Positive Psychology in Coaching

Foster, Sandra

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we have Dr. Sandra L. Foster, who is a co-author with Dr. Jeff Auerbach of the book, Positive Psychology in Coaching: Applying Science to Executive and Personal Coaching, which I am really excited to dig into. She and I are both faculty at the College of Executive Coaching, that Dr. Jeff Auerbach started. I we’ve both been on the faculty since 2001.

One of the virtues of having our radio show, which Cathy and I have had now for nine years, is that it allows me as a psychologist and executive coach to delve deeper into things that I’m interested in and that I think will be interesting for our audience. Positive psychology has been an interest for a long time.

Dr. Foster combines researched based methods and insightful understanding of individual behavior in an organizational context and has a strong focus on business results. She is dedicated to assisting women and emerging leaders from non-traditional backgrounds or have been born abroad, in enhancing their effectiveness and self-knowledge.

Sandra has had an incredible background. She has extensive cross-cultural background working with companies in Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Russia, Italy and Belgium. She has trained in conversational intelligence, which is something developed by Judith Glaser. She has a specialty in peak performance and she has worked with athletes and musicians, and we’ll ask her a little bit of how she brought in some of that.

She is the founder of the Success at Work, which is her consulting firm. She coaches sales professionals and business leaders to develop resilience and optimize their skills, and thrive in a challenging economy. She brings this to active musicians, creative artists, athletes, those who are preparing for auditions, recovery from setbacks or injuries, and mastering the mental game.

One of the classes that she leads at the College of Executive Coaching is an Applied Positive Psychology class. She has also worked for Korn Ferry International from December 2004 through February, and has a wealth of experience working with C Suite succession planning.

Dr. Sandra Foster: Hey Relly, one of my favorite people from the College of Executive Coaching. Nice to be with you, thanks!

Dr. Relly Nadler: Sandra, we like to find out a little bit about people’s background to better understand, when we talk about the content, who have been some of the people who have been most influential in your life and career as a leader?

Dr. Sandra Foster: Well, as I say in my dedication to the book, I’m acknowledging my life partner, Rolph, for helping me understand the value of love over time. We have been together a long time and I have helped raise to wonderful stepsons, but I would go to my parents first.

My father was an optimistic person and also altruistic. He was a businessman. He really made it a point to teach my sisters and me about tolerance. So differences around culture, race, and religion. We were growing up in a part of the Midwest where that was unusual, so it really stands out for me now as I come to appreciate it more and more.

My mother was an early feminist and an activist for the equal rights amendment. So she was talking about tolerance for different political points of view as well as very much an early advocate of tolerance around sexual orientation.

So if either of them were with us today they would have a lot to say about the current issues.

I had wonderful professors also at Stanford. So three of them Al Banduras; I was in his social learning class—one of my favorite A+’s when I was a PhD student. Phil Lombardo; just magnificent around his early work on shyness and later on crowds, and certainly the Stanford prison experiment.

Then someone whose name might not be so recognizable, but just a cherished colleague, is John Crumbolt who is one of the people who helped me learn about consultation, early in my career.

So I have been really blessed.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Yah. Let me ask you, Is Banduras still alive?

Dr. Sandra Foster: Yes, he is. He is Professor Emeritus still at Stanford. He is not actively involved in research, but he always has wonderful things to say when people ask him. I haven’t seen him for some time and Phil is very active on LinkedIn and continues to write and publish.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So you have been with two of the foundational leaders in psychology itself. You and I both being psychologists, it’s still a relatively young profession. You’ve been mentored by some of the key people, that is so impressive.

Dr. Sandra Foster: It was great fun being there as a student, and then I was invited to teach my former peers, so I spent time on the faculty, the regular faculty, and then I stayed as an adjunct faculty member for a number of years. Wonderful learning environment.

It taught me the importance of looking at the underlying research behind what any psychotherapist would do, which was my early career, and certainly that informs what Jeff and I were doing about bringing science into the applications that we talk about in the book.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So, one of the things that I don’t know, were you actually doing therapy for a while before you switched to coaching? For me, it was probably 7 or 8 years before I switched from a psychologist in private practice to doing coaching.

Dr. Sandra Foster: Well, it was a wonderful background to have. So I was in a cognitive psychotherapy practice, highly researched based, at Stanford and around. Pre-doc at Stanford Medical Center in psychiatry and behavioral medicine. Just fabulous training. I then later trained in trauma response. I did volunteer work with fire fighters and EMTs, other emergency responders. So I was interested in psychotherapy but I always wanted to look, and this was not so popular then, at what was right with people which is what positive psychology is all about, and how people could actualize their strengths, so very influenced by the human potential movement.

I gradually kept shifting coaching without even understanding or having a word for where I was going. Then finally got formal training in 2000.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Sandra, when we first met, I was very excited. I took some of your classes that you had with the College of Executive Coaching and Peak performance. Tell us a little bit about how you got started. We talked about some of the background you had getting trained as a psychologist and therapy, but shifting over to more performance and positive psychology.

