An implicit assumption within coaching and mentoring is that the coachee or mentee is motivated to change. That isn’t always the case and even when it is, there is a big difference between externally motivated change (doing something because you have to) and internally motivated change (doing something because you want to). Internally or intrinsically motivated desire for change will always be more powerful and more sustainable. The reluctant coachee/mentee is fairly easy to identify and therefore the issue of motivation can be confronted at an early stage. Solutions include helping them to find complementary goals that will motivate them (and on which the original, extrinsic goals can piggyback) and recontracting with all the key stakeholders. But what about when the learner exhibits enthusiasm and says they look forward to and value the sessions, but is clearly not deeply motivate to change?

When faced with someone, who appears to have little ambition to change, many coaches and mentors struggle and become frustrated. Among the symptoms that cause this frustration are:

  • Little or no sense of progress (revisiting the same conversations)
  • Lack of any sense of urgency
  • When the coachee or mentee says that they have found the session very useful, but doesn’t do anything with it – using the learning conversation as an intellectual exercise without any sense of immediate application
  • When there is little or no evidence of reflection between one session and the next
  • When the coachee or mentee doesn’t see the potential or need for substantial change

The change motivation matrix below is a simple way to establish how much energy someone is willing to invest in bringing about change in themselves and their circumstances. Someone, who has high satisfaction with their life and work, combined with a high desire for change is likely to be an “ideal” client. They will grab every challenge and every learning opportunity within their reach – then cast their eyes on other opportunities just out of reach. They typically use a coach or mentor as sounding board and source of subtle steerage, helping them bring coherence and focus to the wealth of possibilities they could pursue.

People with low satisfaction with their life or work, who have a high sense of change urgency, are also relatively easy to work with. They know what they want and why, they have the energy to invest in making it happen, but need help with the practicalities of change management.

People with low satisfaction with their life or work, who have a low sense of change urgency, pose a more complex problem. To quote Wharton professor Adam Grant[1]: “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it… people are motivated to rationalize the status quo – even if it goes directly against their interests… It’s an emotional painkiller. If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.” The task here is to enable them to imagine the possibility of change and the benefits that change would bring. In part this involves helping them re-assess the costs of not changing. It may also involve addressing a range of self-limiting beliefs both about themselves as individuals and about their group identity.

People with high satisfaction with their life and work, along with low urgency for change, pose an even more difficult challenge. Why rock the boat? Arguments, such as that the world is changing anyway in ways that will make their lives less comfortable, will be listened to patiently, then politely ignored. One option is to discontinue the coaching or mentoring, on the grounds that it isn’t needed. Alternatively, we can seek to lift them from their complacency.

Change motivation matrix


  High satisfaction with life/ work Low satisfaction with life/ work
High sense of urgency to change Seeking continuous challenge and learning Focus on the “how” of change
Low sense of urgency to change Complacency Focus on the “why” of change and the possibility of change

The brief questionnaire below is a simple and useful way to bring these issues into the open. Simply ask the client which pair of statements most closely fits their situation. Then explore the story beneath that choice. Listen carefully for congruity – are they trying to convince themselves or you? If it doesn’t ring true, reflect this back and ask what they think is causing this impression.

  • I want to build on success
  • I see this as a great opportunity to learn and be stretched
  • I realise that I have to make some personal changes, but need help in bringing them about
  • I’m not happy with / don’t feel stretched by my current role & want to do something about it now
  • I don’t get much satisfaction from my work, but that’s just the way things are
  • Things could be (much) better, but it’s too difficult to fight the system
  • I don’t have any major issues I want to address
  • I am content with my life and work as it is

One distinction that will rapidly become clear from the narrative is between complacency that derives from a situation, where things are actually OK, and one where the client is blanking out major problems, pretending they don’t exist. We can describe these as functional complacency and dysfunctional complacency. A good example of the latter would be automatically dismissing 360-degree feedback as biased or irrelevant. The experiences of dozens of coaches in supervision provide a clear lesson here: it is far better to stop the coaching at this point, with a clear invitation to resume once they are ready to address the issues, than to plough on in hopes of a change of attitude. One practical approach is to facilitate conversations between the client and some of their stakeholders, whose opinions they respect, structured to allow them to engage with those colleagues’ perceptions and observations.

Working with a complacent client isn’t easy, so don’t expect 100% success. It may be that they are getting all the excitement and fulfilment they want from their life outside work and would rather invest their energy there. Our objective is to open their minds to the positive outcomes that could flow from stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Here are some powerful questions and approaches that may bring about a shift in mindset.


  • Where do you find the fun in your work? (When is the last time you really laughed at work?)
  • If you were to reinvent yourself, what would be different?
  • When did you last feel you had done something really special?
  • What could you do today or this week that would take you outside of your comfort zone?
  • What’s your strategy for avoiding boredom?
  • What’s the legacy you want to leave here at work?
  • What do you most regret not having done in your working life? What’s preventing you sorting that now?


  • Looking back on your career, what’s the difference you have made? How could you make a bigger difference in the next five years than you have in the past 30?
  • How would you describe your energy level at work? What would a high energy state look like? How would that make you feel about yourself?
  • Research into plateaued managers finds that many people, who are freewheeling, re-energise their careers when they become mentor to a younger person, who challenges and stretches them. Energy contagion of this kind can be powerful!

Checking your own assumptions

“Complacency” is a very negative label and one to be used with care. You might well choose to use other language – for example, referring to low energy states. Or invite the client to find their own descriptor as in “I’m reluctant to describe this as complacency, because I think it’s more complex than that. What words would you use?” The advantage of this is that it allows them to explore their situation without feeling judged or defensive – and it brings into the open factors, which might not otherwise have emerged.

If your heart sinks at the thought of the next meeting with a “complacent” coachee or mentee, reflect upon your own expectations. Instead of assuming that you have failed, if they don’t re-energise themselves, consider that a positive outcome of the learning dialogue may be a deeper understanding on the client’s part of what gives them their sense of contentment and how they might retain that in the midst of inevitable change. And that might be all that is needed to switch them back on to the value of continuing personal growth.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016



[1] Adam Grant (2016) Originals: How non-conformists changed the world, Viking, New York

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