Why Are Some People More Coachable Than Others?

Although coaching is now a widely accepted practice in the business world, the effectiveness of coaching interventions is rather variable. This depends not only on the type of method used and the competence of the coach, but also on certain psychological qualities pertaining to the client. In simple terms: Some clients are much more coachable than others, even when the same tools, interventions and coaches are used.

This begs the question of why certain people are more likely to change than others. That is, what makes some individuals more responsive to developmental interventions, and also more likely to display sustained and perhaps even ongoing improvements over time? In our view, there are four critical barriers to change, and coachable people are simply more capable of overcoming these barriers. So, what do they do right:

1) Responsiveness to feedback: The first barrier to change is ignoring feedback on your behaviors, performance or personality, especially when the feedback is negative. Coachable individuals, however, pay attention to this information. Even when the truth hurts, they accept that coming to terms with once weaknesses is key to eliminating them. They know that one can only develop knowledge if one acknowledges what one doesn't know. Accordingly, coachable people are keen to identify blind spots between their self-views and other people's views on them -- and when they do, their self-awareness and self-knowledge increases. Feedback is the number one trigger to change, and without it any intervention will be serendipitous and ineffective.

2) The will to change: The second barrier to change is willpower. In fact, even the most pervasive, addictive and engrained behaviors can be changed; the main problem is that most people are unwilling to do what it takes to change. Thus even when one accepts critical and honest feedback and understands the advantages of changing, the will to change is not there. And without it, not even the best coaches will be able to make a difference. As the old joke goes, it takes only one psychologist to change a light bulb, so long as the light bulb really wants to change. This is why motivation is a critical ingredient of any coaching program. But what motivation really means is "self-motivation" -- as the great Dale Carnegie once noted, "the only way to get someone to do something is to get that person to want to do something." Coachable people are more likely to want to change.

3) Going against your nature: The third barrier to change is the degree of effort and energy that any serious coaching interventions require. That is, even when people embrace critical feedback and are willing to change, this will require going against their nature: e.g., eliminating old habits, developing new ones or inhibiting the natural effects that your personality has on behavior. Most coaching programs require clients to stop doing toxic things, start doing new beneficial things, and keep doing the things that work -- but for sure it is a lot easier to perpetuate one's habits than to replace them. All this demonstrates the remarkable power of personality: We all have typical or default patterns of behavior, thought and affect, which have developed over many years. Coachable people are better able to break these patterns because they work much harder to achieve this.

4) Long-term persistence: Let's face it, most people don't even get to this stage. But for those who have accepted negative feedback, embraced the need to change and worked hard to succeed, the final hurdle is to commit to long-term self-discipline and dedication. Otherwise, any desired changes will remain ephemeral and the outcome of the coaching will resemble the outcome of most fitness or dieting programs, and 90 percent of all new year's resolutions, which are broken after the first month. Thus, although change is hard, it is even harder to change for the long run -- and coachable people are unusually able to accomplish this.

A final point of consideration concerns the criteria we should use to evaluate change. This takes us back to point one, because the best way to assess whether change took place is to seek new feedback on one's behavior and performance, especially in the absence of objective performance metrics. Self-perceptions of change are as unreliable and inaccurate as any other self-views, so they should be ignored. Some of the least coachable people in the world will be quick to persuade themselves that they have been effectively coached, when in fact they have not changed a bit, except in their self-views. And just like with health checks, feedback should be sought on a regular basis and become and ongoing activity. This is yet another difference between more and less coachable people: the former value recurrent feedback from others, whereas the latter dismiss it.

In brief, there is absolutely no aspect of human behavior that cannot be changed, but people's propensity to deliberately and strategically change vary as much as human behavior itself.