Blog header image with words: Assessing Assessments: CliftonStrengths v VIA Character Strengths.

Difference between CliftonStrengths and VIA Character Strengths

Psychometric strengths assessments are widely used in career development but it may not be clear which one would be most useful for you if you’re seeking to make changes to your career. This article looks at two tools that measure ‘strengths’: CliftonStrengths® and the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It explains their origins, similarities and differences, and when and how they might be used in career coaching. 

Origins of VIA Character Strengths

The VIA Character strengths assessment arose from research undertaken by the psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004). They wanted to find out whether there might be human qualities that were universally considered to be associated with being a good person.

To research this question, they worked with social scientists around the world and studied tens of thousands of people. Alongside those discussions, they conducted an historical review of world religions, philosophies, works of literature, and psychology. 

The data they gathered revealed commonalities across cultures in terms of what it is considered best about humans. Six categories of virtue were identified (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence), and within these six categories, 24 strengths of character were identified (such as Kindness, Teamwork, Zest, Humility).

How does the VIA Character Strengths assessment work?

The assessment that emerged from this research is made up of 120 items (i.e. questions) that relate to the 24 strengths. It asks respondents to use a five-point scale to rate how much the phrases in each item are like them. Respondents receive a simple report showing their strengths in rank order. The signature character strengths (usually the top 5 or 6) are likely to be those that are most representative of the individual.  They are strong capacities that are effortless to use, energising to express, and an essential part of who that person is.

When might the VIA survey be used in career coaching?

Balanced expression of character strengths results in positive feelings, increased engagement in life, stronger relationships, greater meaning, and a sense of accomplishment. These five building blocks (commonly referred to as PERMA) contribute to human flourishing (Seligman, 2011). 

Consequently, the VIA tool can be used to help you take a more holistic view of your work/life situation, and can be especially beneficial when dealing with burnout, mid-career review, significant career change, and navigating other ups and downs in life.

Origins of CliftonStrengths®

Whereas the VIA researchers were interested in character, the inventor of the CliftonStrengths assessment, Donald Clifton, was interested in talent. He defined talents as ‘naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied’ (Hodges & Clifton, 2004).  They can be seen in moments in which one learns quickly; derives a sense of satisfaction from doing something; has a yearning to try out a particular activity; experiences a feeling of timelessness or being ‘in the flow’; or has a glimpse of excellence in performance. 

Clifton viewed ‘strengths’ as an extension of talent, i.e. innate talent only becomes strength when we take time to invest in it.  He defined ‘strength’ therefore as ‘the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific task’ (Asplund et al., 2014).  

The assessment itself was developed on the back of several decades of research involving semi-structured interviews with over two million people to identify what talents were associated with situational success. In the mid-1990s, Clifton and his colleagues developed the assessment as an objective measure of those talents. The tool was launched with the name ‘Clifton StrengthsFinder’ and later re-branded as ‘CliftonStrengths’. 

How does the CliftonStrengths assessment work?

The assessment is made up of 177 paired items that relate to the 34 strengths. Respondents are asked in each item which of two statements is more like them. 

They receive a simple report that lists their top five signature strengths (or themes of talent) in rank order. Alternatively, if they’ve paid for the full report, they see the ranking of all 34 themes of talent.

The themes of talent at the top of the report are dominant for the individual. It is normal to have 8-15 dominant themes depending on the extent to which the individual ‘sees’ them in their day-to-day experience.

The themes themselves group into four categories or ‘domains’: Strategic Thinking, Relationship Building, Influencing and Executing. The full 34 report will tell the respondent which of these domains is strongest for them.

When might the CliftonStrengths assessment be used in career coaching?

An individual’s talents are what they’re naturally good at. Therefore, knowing what your talents are helps you to understand where your greatest potential for success is. For this reason, the CliftonStrengths assessment naturally lends itself for use in careers work, specifically in relation to developing self-awareness, evaluating career options, and communicating one’s ‘offer’ to prospective employers. The tool is also used extensively in the corporate world for team and leadership development.

Although the assessment’s main application has been in the work domain, it is also used in non-work settings for personal development, relationship counselling, family coaching, with university students, and with community groups. 

Similarities and Differences between CliftonStrengths and VIA Character Strengths

The key question that the VIA survey seeks to answer is ‘What is best about who you are?’ while the key question that CliftonStrengths seeks to answer is ‘What is best about what you do?’ With this in mind, CliftonStrengths can be viewed as soft skills wheres the VIA strengths of character are more like core values. They drive the action we take; they are (as the name suggests) values in action and pathways to human flourishing. 

Taking one or both of these strengths assessments can help you develop a sense of self-worth, self-efficacy, and confidence. The tools also provide a language with which to discuss strengths with potential employers, colleagues and managers, and they help with professional branding. 

Interestingly, in the VIA assessment, all of the strengths of character are ones we can tap into when we need to. Some are expressed more readily than others, but they all contribute to our wellbeing and flourishing as individuals.

Conversely, with CliftonStrengths, there’s no point trying to develop the themes of talent or ‘strengths’ at the bottom of the ranking because they simply won’t come naturally. There will be a greater return on investment with the themes at the top of the sequence.

The two tools can be used independently in career coaching but they are highly complementary and, if used in tandem, can give you a more rounded view of your strengths.

If you’d like to find out more, do get in touch via the link below to arrange an initial discussion.


Asplund, J., Agrawal, S., Hodges, T., Harter, J., and Lopez, S.J. (2014). The Clifton StrengthsFinder® Technical Report: Development and Validation. Washington, DC: Gallup.

Hodges, T. D. and Clifton, D. O. (2004). Strengths-Based Development in Practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 256–268). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M.E. (2011).  Flourish: a Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

This post was adapted from an article by Charlotte Whitehead published in the June 2023 edition of Career Matters, the professional magazine for members of the UK’s Career Development Institute.

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