What to Do When People Don't Follow Through

by Tony Stoltzfus

You've just started a coaching appointment, and the first thing you discover is that the person sitting across from you didn't do half of his action steps—for the second week in a row. Do you confront, cajole, encourage, get frustrated, or just let it go by?

A challenge all coaches face (and they face it often!) is what to do when people don't get their action steps done. The key to handling a failure to follow through is maintaining the grace vs. truth balance. You want to continue to offer unconditional acceptance without just letting people slide completely off the hook. A guiding principle I use in these situations is, "Give grace but don't lower the standard." That means that I don't go negative when people fail—like showing disappointment in them, or pointing out that they blew it, or getting prickly about doing it right. However, I do keep expecting that they will complete the task. In other words, don't punish people when they fail, but do help them recommit, and then nail down what they intend to do. Give grace, but maintain a high expectation that if we set out to do something, we're going to get it done.

Here are five practical techniques to help you do just that:

  1. Check for Buy-in
    When an action step doesn't get done (especially if it happens more than once), one question that often should be asked is, is this the right step? The client must be internally motivated to consistently succeed at their action steps. So think back: was this a step the client came up with, or one you suggested or requested? If not, or if it is not clear that the client really cares about this, ask, "Is this a step you still want to take?" or "Is this still important enough to you to get done?" As a coach, you need to be ready to hear a "No" as well as a "Yes"—in other words, you have to make this a real question and not a rhetorical one. This technique offers the added benefit of having the client re-verbalize their commitment to the step.
  2. Identify and Troubleshoot Obstacles
    I didn't do a great job on my own steps this week. But then, I was out of town at an intensive Engaging the Heart retreat for 5 days. Often an obstacle or a "life happens" circumstance will crop up and short-circuit the best laid plans. When a step doesn't get done, it is always a great practice to ask, "Tell me more about that. What happened?" Sometimes you'll uncover an important obstacle, and find that dealing with that obstacle was much more transformational than the original action step itself.
  3. Reset for Next Week
    A great application of the "Give grace but don't lower the standard" principle is simply resetting the step for the following week. If the person still wants to do the step, and you've made sure there aren't any major obstacles blocking them, just ask for a new deadline. Give grace for their failure to complete it, but don't allow the step to just face away: help the client either make a decisive choice to do it or a clear choice to let it go.
  4. Nail Things Down Tighter
    Often if it is the second time around on a step, I will ask for more detail on how it will be done. "What day will you do that?" "How much time will that step take, and when can you schedule that block of time?" or "Is there anything else you need to make sure that step happens?" Partly you are ramping up the accountability, and partly you are helping the person develop a more detailed plan for how they will actually get the thing done.
  5. Reconnect with Their Motivation
    Bobb Biehl says, "Without an adequate answer to the questions, 'Why?'. the price is always too high." Sometimes you need to reconnect people to why they chose to take a step in the first place. "What motivated you to set out to do this?" "What will it mean to you if you accomplish this?" or "What will it cost you if you don't get this done?" are all good ways to help a person find a compelling reason to follow through on what they know they need to do.

Learn more about the fundamentals of coaching with our top coaching how-to, Leadership Coaching: The Disciplines, Skills and Heart of a Christian Coach by Tony Stoltzfus.