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The real reason coaching fails

The reason coaching fails for many employees is that coaches are not focusing on a key component: motivation, writes Susan Fowler.

6 min read


coaching fails

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susan fowler

I gifted a coach to a friend struggling to define her next chapter. A highly successful businesswoman, she left the workforce to raise her children. Now, she was an empty nester with decades of opportunity to look forward to, but she couldn’t figure out her next step. Coaching might help her get unstuck.

After several coaching sessions, the coach offered to return my money. “I just couldn’t motivate her to care about the future,” the coach lamented. My friend reported that the sessions had been fun and exciting but yielded no results. They both agreed further coaching wasn’t worth their time or my money.

As a manager who coaches members of your team, an amateur or professional coach in any walk of life, or an HR professional who coaches as part of your job description, I wager you seek success for your PBC (“person being coached”). From my experience, coaches are among the most well-intentioned people on the planet. If you coach, you are serious about helping your PBC achieve goals, transform habits or embrace change.

What’s missing from the lists of why coaching fails

Another thing I know about coaches is that you take it hard when your coaching efforts fail. For proof, check out the hundreds of articles by experts explaining the myriad of reasons coaching fails — and how to avoid the pitfalls. A partial list of reasons coaching fails culled from a variety of sources includes

  • Difficult or uncoachable client
  • Trouble displaying authority
  • Unable to overcome the client’s pessimism
  • Not establishing boundaries.
  • The coach lacks a commitment to continuous learning
  • Inability to manage conflict
  • Not skilled in building trust with clients
  • The coach doesn’t understand the client’s “I don’t know.”
  • Unable to help clients unlearn bad habits
  • Ineffective at boosting their clients’ self-esteem 
  • Failure to hold clients accountable
  • Inadequate technology for online coaching
  • Haven’t learned how to use coaching software
  • Ineffective at collecting feedback
  • Unskilled in active listening
  • Managing multiple clients 
  • Not keeping up with industry trends
  • Lack of trust and chemistry
  • Fuzzy expectations
  • Both parties have to want it
  • The coach has not helped the client correctly identify the problem 
  • The coach does not have enough expertise in the industry
  • The objective is not clearly defined
  • The coach uses the same strategy for all coachees

I wasn’t surprised by what’s on the list. But I’m shocked at what’s not on it. I could not find one list explaining the real reason most coaching efforts fail or don’t live up to expectations: motivation.  Motivation is at the heart of everything people do — and everything they don’t do but wish they did. However, not all motivation is created equal. Appreciating the difference between suboptimal and optimal motivation is central to coaching success. 

When coaches integrate empirically proven motivation science into their coaching approach, their clients experience a shift that means the difference between a successful and a failed interaction. 

  • When the PBC experiences suboptimal motivation, they need help overcoming challenges or progressing. 
  • When they experience optimal motivation, they generate the vitality needed to be highly effective and flourish — at the same time.

People need a solid foundation of optimal motivation

Motivation is the foundation for everything a coach does: setting SMART goals and KPIs to provide structure, problem-solving to remove roadblocks, reinforcing skill building to improve competence and propelling people forward with action plans.  But here’s the rub. If your PBC is experiencing suboptimal motivation, all your efforts are like building castles on sand. Your strategy looks impressive, but your good intentions (and theirs) will be short-lived. Before your PBC takes action, you must help them create a solid foundation of optimal motivation.

So, this begs the question, why don’t coaches build groundbreaking motivation science into their practice? Two reasons:

  1. Time Lag. Scientific evidence takes about 17 years before reaching clinical practice. It takes three times that long before groundbreaking research gains acceptance and application in mainstream life, finding its way into a coach’s toolbox. Most coaching schools and certifications aren’t experts in motivation science, so they lag behind the research. But the truth is out there from researchers and practitioners bridging the gap.
  2. The Original Coaching Sin. Many coaches still adhere to one of the original tenets of coaching: Never ask “Why?” Unfortunately, not asking the “why” question results in asking a question that often leads their PBC down the road to suboptimal motivation: “What motivates you?” Discussing motivation with your PBC is a good thing. Asking them what motivates them isn’t

I often think about how my friend’s life might have opened up to rewarding possibilities if her coach had understood the power of optimal motivation for envisioning her future, risk-taking and embracing change. 

Minimizing coaching fails

Consider these stats. Coaching is the second fastest-growing industry in the world. In December 2020, LinkedIn search results showed 1,603,532 results for “Coach.” One year later, searches quadrupled to 6,640,000. Today, coaching is a $20 billion industry poised to overtake the $330 billion business consulting industry. 

Imagine if this expanding world of coaches comes up to speed on the real reason coaching fails. What might be different if more coaches were skilled in helping people shift from suboptimal to optimal motivation? Instead of writing about why coaching fails, we’d celebrate the vitality they’ve helped unleash. Workplaces would thrive from the optimal motivation fueling employee work passion. Individuals would experience high performance and flourishing simultaneously, revolutionizing the quality of their lives. I can already see the promise of optimal motivation at work.


Susan Fowler is the founder of Mojo Moments® and the revolutionary MojoCoach.™ The second edition of her best-selling leadership book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does,” is now available. The companion book written for individuals, Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information on MojoCoach, keynotes, and book clubs, write [email protected] and visit

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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