What do you miss when things go right?

Insights into how we might leverage the celebration of success stories in constructive ways.

I have been reading a recent report on a major positive psychology project in South Australia (we will hear much more of this in the year ahead I am sure) and it has reminded me again how closely the fields of positive psychology and coaching are linked. Indeed it has been said that coaching is applied positive psychology since it provides a context in which many of the principles and interventions of positive psychology have an ideal 'home'.

Positive psychology has also provided a range of coaching relevant evidence based principles and practice. One that comes to mind is based on the work of Shelley Gable at UCLA.

As leaders we give a lot of time and emotional energy to getting better at the ‘tricky bits’ of leadership and coaching - those times when negative emotions can take over and lead to the situation unravelling, with potential long term relationship damage.

So, instead of avoiding these moments, we learn and practice how to give negative feedback and manage ‘difficult’ conversations. There are lots of workshops on these topics. We offer some ourselves. This is all good and proper, for most of us do need to figure out how to have these conversations more effectively.

Relationship Boosters or Relationships Eroders?

It seems though that because giving positive feedback or joining in the celebration of success is emotionally easier we don’t think so much about how we can leverage these moments in more constructive and growthful ways.

Recent1 research by Professor Shelly Gable at UCLA has provided some insights into how we might leverage the celebration of success stories in constructive ways. Her research highlights how the responses we provide to shared stories of good news are significant relationship ’boosters’ or relationship ’eroders’.

Gable has developed a simple matrix that describes 4 types of responses to the good news that others might tell us:

  • Active Constructive Responses
    These responses include positive comments and positive non verbal behaviours (voice tone, posture, facial expressions) that indicate genuine interest and enthusiasm in relation to the success being described – “That’s a terrific result and I know how much you put in to achieving it!”
  • Passive Constructive Responses
    These responses include moderate level positive comment with low level, low energy supporting non verbal behaviours. “Well done - good news.”
  • Active Destructive Responses
    These responses include negative comments (sometimes disguised as positive ones) accompanied by negative non verbal behaviours like frowns or sighs. “Sounds like your success is only going to lead to more work for you in the long run though.”
  • Passive Destructive Responses
    These responses do not actively downplay the success like those above but reveal more a sense of indifference with non verbals that indicate disengagement. “Yes, but can we talk about this next project.”
What was more significant was that only Active Constructive Responses acted as relationship enhancers

Each of the other three response types was seen to damage the relationship in some way. Our responses are not relationship neutral – they either enhance or erode relationship quality.

What are the implications for us as leaders and coaches?
  • Linger on the Success
    In responding this way it is important to 'linger' in the experience teasing out how the success was achieved and reinforcing any strengths that we notice may have contributed to the achievement being shared.
  • Focus on Quality
    Recent studies2 have argued that the quality of the coaching relationship is the most significant component impacting the coaching outcomes. This study puts relationship quality ahead of all other tools and techniques in its influence on coaching effectiveness. Consequently we need to consider more deliberately how we can authentically be Active Constructive Responders in the way we acknowledge and leverage the successes of those we lead and coach.
  • Up the enthusiasm a notch
    Those leaders and coaches who are more reserved in their personal style and perhaps less inclined to be ‘over the top’ in any response to the sharing of success, need to consider that surprisingly more subdued and understated reactions may well have an undermining influence on the relationship. Simply, Passive Constructive responses don’t cut it. They not only have no positive impact they serve as relationship 'eroders'.

Positive psychology research highlighting the evidence-based success of interventions like this mean that we can be confident that creating our own authentic active-constructive responses will make a difference to our coaching and leading.


  • 1 Gable, E. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R., Capitalizing on Daily Positive Events, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 2004.
  • 2 de Haan, Erik. Relational Coaching. John Wiley and Sons. Chichester. 2008