A Meta-Analysis Review: Do Strength-Based Interventions Elicit Positive Behavioral Outcomes?
As we explore more deeply the art and science of executive coaching, it is vital that we stay up-to-date and current with the latest research on what methodologies make executive coaching a powerful and effective force for good. In October 2022, the International Journal of Wellbeing published, “Are character strength-based positive interventions effective for eliciting positive behavioral outcomes? A meta-analytic review.” This meta-analysis examines the effects of “strength-based positive interventions” on measurable behavioral outcomes. Below we discuss the meaning of this meta-analysis and determine how it impacts our coaching practices today.
What is a meta-analysis?
A meta-analysis is a culmination of all current research on a specific topic
According to A B Haidich, a “meta-analysis is a quantitative, formal, epidemiological study design used to systematically assess previous research studies to derive conclusions about that body of research.” (2010) In summary, a meta-analysis is an examination of all the research conducted on a very specific topic. Researchers conducting meta-analysis studies identify their own criteria for what research studies will be included in their analysis and they also outline how they collected research studies (keywords, phrases, databases, and topics).
Benefits of a meta-analysis
Meta-analysis provides a “birds’ eye view” of current research
Meta-analysis provides an overall view of the current body of research regarding a specific topic. By examining a meta-analysis, we get a “bird’s eye view” of the current knowledge regarding a specific topic. In this case, we get to examine the current state of research on strengths-based positive interventions and their effect on behavior. Meta-analysis studies such as these are especially useful when experimental and quantitative studies are not present or in short supply. It is important to note that due to ethical concerns, it can be difficult for researchers to create experimental studies with humans on topics such as well-being and positive/negative behavior.
The goal of this study: do strengths-based positive interventions change behavior for the good?
The goal of this study was to determine if strength-based positive interventions contributed to the development of positive behavioral outcomes. Researchers cite that while strengths-based positive interventions (referred to as SBPIs) are “an increasingly popular approach to behavior change” they “work under the assumption that personal strengths can be used to improve functioning.” Researchers state that this is an “assumption” due to the lack of research done on quantifiable behavioral outcomes. Instead, much research is focused on “affect and well-being” measures, collected from self-report studies. Their primary concern in this study is that SBPIs only contribute to changes in “self-perceptions” and not measurable “behavior change [that] is an essential ingredient in many treatment contexts”.
Methods: how the study was conducted
Using a “lengthy list” of key terms that “could potentially indicate a character strength” such as bravery, character, dignity, fairness, selflessness, teamwork, and self-regulation, researchers used “PsycINFO, Medline, ERIC, clinicaltrials.gov, and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials databases” to find research articles from the time the database was published until February 2018. Their initial search “generated 769,202 references.” These references were then filtered through using the following criteria. The study must:
Be published in a peer-reviewed venue
Must be written in English
Focus on at least one character strength
Include a “comparison condition. Random assignment was not required”
Must have “at least one outcome measure” reflecting a change in behavior, not just “emotional experience or attitude”
Have provided “sufficient statistics” to calculate “at least one standardized mean difference between the active and comparison conditions at posttest”
After filtering through the 769,202 references, only 16 articles met all of these criteria. The primary reason for disqualification was the failure to include “behavioral criteria” as a measurable result of SBPIs. Due to the small results, the search was repeated to include research studies from February 2018 to October 2020 (following the same criteria). This second search only resulted in 13 research studies that met all the criteria. Again, the primary cause of disqualification was a failure to include behavioral measures.
With a total of 29 applicable research studies, “two doctoral students independently extracted data from each article” finding 48 analyses “that examined group difference in what was deemed a behavioral outcome at posttest.” The risk of bias was also studied for each of the 29 studies.
Below is a synopsis of the included articles analyses from Table 2 of Bates-Krakoff et al’s research (2022). Click here to download the chart below.
General Statistics and Bias
Research computed statistics using “Comprehensive Meta-Analysis, Version 3.0.” According to their computations, the average length of all included interventions was 8.48 weeks and the average sample size was 229.07. When using the Knapp-Hartung-Sidik-Jonkman method, “the studies on average yielded a small, statistically significant effect size at posttest, g= o.32, 95% CI = [0.19, 0.46], p = .0001. In terms of bias, researchers “most studies were adequately blinded with the majority randomizing appropriately… overall, the results likely did not provide evidence for a substantial amount of methodological bias in these studies, though it should be noted that some of the descriptions were insufficient for judging bias.”
Research indicates that strengths-based positive interventions can be useful interventions for encouraging positive behavioral change, but more research is warranted.
Researchers found that across the 29 included studies “SBPIs had a small, statistically significant effect on behavioral outcomes with a mean effect size of g = 0.32” which is “consistent with results from other meta-analyses.” However, due to the small amount of research available, researchers also state that there is “currently insufficient basis for drawing firm conclusions regarding when, and for whom, SBPIs may be the most appropriate behavior change techniques.” They add that “research has consistently supported interventions that focus on strengths as contributors to well-being, and counseling psychologists, clinical psychologists, school psychologists, and coaching all value enhancing the sense of well-being in the populations with which they work.” They close by stating that their meta-analysis “should encourage…professionals to further explore the benefits of SBPIs on behavioral outcomes.”
What does this mean for executive coaches today?
This research indicates that using a strengths-based positive intervention approach to coaching can increase positive behavioral change in coaching clients. However, it is important to continue developing other methodologies within your coaching practice, due to the lack of research that relates strengths-based positive interventions (SBIPs) directly to behavioral change. It is important to note that positive psychology and general strengths-based coaching interventions have been shown to increase levels of well-being, further encouraging the use of SBPIs in coaching (Grant et al., 2009). While more research needs to be done specifically on the connection between SBPIs and positive behavioral change, it is a promising form of coaching methodology with current research indicating a potential for client benefit.
Questions for coaches to consider
When coaching, do you focus on your clients’ strengths or weaknesses? What might happen if you focus on their strengths?
How might you increase your clients’ focus on their own strengths?
Are you more encouraged to act based on a discussion on your strengths or a discussion on your shortcomings?
How do you help clients determine their strengths? What tools might you start implementing to do so?
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