The Problem With ‘Strengths-Based’ Workplace Coaching

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Strengths-based coaching is an appealing concept. The basic idea, as one training guide (PDF) puts it, is that “when it comes to developing people, there is more to be gained by building on their existing strengths than on trying to make good their weaknesses.” There’s a nice, meritocratic ring to this: Everyone has something important to contribute to a workplace, and if only managers could really get to know and foster the strengths of their employees, everyone would be better off. But in a rather convincing article in Harvard Business Review, CEO and business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that the evidence for these approaches is rather thin — and in some cases could actually harm productivity.

Chamorro-Premuzic’s article consists of five main points, but the meat of it comes in his first one, after he notes that he was unable to find any rigorous studies that support the idea that it’s best to “ignore people’s deficits or provide no negative feedback”:

Of course, absence of evidence does not necessarily imply evidence of absence. But the main postulates of the strengths-based approach are incongruent with well-established academic findings. For instance, meta-analytic evidence shows that negative feedback and lower self-estimates of ability do improve performance. Furthermore, high-performing leaders tend to get better by developing new strengths, not just enhancing old ones.

Moreover, although the pioneers of the strengths movement argued that traditional development and training programs — which are not focused on strengths — were doomed, scientific meta-analyses show that they are in fact rather effective. The average psychological interventionfeedback session, or executive coaching session improves desirable work outcomes, such as job performance, by half a standard deviation. That means that 70% of individuals in a control group — who did not receive any feedback or coaching — would perform below the average of the intervention group. How would this compare to a strengths-based intervention, specifically? We simply don’t know. To date, I have yet to see any independent peer-reviewed studies providing evidence on this. (If you know of any, please add them to the comments section below.)

And yet there’s a whole profitable cottage industry devoted to delivering strengths-based training — companies shell out big money for this stuff.

There’s an interesting parallel between this stuff and the learning-styles “neuromyth” Science of Us wrote about last week — another instance in which enthusiasm over an idea has far outpaced the evidence for it. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the popularity of a given intervention has at least as much to do with how good the sentiment behind it feels as with the amount of rigorous evidence that it actually works as advertised.