Identifying and Developing Others' Strengths
"The best way to predict the future is to create it."– Abraham Lincoln
There are many reasons why people receive coaching – to resolve a particular issue or to tackle a weakness, for example.
But focusing on a problem can be a negative or dispiriting experience. A more positive outcome can often be achieved by highlighting how a team member can use his or her strengths to overcome something that he struggles with.
This emphasis on strengths and positivity is at the heart of Appreciative Coaching. In this article, we explore the origins of this form of coaching, how to use it, and its benefits and drawbacks.
What Is Appreciative Coaching?
Appreciative Coaching (AC) was developed by management professor Sara Orem, who co-authored a 2007 book of the same name. It has its roots in Appreciative Inquiry, which looks at organizational change through the lens of what's working rather than what isn't.
Prof Orem applied the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to individuals, and she found that people are more productive and effective when they focus on their strengths, rather than on their weaknesses.
When you use AC, you guide your team member through four stages – Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny – to help her to achieve long-lasting personal transformation. Wearing your "coach's hat," your role is to recognize her accomplishments, and to help her to imagine a future without boundaries.
Although some of the language and concepts in AC may sound somewhat "fluffy," it describes an effective and practical framework for getting the best from your people, and for helping them reach their full potential.
How to Use Appreciative Coaching
You can use the AC approach on its own or alongside other recognized coaching methods, such as the Skill/Will Matrix or GROW. Managers can also use elements of it, such as appreciative language, in other areas of their daily tasks and activities.
If you're coaching someone using AC, work through each of its four stages in sequence. Alternatively, apply some of the techniques described below more informally to help to get the best from him.
1. Discovery Stage
This first stage focuses on helping your team member to think positively and build self-esteem, by discovering her strengths and sources of inspiration. Ask her to write down what she's most proud of, what the best aspects of her life are, and what she wants to achieve.
If her list of what she wants to achieve highlights any disappointments or fears, help her to reframe her situation, so that she can think more optimistically. For example, if she talks about any negative characteristics ("I'm too quiet in meetings, I'm afraid to speak up"), try to reframe this as a strength ("You're contemplative and thoughtful. Let's think of examples when this has played to your advantage").
Ask questions to establish what excites her, and what she values about herself, her work and her relationships. When your conversations are positive and non-judgmental, she will likely be better able to let go of any perceived problems in her work, and to develop confidence and trust in the process.
2. Dream Stage
The next step is to explore your team member's hopes and expectations for himself. Encourage him to create an exciting vision for the future, by building on his existing accomplishments and rediscovering passions that he may have forgotten. There are no boundaries or barriers here: he mustn't be afraid to "think big" and step outside his comfort zone.
You can do this with "possibility conversations." Ask questions like, "Where do you see yourself in five years' time? Who are you with? Where do you live? What inspires you?" Ask him to respond in an active voice, using the present tense and incorporating positive language so that he can visualize his dream: "I'm enjoying… "
As a manager, while you should encourage your team member to be ambitious, you also need to recognize when his expectations are unrealistic or out of sync with your organization's values.
You might want to bring in elements of other coaching models at this stage, such as PRACTICE, to make sure that his dreams are attainable and relevant. Ask him how his ideas link with the overall business vision, and brainstorm ways that he can contribute in a practical way to achieving it, so that his dreams are based on reality.
3. Design Stage
Now you can work with your team member on how to turn her vision into reality. Unlike other coaching methods, this stage is not about establishing concrete goals and objectives. These might restrict her from being open to new or alternative opportunities. Instead, encourage her to experiment with different objectives, based on what she has achieved already and what she has shown that she does well.
Ask her to identify her key priorities, and think about how she can use her strengths to achieve them. Help her to make mindful choices, and hold her accountable so that she commits to taking meaningful action. If something doesn't go to plan, remind her of relevant successes from the past and encourage her to try another approach.
Ask your team member to identify supporters (people who have her best interests at heart) and role models (those she looks up to) to inspire her through challenging times.
4. Destiny Stage
The final stage is dedicated to recognizing and celebrating your team member's achievements and progress. Help him to identify what's working, and encourage him until the behaviors or skills that you are both aiming to improve become second nature.
For example, you might acknowledge him in a team meeting, or send a hand-written congratulatory note. To encourage him further, ask him to choose an object or image that represents his goal. Suggest that he puts it in a prominent place as a regular reminder of what he's striving for. He can also use Treasure Mapping to do this.
What Makes Appreciative Coaching Unique?
Prof Orem believes that her approach stands apart from other coaching methods because of her Five Principles of Appreciative Coaching. These are:
- The Constructivist Principle: the belief that we create our own realities and are in charge of our destinies.
- The Positive Principle: the focus on strengths, and using encouragement to support people through change.
- The Anticipatory Principle: the belief that we become what we envision, which is why positive self-image is so important.
- The Simultaneity Principle: the idea that asking powerful questions can help to shift our perspectives about the past, present and future.
- The Poetic Principle: the acknowledgement that we are not problems to be solved, but individuals full of opportunity and potential.
AC coaches use appreciative language to help coachees to think about what they've done well in the past, and how they can use their previous successes to achieve what they want in the future. Framing language positively can prompt new types of thinking and lead to "light bulb" moments. Examples of AC-style questions include:
- When do you perform at your best, and why?
- What excites you, and why?
- What do you value most, and why?
- What have you learned about yourself that can help you in the future?
Benefits and Drawbacks of Appreciative Coaching
There is lots of research to suggest that focusing on strengths leads to greater benefits compared with making small improvements within areas of weakness.
People who are good at what they do tend to enjoy their work more, and will more likely take on new challenges and be more productive. Furthermore, the positive energy that comes from talking about past successes and future dreams can generate genuine excitement, which can lead to long-lasting change.
While AC can be a useful approach for maximizing potential, it might not be appropriate in all situations. For example, if performance is poor or there are specific behaviors that you need to address, you'll also need to consider whether attitude, motivation or capability is at the root, and adopt other forms of coaching as appropriate.
Find out how good your general coaching skills are with our self-test quiz, here.
Appreciative Coaching comes from Appreciative Inquiry, an approach that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses.
Managers work with team members through four stages:
- Discovery: exploring positive traits by recalling past successes.
- Dream: encouraging people to envision a successful future by asking powerful, probing questions.
- Design: establishing a flexible plan to turn their vision into reality.
- Destiny: Recognizing and celebrating success and progress, and exploring new opportunities for growth.
While AC is an effective tool for implementing long-term improvements or changes in skills and some behaviors, it is not suitable for addressing all behavioral or performance issues.