Applying Positive Psychology to Coaching

Peter Stanford
Coach and Mentor
Mentor Me (Aus)


How often do we do things because we’re told to? 

We do things because our bosses, parents, partners, and even our friends and colleagues tell us to. This is called extrinsic motivation. It doesn’t mean we have zero say or influence over what gets done, but we’re doing it for reasons not wholly within our control. Within the discussion of self-determination theory (SDT), considerable empirical research supports the importance of intrinsic motivation and how we move towards that.

For people to have a growth mindset, i.e. those who believe their talents can be developed through input from others, good strategies and hard work, to support their move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, they need the attributes of competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Autonomy is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision

Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others without ulterior motives

Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently

Positive psychology (Seligman, 1998; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) is a relatively new discipline in empirical academic research. Green & Palmer (2019) reviewed a large amount of this research and invited seventeen individuals to contribute to their book on how to apply positive psychology to the practice of coaching.

The more significant question is how we apply these evidence-based theories to the real world of coaching and mentoring. These are important tools and skillsets that coaches must develop to help their clients (coachees or mentees). The first step is to ascertain the client’s current context, i.e. where they are on their coaching or mentoring journey. This is more than providing a simple approach to goal setting, and it’s not, in fact, the coach asking whether the client understands what a goal-setting model is or how it will help them.

Positive psychology is about what we, as clients, not coaches, choose to do for its intrinsic value, something that makes you, the client, feel good. It may be something as simple as stepping away from your home or work ‘office’ and going for a walk or listening to your child’s wild imagination. You don’t wish to stifle their creativity, and you value that interaction with them.

The connection between positive psychology and self-determination can therefore be posited as the means of achieving one through the other, being able to assess situations or contexts and approach them from the perspective of turning the extrinsic motivation (what I’m told to do) into intrinsic motivation (how I choose to do it). It doesn’t mean that the extrinsic motivation disappears; rather, it’s supplemented or augmented by the application of intrinsic motivation. Ultimately we are all customers and suppliers in varying situations. Even those who don’t like being told what to do eventually answer to someone else to deliver a product or service successfully.

Being able to satisfy the needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence to achieve self-determination are symbiotic with the need to do what we do for its intrinsic value. Coaches need to understand how to move their clients toward these outcomes.

Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. 
Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529

deCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation. New York: Academic Press

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237-288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Green, S., & Palmer, S. (2019). Positive Psychology Coaching in Practice. New York:  Routledge.

Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 1, 661-669.

Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63, 397-427.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-Determination Theory – Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York: Guildford Press

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Building human strength: Psychology’s forgotten mission. APA Monitor, 29(1), 2.

Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

White, R. W. (1963). Ego and reality in psychoanalytic theory. New York: International Universities Press.

Discover the capabilities of Holocentric Connect.

Start your 60-day free trial
Contact Us
© Copyright 2023 - Holocentric - All Rights Reserved