Dr. Sandra Foster: Well, I’d have to say the shift from psychotherapy to coaching was really well informed by being trained in sports psychology. That got started because I had the great good fortune again, to be the teaching assistant for Bruce Ogilvie, who is considered grandfather to sports psychology. I was getting my masters at San Jose State and he took me on and I stayed with him over the course of two years as his teaching and research assistant. At that time the Association for The Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology was doing credentialing in Sports Psychology, so I took a whole year of Masters level sports psychology training at University of Nevada Reno, and trained with some excellent people, but Bruce himself as a mentor, was amazing.

I’d been around some of the very best people in the field, who are academics and researchers, so that helped me form different ways of doing peak performance work. I was focusing a lot on dancers, which is my sport, and if you don’t think a ballerina is an athlete, you have watched us do our pliés.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Did you grow up dancing?

Dr. Sandra Foster: I think it is fair to say that I did, and still have that kind of dancers discipline. I studied with a Russian teacher, probably a little heavy-handed. I just was around wonderful people doing team sports. My focus ended up being more on individual sports, so I helped out at Stanford with the fencing team and they went on to the Olympics with Women’s Gymnastics.

I worked with a fair number of golfers and also co-authored a golf book for women, which you may not know about: Three Shot Golf for Women, with Janet Coles, who is retired LPGA, who is now teaching.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s amazing. You may or may not know, I grew up playing sports. I played football and basketball in high school, and even college i played a couple of years of football. Then I switched over to, as a medium, working with folks doing outdoor adventure programs.

Dr. Sandra Foster: Of course! Isn’t it fun to talk like this because we can revive these things. I remember that about you, Relly. All those things inform the way we work with people today and the work that we do today.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I love that quote, and I’m sure you saw it; Socrates supposedly said this: “Show me a person on the ballfield and I’ll tell you more about him in an hour than to be in discussion with him or her for 8 hours.”

Dr. Sandra Foster: Yes. On the field, on the track, on the ice, yes. Absolutely. You see a lot about someone when they are training, when they are rehearsing, and when they are competing, absolutely.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So I guess there’s a natural step from sports psychology into positive psychology. So say a little bit more about that, because I know that you have definitely been one of the leaders in the field and your book, Positive Psychology in Coaching, you and Jeff have done a phenomenal job, as I mentioned earlier, just having thumbed through it and also being evidenced based and research. You’ve done an incredible job pulling together so many different applications and concepts into a really user friendly book.

How did Positive Psychology come about and then the book from there?

Dr. Sandra Foster: Well, I think that there is a nice connection with the peak performance in sports psychology part in the shift from coaching, but I was really interested in speaking of shifts; Seligman made a shift, a really significant one from learned helplessness to learned optimism. I just found that so intriguing. So I was reading about optimism in 1991 and 1992, and at that time I was starting to work with salespeople and he had done a study with insurance sales people showing that those who were more optimistic than pessimistic sold more insurance policies and also stayed with their firm longer.

Now this is also, it would have to be said, this is controlling for aptitude in sales. But there was a very significant difference in the number of policies sold between those most optimistic verses those who were most pessimistic in his assessment of optimism. That just intrigued me.

So that got me going, started reading about the people that he pulled together. There was a seminal article in the American Psychologist, which is the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association—this is published in the year 2000, with guest editors, Marty, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Now Marty had also been a past president of American Psychological Association, so I actually heard him speak, was sitting in the front row, talking about his mission around positive psychology. It was 1998.

I had just had wonderful and up close personal influences, but just again, the human potential movement, this all feels like it could flow from many years living in the San Francisco Bay area, being around people like Andrew Wiles, and hearing about Mazlow; just some wonderful folk. Lovely influences, I feel very lucky.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So that was early on, and I know through the college you have been teaching the Positive Psychology class. For our listeners, Martin Seligman is supposedly the father of Positive Psychology.

I remember in my doctoral program, there was one class in the healthy personality. Everything else was maladaptive, psychotherapy and all the testing stuff. Everybody loved the one class. It is interesting when you think about working with executives and leaders, who important it is and what you think and how you think, that for whatever reason, we always thought let’s be experts about the problem and that will somehow inform us to solutions.

I think we know from positive psychology and strength based, it’s probably better focused being an expert about what did work verses about what didn’t work. Can you say a little bet about how that led into your work?

Dr. Sandra Foster: Just to echo these early fathers or founders, what is the positive psychology field about. So it’s a domain, it’s a subdomain within psychology, but it emphasizes flourishing and strengths, and positive emotions, including love and happiness, and what is right with people verses what is wrong. I would, and that’s one of the aspects of the book, I take a balance view that we do need to look at, and I think this was a real new and unusual contribution to our book, how strengths can be overused and also the importance of learning from negative emotions. And, paying attention to when really great leaders can show their dark side, which can be through the overuse of strengths.

I was so happy to see this subdomain start to emphasize what can we do to find out and help people thrive and focus more on the positive emotions.

To listen to the complete interview with Dr. Sandra L. Foster, click above.


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