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Strength-based Coaching: Separating Facts from Fictions

Doug MacKie Fires Back Against a Recent HBR Article, Explaining Why We Need Strength-based Coaching to Better Equip Today's Leaders

A recent  Harvard Business Review article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that strengths-based coaching can weaken leaders. We asked  Doug MacKie, our author expert in this arena, to respond:

Let’s be clear. Constructive criticism and rigourous evaluation of any new leadership development methodology is essential for that approach to evolve and improve over time. Coaching has emerged as one of the dominant individualised leadership development methodologies in the last decade and there is an obligation for all involved in the research and delivery of the various methodologies including strength-based, solution focused, ACT-based etc., to continually test the claims of the of the more zealous proponents. Contrary to Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s recent article in HBR, strength-based approaches to coaching have only recently begun to gain traction as a foil to the incumbent and default deficit focus. There is, contrary to the straw man assembled in this article, significant evidence for this approach. Let us take each criticism in turn;

  1. There is no scientific evidence that it works. Ignoring the blatant scientism in the title, let’s take this as an empirical question. Coaching needs controlled trials that measure changes beyond the level of self-report using reliable and valid dependent variables to really demonstrate significant change. My own study (MacKie, 2014) did exactly this and demonstrated highly significant changes in transformational leadership (TL) after only 6 sessions of strength-based leadership coaching. How did we know that it was the strength-based component that mediated the change? Well because we measured adherence to the strength-based protocol and adherence was predictive of subsequent positive change in TL. Equally to state that deficit leadership approaches are “rather effective” is simply at odds with the evidence from recent meta-analytic studies (eg. Collins & Holton, 2004; Avolio et al, 2009) which found average effect sizes of around 0.65 but a huge standard deviation and a range that included negative scores indicating some people were worse off after standard leadership development interventions. In addition, there are now several meta-analytical studies of coaching that demonstrate effectiveness (eg. Theeboom et al, 2014, Jones et al, 2015). Whilst these studies do not necessarily support a strengths approach or indeed any specific approach per se, they do support much of the common methodology inherent in a coaching approach. Furthermore strength-based approaches have been linked to greater engagement (eg. Govindji & Linley, 2007) and the development of psychological capital in followers, (Avey et al, 2011).
  2. It can give people a false sense of competence. The argument here refers to firstly the well known effect that individuals do tend to over-estimate their competence in some areas and this this effect is especially pronounced in those with low levels of competence (Dunning et al, 2003). Secondly the debate here is between ipsative and normative scoring. The construct of strengths is indeed variable and has been expressed as states, traits, competencies, potentials and capabilities. How you define a construct determines how you measure it and most instruments, like so many assessment measures including personality, are dependent on self-report. I think this is the real issue underlying the challenges of assessing strengths. Criticisms of the construct of strengths do not necessarily impact on a strength-based methodology. The key with any psychometric inventory is how it is debriefed with the integration of context, malleability and the perceptions of other raters.
  3. It leads to resources being wasted on C and D players. Consider the implicit theories of leadership that sit underneath that statement and then reflect on the impact of holding those assumptions for your organisational culture. Assumptions underlying talent management are hugely important as they determine the mindset with which we approach the development of leaders within organisations. Assumptions appear to converge around themes of talent scarcity versus ubiquity, malleability versus rigidity and innate versus acquired, (Meyers & Van Woerkom, 2014). The mindset that supports the notion of resources “wasted on C&D players” assumes talent is scarce, rigid and innate. Apart from flying in the face of a raft of evidence around the importance of growth mindsets and the developability of talent, how might such assumptions impact on the low level of engagement discussed in point 5? The contrary argument is that attempts to link leadership and enduring personality traits has in fact held back the link between theory and development, (Day et al, 2014).
  4. Overused strengths become toxic. Are there any serious proponents of the straw man alluded to in this statement? To offer two quick refutations of this statement, two of the pioneers of the strength-based approach to leadership coaching explicitly address weaknesses (Linley & Stoker, 2012), explicitly address how strengths can be overutilised (Zenger et al, 2011) and articulate the non-monotonic effect of leveraging strengths too far. The curvilinear relationship between strengths and performance has also been confirmed in positive emotions and performance (Lam et al 2013) and personality and performance, (Le et al, 2011). I know of no credible published source which advocates the unregulated leveraging of strengths as an effective approach to leadership development, (MacKie, 2016).
  5. It doesn’t address the real problems workplaces face. The problems alluded to here are of course the vast proportions of dissatisfied and disengaged employees who are the victims of the rank and yank mindset articulated in point 3 above. Of course the logical reaction to being categories as low potential and undevelopable is to be profoundly disengaged from the culture that performed such a demoralizing reification. What other reaction could there be? However at least we have an admission here that the leadership (deficit–based) industry is struggling to produce effective and successful leaders. No argument there but perhaps closing the loop on the role of invidious assessment plays in handicapping the development of agile and adaptive leaders is the real insight here.

Conclusion: Leadership coaching is slowly developing the necessary evidence based required for it to maintain it’s place as a key technique in contemporary leadership development. Coaching is now beginning to unpack the relative efficacy of differing methodologies and strength-based approaches are gathering significant direct and convergent evidence to support their potential to augment and enhance traditional deficit-based approaches. This is not an either or development but rather an extension and modification of existing practices as the evidence accumulates. To act on the rhetorical straw man positioned in this article would be to stifle innovation at its inception and return to the deficit, exclusive and trait-based approaches that have so poorly equipped contemporary leaders for their current and demerging challenges.

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