Coaches today face a variety of assessment choices, all claiming an end result of understanding and creating transformative discussions around personality traits. In this blog, we delve into the history, as well as the similarities and differences, of two widely-used assessment tools: the VIA Survey of Character Strengths and the CliftonStrengths assessment.
VIA Character Theory
Clinical psychologist Dr. Neal Mayerson and renowned researcher Dr. Martin Seligman began to explore the field of positive psychology in the late 1990s. Mayerson and Seligman used social science to examine the construct of character; precisely, the characteristics that define what is best about people.
In 2001, they established the VIA Institute on Character, a non-profit organization. The name "VIA" is derived from "Values in Action" and is a reference to the role the Institute plays in connecting research and practice.
The VIA Institute classified character into 24 character strengths, each grouped into one of six classes of virtues listed below:
- Wisdom and Knowledge: Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of Learning, Perspective, Innovation
- Courage: Bravery, Persistence, Integrity, Vitality, Zest
- Humanity: Love, Kindness, Social Intelligence
- Justice: Citizenship, Fairness, Leadership
- Temperance: Forgiveness and Mercy, Humility, Prudence, Self-control
- Transcendence: Appreciation of Beauty, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Spirituality
The essence of the labels is to categorize and name a positive aspect of a person's character. For example, a person who is high in Creativity has a style that is continuously "thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it." Someone high in Zest is "approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated."
In 2003, the Institute published the VIA Survey, a free assessment that ranks an individual's 24 character strengths.
VIA Character Assessment Design
The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a psychometrically validated personality test that measures the character strengths that make up an individual's positive personality. The assessment itself is made up of 120 items positively and negatively keyed to different strengths. The evaluation poses a variety of behavioral, affective and cognitive expressions for each strength and then asks respondents to use a five-point scale to rate how much each phrase is "like me." There is no time limit to answer the questions.
Upon completion, respondents receive their list of 24 character strengths scaled with their nine virtues for free, with the option to purchase more in-depth reports at costs ranging from $20 to $50.
The VIA Institute reports that, to date, more than 5.9 million people in 196 countries have taken the survey, which is available in 39 translations for adults and 21 translations for youth.
The CliftonStrengths assessment is based on the research of Dr. Don Clifton and distributed by the Gallup Organization. In 2003, the American Psychological Association honored Clifton with a presidential commendation as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology. Gallup has been a pioneer in the strengths movement for decades with ongoing research into workplace outcomes, individual well-being and employee performance and engagement.
CliftonStrengths defines 34 talent themes sorted into four domains.
- Strategic Thinking: Analytical, Context, Futuristic, Ideation, Input, Intellection, Learner, Strategic
- Executing: Achiever, Arranger, Belief, Consistency, Deliberative, Discipline, Focus, Responsibility, Restorative
- Influencing: Activator, Command, Communication, Competition, Maximizer, Self-Assurance, Significance, Woo
- Relationship Building: Adaptability, Developer, Connectedness, Empathy, Harmony, Includer, Individualization, Positivity, Relator
Each talent theme classifies a pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that comes naturally to an individual. When these themes are understood and put into meaningful action, they can create near-perfect behavior, or strengths. As Dr. Clifton wisely said, "There is something you can do better than 10,000 other people, and we just need to find what that is."
CliftonStrengths Assessment Design
The CliftonStrengths assessment consists of 177 paired statements. For each pairing, respondents have a short time interval to choose which statement best describes themselves. After completing the evaluation, respondents have two report options for receiving their results: the Top 5 Signature Themes report, which provides detailed descriptions of an individual's top five themes; or their Full 34 CliftonStrengths report, which details not only an individual's top five but also ranks their remaining 29 themes. There are 278,256 possible combinations of top five themes and more than 33 million different sets of Signature Themes, so each result is unique to that respondent.
To date, the CliftonStrengths assessment is approaching 21 million individuals who understand their innate talents. Prices start at $20 and include a unique assessment access code, respondents' personalized results, and one or both in-depth Signature Strengths reports.
Both Assessments Measure Strengths, but Each Has Unique Underlying Philosophies
The two assessments share some basic principles. Both tests work from strengths-based psychology principals focused on individuals' positive qualities. One significant difference between the two evaluations is the type of strengths each assessment identifies. VIA focuses on character strengths defined as positive traits of a personality that are present at times of excellence, while CliftonStrengths identifies strengths of talents defined as any natural ability that can be developed, resulting in near-perfect performance.
With VIA, individuals strive to become balanced in all 24 strengths and are encouraged to develop all signature, middle and lower strengths. CliftonStrengths has a different development focus. While it is possible to tap into any of the 34 themes, CliftonStrengths believes your top talents naturally remain constant. However, abilities are not a promise or guarantee of strength. After discovering their Signature Themes, individuals must learn how to turn their talents into strengths outcomes. StrengthsFinder 2.0 provides the formula: talent x investment = strength. As coaches know, the strengths journey only begins with talent discovery and requires strengths-based development.
CliftonStrengths lends itself more naturally to being a career tool and StrengthsFinder 2.0 is geared toward application in the workplace, while VIA takes more of a social spin on their results -- think of it as a competency checklist for what society values. However, coaches can apply CliftonStrengths in almost every aspect of life, with additional books and tools available detailing how to use an individual's results not only at work but also in faith groups, at schools and as a parent.
Coaches can use VIA Character Strengths and CliftonStrengths together to get a full view of a person's natural patterns of thinking, behaving and feeling as well as their virtues and values. Or they can be used together or separately to learn and coach on different aspects of personality and behavior. If coaching in the workplace, CliftonStrengths positions itself as the superior tool with built-in workplace examples and a particular focus on the application of strengths to careers in both its reports and the StrengthsFinder 2.0 book.
As always, coaching is the process and the instrument chosen should help facilitate the purpose and outcome of the coaching session. Like other assessments we've explored, VIA has separate uses and applications. Some strengths are similar across the two theories, and others are unique to each tool. Gallup and the VIA Institute also publish complimentary research of the many positive psychological benefits of learning and working on character strengths as well as the performance outcomes and group benefits from using talents.
Adam Hickman's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Ideation, Command, Analytical, Competition and Individualization.
Mary Claire Evans' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Individualization, Achiever, Learner, Responsibility and Connectedness.