The secret ingredient for self-efficacy and goal attainment in coaching

This article is a reprint of a Coaching Research in Practice  (October, 2020).


As coaches, we’re well aware of the importance of focusing on solutions rather than problems. Most coaches would consider their coaching to be solution-focused. Plus anecdotal evidence, as well as research, suggests that a solution-focused, as opposed to a problem-focused approach, is most effective … or is it?


This issue of Coaching Research in Practice showcases a recent piece of quantitative research that compares the impact of solution-focused versus problem-focused questions and considers the impact of a third factor. In fact, it suggests that the latter trumps both solution- and problem-focused questions in increasing self-efficacy and goal attainment.




In their 2018 paper “Broadening and building solution-focused coaching: feeling good is not enough”, Grant and O’Connor acknowledge the long-standing efficacy of problem-focused techniques to resolve problems. They also highlight that “solution-focused approaches have been highly influential in shaping much contemporary coaching practice” (p. 167).


Grant and O’Connor point out that research to date (including their own) demonstrates that “solution-focused coaching questions are generally more effective than problem-focused questions in terms of enhancing positive affect, reducing negative affect, building self-efficacy, helping people develop action plans and fostering goal attainment” (p. 169).


However, in this study, Grant and O’Connor question an inherent assumption: Given that research indicates that solution-focused coaching induces positive affect, they question whether it is the solution-focus or the positive affect that leads to the other outcomes such as increased self-efficacy and goal attainment. To examine this, they conducted a quantitative study of 512 undergraduate psychology students to measure the impact of:


  1. problem-focused coaching questions (PF);
  2. solution-focused coaching questions (SF);
  3. a positive affect induction (PA) and
  4. solution-focused coaching questions plus a positive affect induction (SF + PA). (p. 170)


The study involved participants being asked to identify a personal problem that they would like to solve and being randomly assigned to a group with problem-focused, solution-focused, positive affect induction or combined solution-focused plus positive affect induction conditions. In each of the four groups, participants responded to a set of questions: the first group responded to set of questions focused on the problem, the second group’s questions were focused on the solution, the third set of questions aimed to “induce positive affect rather than to focus participants’ thoughts on the problem or on solutions to that problem” (p. 172) and the fourth group responded to questions which combined the solution-focused question set with the positive affect induction question set. Each question set incorporated measures for positive and negative affect i.e. how they were feeling, self-efficacy i.e. confidence in solving the problem, goal approach i.e. how close they were to the goal/solving the problem, and action steps i.e. action steps to reach goal/solving the problem.


Here are the key findings:


  • “SF, PA and SF + PA conditions significantly increased positive affect, but the PF condition did not” (p. 173). Furthermore, “PA was significantly more effective at increasing positive affect than SF + PA” (p. 173) and while “PA was significantly more effective at decreasing negative affect than SF + PA and SF … PF was significantly less effective at reducing negative affect than the other three conditions” (p. 174).
  • “SF + PA, SF and PA conditions significantly increased self-efficacy, but the PF condition did not” (p. 176). Furthermore, “SF + PA, SF and PA were equally effective at increasing self-efficacy”, while “PF was significantly less effective at increasing self-efficacy than the other three conditions” (p. 176).
  • “All four conditions significantly increased goal approach” (p. 176) and while “SF + PA was significantly more effective at increasing goal approach than SF … which in turn was significantly more effective than PF … there was no statistically significant difference between PA and PF or between PA and SF” (p. 177).
  • “SF + PA was more effective in terms of the number of action steps than PA … and SF… which in turn were significantly more effective than PF … [but] there was no statistically significant difference between PA and SF” (p. 177).


In summary, “PA induction and SF coaching questions were equally effective at enhancing positive affect, increasing self-efficacy, enhancing goal approach and developing action steps. These results also show, that while positive affect makes a valuable contribution to coaching outcomes, combining PA induction with SF questions produces superior outcomes than PA or SF questions alone in terms of self-efficacy, goal approach and action steps” (p. 177).




Even though most coaches are already convinced of the benefits of solution-focused coaching as opposed to problem-focused coaching, there are still two particular new points for practice from this research:


  1. Coaching that combines a solution focus with positive affect induction is likely to be more effective in goal attainment than a solution-focused approach alone i.e. “SF + PA was significantly more effective at increasing goal approach than SF” (p. 177).
  2. Coaching that combines a solution focus with positive affect induction is likely to result in more action steps (but whether or not that is an indicator of coaching efficacy would be another research study).


Therefore, and as Grant and O’Connor suggest, “coaches can be reassured that explicitly including some kind of positive affect induction process into their coaching sessions will not negatively impact on the coachee’s goal striving compared to just using SF questions alone” (p. 178). In fact, based on these findings, it would be reasonable to expect that it may actually be beneficial to action-based progress as well as goal attainment. Thus, and again as Grant and O’Connor suggest, this may help some coaches “allow the coaching conversation to steer away from a tight focus on solution-construction or goal-identification” (p. 178). This may include “encouraging the coachee to talk about past successes, asking coaches to spend a few minutes savouring anticipated pleasant upcoming events or getting the coachee to reflect on their personal strengths” (p. 180).


Thus, if you’ve ever had a tendency to hold rigidly tight to a goal, finding a solution or a particular solution-focused model such as GROW, the recognition of the importance of positive affect in progress and goal attainment may allow you to be more willing to ‘stop to smell the roses’ while on the path towards the solution. As Grant and O’Connor suggest, “deliberately take the time to gently steer the coaching conversation towards topics or issues that induce positive affect and that are congruent with the coachee’s personal values. In doing so, coaches can do so with the confidence that they are using evidence-based approaches to enhance both well-being and goal-striving ability of their coachees – and that surely is the aim of the coaching enterprise” (p. 180).


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Grant, A., & O’Connor, S. (2018). Broadening and building solution-focused coaching: feeling good is not enough. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 11(2), 165-185. https://doi.org/10.1080/17521882.2018.1489868


Translating coaching research into a coaching practice,

Kerryn Griffiths, PhD (The Process of Learning in Coaching)
ReciproCoach Founder and Global Coordinator


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