How to coach clients to be accountable

There are two types of coaching conversations for accountability, the easy one and the hard one. This kind of coaching is a lot like comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s observations about rental car companies. According to him, it is easy to take a reservation, and hard to keep a reservation. This first accountability coaching conversation is akin to taking a reservation for a rental car. The second is more like keeping the reservation.

The easy conversation – the equivalent of taking a reservation for a car rental — happens when the client gets clarity and it is time to take action. Your job as a coach is to ask the client what he will do next. Get as specific as possible, so that there is no doubt about whether the client did what he said he would do.

Even here, sometimes you have to add a little bit of edge to your coaching, and challenge a client who might be thinking too small or holding back. For instance, recently I worked with a client who wanted his branch to be the first one in the nation to implement a new organizational initiative. When I asked him what specifically he would do to make this happen, his plan was vague. He needed some tough coaching to commit to an ambitious, specific goal and a plan to achieve it.

The harder conversation – the equivalent of keeping the car rental reservation — happens when the client doesn’t do what he said he would do. When this happens, it can be challenging to decide how forceful to be.

Consider what happens when someone declares a New Year’s Resolution to eat less and work out more, and then seems to give up. Why does this happen? It isn’t rocket science to control portion size, eat fewer snacks, count calories, and navigate to the gym. Something else must be going on beneath the surface.

The same is usually true when a client doesn’t do what you and he agreed upon. Possibilities might include:

  • The client isn’t really serious about achieving his goal.

  • The client isn’t accurately calibrating how much work it will take to achieve the goal.

  • The client doesn’t want to do the work required to be successful.

  • The client doesn’t have the skills or knowledge to take the action he would said he would take.

  • The client has time management issues.

  • Something else came up that was a bigger priority and might even shift the focus of the coaching.

  • The client has limiting beliefs or fear that prevents action.

Given all of the unknowns, it makes logical sense to start off by being gentle. Use active inquiry to find out what happened, and what the client’s considerations were for not taking action. Then address those considerations and ask the client to recommit. The coaching could include anything from talking about and working through the client’s challenges to role playing, identifying small steps to take instead of large steps, choosing a less ambitious goal, coaching to manage time better, or coaching to shift limiting beliefs. The most effective way to coach a client who isn’t taking action is by asking the client for his suggestions. For instance, “How can I best support you so that you do what you committed to do, assuming this is still your intent?”

If the client continues to avoid accountability, perhaps for weeks, then it might be effective to add more edge to your approach. For instance:

  • “It’s a been a few weeks now, and you’ve not followed through on your agreement three times in a row. How important is this goal to you?”

  • “The current action plan doesn’t seem to be working for you. What’s plan B?”

  • “What’s really going on here?”

  • “It feels like I care more about getting this done than you. How can I best support you at this point?”

Holding a client accountable is not about judging, blaming, yelling, telling the client what to do, doing the work for the client, or getting impatient. It is about working with the client to find out why the client won’t take action, and either resolving those challenges or changing the original goal.

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