by Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird

Coaching and motivation

Sometimes we need to work with individuals around their motivation either to achieve a target, or manage change in the business or some other area of their role.

Motivation and motivating others is a big topic in its own right (see Motivation), but it does have an impact on coaching. For example, if a person is not motivated to be coached or to take action, it is less likely to be successful. It is possible to revert to the good old carrot-and-stick methods, but if you use a method that works with donkeys you might just get donkeys in return.

In our experience, carrot-and-stick motivation techniques often encourage a person to provide minimum compliance, and no more. What you want in your coaching is to encourage the release and application of an individual’s potential.

What motivates people?

The answer in short is: different things motivate different people.

There are a lot of motivational theories that we could discuss here but, in simple terms, as far as coaching is concerned it is helpful to engage the individual’s own motivation to create action.

We often don’t have a problem doing the things we like to do – we can generally find the time to do them. So, with a coaching topic, if you want to encourage action, you need to tap into what already motivates the individual to help them want to do it.

There are really two questions that will help you here:

  • What will happen as a result of achieving this?
  • What will happen as a result of not achieving this?
Key point

Some people are motivated to move towards an outcome that they want and some people are motivated to move away from an outcome that they do not want (such as a problem).

This is slightly different to the carrot-and-stick approach, where you define the carrot and you define the stick. You are interested in hearing from the other person what they think will happen, which will tell you what is important to them about it.

Your questioning needs to focus on both elements – what will happen if it is achieved and if it is not achieved. This is for a very important reason.

These are very different types of motivation and you mustn’t assume that everyone is the same. In asking both of the questions you will raise the other person’s awareness and probably also improve their motivation to act.

Linking to the bigger goal

It may be that the consequences of achieving are not strong enough. If this is the case, it is really useful to help the other person to see how achieving the result will help them to achieve a bigger goal that is motivating for them.

For example, if you are coaching someone about an aspect of their role that they are not fulfilling at present, you may find that a positive consequence of improvement would be that they would have a little more time overall. If this is not motivating enough, you could ask how having more time will link to their longer-term goal of starting a new project if that is more motivating to them.

So, we need to help people to see how the task or situation that we are coaching around links with their own short- or long-term goals.

The key benefit of taking a coaching approach to motivation is the sense of personal responsibility. It is still the responsibility of the other person to be motivated – they still need to be motivated when you are not coaching them, so a quick ‘motivational pep talk’ is unlikely to work. Find out what motivates them, both in terms of consequences and goals, and link those motivating factors with your coaching.

Values as the next step

If you know what a person’s values are around a job, you can help them see how certain behaviours or tasks will either support or go against these values. This awareness-raising can be particularly powerful in harnessing motivation. For example, if you know that pride in a job well done is a strong value, you can link this to achieving a certain performance standard around quality.

Be sure to use values carefully and with integrity rather than as a way to ‘convince’ people to do things your way – they will find you out!

How do I deal with poor performers in the team?

It is important that when you need to address an issue of poor performance with someone you should spend the time on diagnosis and not just make assumptions that the issue is to do with their motivation and that coaching is the appropriate way forward.

You can think about poor performance according to whether the issue is to do with skill or will.


Does the individual have the necessary skill to perform the task to a level where the required result is possible? It may be that they have a level of knowledge but require more thorough training, mentoring, demonstration or discussion with you. If you believe that they do have the skill, then it may be a case of will (motivation).


Does the person have the will necessary to complete the task to the required level?

Is it a motivation or an attitude issue?

Is it a limiting belief or assumption that is holding them back?

Linking performance at work to the achievement of compelling work or personal goals can help your people see the benefit to them of achievement. This link needs to be real to be effective and it requires you to ask them questions to know what is important to them and what their goals are. Many people do not have specific goals and you might have to help coach their goals from them.

In most situations regarding poor performance, there are some simple steps to follow that will assist you.

  1. Gain agreement with the other person as to the required level of performance. It is helpful if they agree to this level before you move on to discuss their performance.
  2. Ask their opinion on their current performance. This is a key step. It is important to ask them, rather than just tell them, for two reasons:
  • it puts their attention where you want it to be – on their performance – and so raises their awareness
  • it helps you understand if there is a gap between your objective view of their performance and their own view and, if there is, how big this gap is.
  1. Gain agreement that a gap exists.
  2. Coach the other person around a specific action plan to close the gap and offer suggestions if appropriate.
  3. Be sure to signpost the positive consequences of achieving the required performance level and the negative consequences of not achieving it – this appeals to both the ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ styles of motivation.

To ensure they follow through on actions, explore any possible barriers to achieving the action plan and how the other person will overcome them.