Wider World of Business

Is there someone on your team who you’d like to coach, but resists your help? A high performer who could reach further? A hard worker who could grow faster? The best managers know to coach their employees, but what if someone doesn’t want your help? How can you convince a hesitant employee that your advice is worthwhile?

What the Experts Say

“Resistance to coaching takes many forms,” says Amy Jen Su, managing partner of Isis Associates, an executive coaching and leadership development firm and coauthor of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence. The resistant employee may be passive, putting off your meetings or acting as if he’s open to coaching but never actually changing his behavior. Or she might be direct, making it clear she doesn’t want your help. While this may be frustrating, Ed Batista, an executive coach and contributor to the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees, says that you shouldn’t assume the employee is to blame. Often the manager is at least part of the problem. Here’s how to get to the bottom of what’s going on, so that you can help even the people least willing to be coached.

Know When Coaching Works — And When It Doesn’t

First consider whether coaching is the right approach. “Good coaching is a fluid process that incorporates asking questions, challenging assumptions, reflecting back what’s heard, and, at times, providing a direct opinion or feedback,” says Batista. Does the employee or situation call for that investment? “Sometimes you really do need people to perform a task in a specific way,” Batista says, and in those cases, you’re better off giving directions. Or you may not want to dedicate the time and energy to helping a chronic underperformer. But if you feel coaching is warranted, and the employee isn’t accepting your help, the next step is to understand why.

Understand the Resistance

¨It’s easy to assume the resistor is simply irrational or difficult. But “there is typically a logical, perfectly reasonable explanation for how the person is behaving,” says Batista. Perhaps, he doesn’t trust you well enough or feels like you don’t appreciate him. “Often coaching can take on a tone of ‘you’re not good enough,’” Su says. It could also be that the employee hasn’t had a good experience with coaching in the past. “She may be thinking: ‘Why bother? I still didn’t get a promotion after trying last time.’ Or ‘it’s never really stopped me before. I’m going to get promoted anyway,’” says Su. You might also see resistance if the person hasn’t bought into the process: “You have to agree on what the blind spot or development opportunity is,” says Su. Batista suggests you ask yourself: Could my actions be contributing to the problem?

Be Curious

It’s not enough to contemplate the reasons. You should also ask your employee why she’s hesitant. “Start asking questions,” says Batista. But not yes or no ones — they don’t advance the dialogue. Instead start your inquiries with “how” or “what.” For example, you might ask, “How can we solve this problem together?” or “What do you feel is holding you back at this moment?”  You can mention the resistant behavior you’re observing so long as it’s in a non-critical way that sparks candid discussion. For example, you could say: “I noticed that you rescheduled our meeting several times. I’d really like to work with you on this so what can I do to help you make this a priority or make you more comfortable tackling this issue?”

Be Transparent About Your Intentions

If you haven’t explained why you’re offering coaching, be explicit. Acknowledge what you’re trying to do and why. “I’m focusing on your performance because I want to help you meet your goals this year.” Or “I’d like to give you coaching about how to run meetings so that others see you as an effective leader.” This is  especially important if you’re coaching someone for the first time. “If you’ve been a more directive manager, and all of a sudden you’re asking, ‘Well, what do you think?’ it may freak your employees out a bit. You need to make explicit why you’re changing your behavior and what your intentions are or you’ll create a lot of unnecessary anxiety,” says Batista.

Show Appreciation and Build Trust

¨To accept coaching is to make oneself vulnerable, so you need to show your employee that you’re worthy of trust. First acknowledge the person’s contributions. Coaching can feel like a punishment, especially for solid performers who think they’ve got it figured out, so state specifically what you value about her work and why. Emphasize confidentiality and keep your word. “If the employee finds out that you were talking about her performance in another setting, she’ll question the relationship,” says Su. And make sure you stay committed throughout the coaching process. “Don’t get all fired up about how you’re going to help and then get distracted.”  Another way to build trust is to show employees that you’ll accept reasonable mistakes. “Allow people to analyze setbacks and failures in a dispassionate way and learn from them,” Batista says.

Don’t Force It

“When people are compelled into coaching, it’s not a recipe for success,” says Batista. Instead of improving the person’s performance, you may strain your relationship. So, if the employee continues to resist, don’t strong arm him. “Put the coaching on pause and address the issue at a later date,” Su says. But if the performance issue is critical or time sensitive, you might consider bringing in an external consultant or someone from HR to help.

Principles to Remember


  • Ask open-ended questions about why the employee is resistant
  • Show that you appreciate the employee’s contributions
  • Accept that the employee will make mistakes — tolerance encourages risk taking


  • Put all of the blame on the employee — it’s likely that she’s being resistant for a reason
  • Hide your reasons for trying to coach the person — be explicit about why and how you want to help
  • Force the employee into accepting your help — coercion doesn’t build trust