goals may open up access to intrinsic motivation.

The coaching relationship is furthering autonomy support which is the kind of environment conducive for the other needs to be fulfilled.}

Goal-Setting Theory (Locke & Latham, 2002) focuses on how goals are set and framed after goal content has been determined. Goal-setting refers to the conscious guidance of moment-to-moment behavior toward a (consciously or unconsciously) desired end-state.

Goal-setting is essential in making changes needed to narrow the gap between a current situation and the desired end state.

Goal-setting is most effective when goals are SMART, when goals are challenging, proximal in time, focused on mastery rather than performance, and when goal-setting is accompanied by seeking feedback about the progress made in realizing the goals.

Self-Efficacy Theory (Bandura, 1977)

Self-efficacy, a concept from social cognitive theory by Bandura, is how much a person believes they can achieve a goal or perform a specific behavior even if there may be obstacles.

Interventions to enhance self-efficacy include motivational interviewing (MI), implementation of small, achievable, manageable steps, and cognitive or imaginal coping techniques.

Neuroplasticity and Behavior Change

Link desired new and positive behavior to cues previously triggering undesired behavior through focused effort, positive reinforcement, and intrinsic motivation.