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Accountability for Coaches by Tony Stoltzfus

Dec 12th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Content, Transformational Coaching

Accountability is an effective tool to help a coaching client change habits.  And the principles behind accountability will work with any kind of action step. Whenever a client needs to get something done, accountability improves the chances of success. Here’s an overview of how accountability is normally applied in a coaching relationship.

The most basic support structure in a coaching relationship is the progress report. At the beginning of each coaching appointment (after you’ve had a few minutes of chit-chat), the coach asks the client to review progress on the action steps chosen in the previous session:

“Give me a brief progress report on your action steps.”

This question is direct, keeps the client in charge, and emphasizes the client’s ownership of the process. Train your clients to quickly run through the steps on their list. Once you’ve determined what they did or didn’t do, you can respond, ask for new action steps in a particular area or move the focus to the main agenda for the coaching appointment.

Consistently asking for progress reports creates a performance-enhancing environment, characterized by:

  • Responsibility
    Clients catch on pretty quickly that you expect them to write down and keep track of each and every goal and action step. It is their list, and they are responsible for it.
  • Seriousness
    Progress reports communicate that we are taking the steps seriously—seriously enough to follow up.
  • Consistency
    Clients realize that they are going to be consistently held accountable for each and every step. Therefore, if I choose a step, I’m serious about taking it. 

 The coach also keeps a list of every goal and action step the client develops. If the client skips a step in the progress report, the coach must ask for a report on that specific step. Maximum performance is generated when every step is covered and there is no sliding by.

Progress reports provide sufficient accountability for most action steps. However, if the client is working at a daily habit or a particularly thorny issue, increasing the frequency of the accountability may make a big difference. One way to do this is to increase the frequency of your coaching appointments.  Another strategy is to use e-mail or “spot calls” of a few minutes to check in with the client more often. A one-sentence e-mail every other day can be a great boost for the client. That’s the beauty of accountability—it gives the client much more energy than it takes to supply it.

Peer Accountability

An additional approach is to help clients enhance their own support systems. We all have people in our lives that we can tap to support our change goals. Building intentional S.E.A. (support, encouragement and accountability) into our relationships with friends, family and co-workers creates a great resource for change. I love to help my clients do this because it is such an effective long-term strategy. If I provide accountability for my clients, I’ve helped them change one thing. If I help my clients learn to develop accountable relationships, I’ll affect every change issue they undertake for their whole lives.

The most effective approach is to put the accountability where the behavior is. For instance, if your goal is to develop a daily exercise habit, having a running partner is a great way to get effective accountability. Every day, someone knows whether you ran or not. For daily habits, someone who sees you in action can be a wonderful help.

The disadvantage with this strategy is that most people don’t know how to make peer accountability work. Without guidance, what will happen is this: the client will ask a person off the cuff to “hold me accountable to such-and-such.” No direction will be given for what to ask, nothing will be written down, and no structure will be set up to ensure that the question is consistently asked. Nine times out of ten, the client will never be asked an accountability question.

Peer accountability is a powerful tool. But for it to work for your clients, you’ll have to teach them to teach their friends to provide effective accountability. Here are three keys to making peer accountability work:

  1. Permission
    Saying, “Please ask me about this” one time will probably not be enough. It may seem awkward, but a formal, written accountability agreement between client and accountability partner makes a huge difference. Giving permission several times verbally is also a big help. A friend who knows what to ask and is clearly empowered to ask it is an effective peer partner.
  2. Question
    Develop and write down the question you want your friend to ask you. This way the accountability partner feels free to be direct while knowing we won’t be offended.
  3. Structure
    Accountability is most effective when it is consistent. Saying, “I’ll ask you about it when I see you at church,” doesn’t cut it. Define when and how often the accountability will be provided.

 Crafting Accountability Questions

The actual accountability question you ask can make all the difference. Say the client’s goal is to share her faith and provide an invitation to believe in Christ to at least one person a week. Most people would ask a question something like this:

“How did it go with the evangelism thing this week?”

And the answer you’d usually get with a question like that is (cue drum roll), “Fine.” The problem is that “fine” could mean anything from, “Yes, I shared the Lord with someone this week,” to “I tried on several occasions to share but it didn’t work out,” to “I didn’t actually share with anyone so to speak, but I thought about it a lot, and that’s an improvement over where I was at.” The question doesn’t provide much accountability because it is so easy to evade. Below are three principles for crafting great accountability questions:

  • Ask a Direct, Closed Question
    “How’s it going?” doesn’t cut the mustard. Ask a question with a yes or no answer: “Did you speak to at least one person about your faith this week?”
  • Let the Client Develop the Question
    This step helps you know exactly what the client wants from you, and creates buy-in for the process. “What do you want me to ask you next time we meet?”
  • Be Positive
    It’s easy to come across like a schoolmarm: “Did you do all your work this week, Johnny?” If things feel a little heavy-handed, try expressing your accountability question positively: “Who did you talk to about your faith this week?” This question assumes the person has taken the step, instead of assuming they haven’t.

Tony Stoltzfus is a master coach, author and coach trainer.  More of his writings on the disciplines, skills and heart of a Christian coach can be found in his book, Leadership Coaching.

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