Are your actions undermining what you have asked your team to do?

One of my coaching clients is a coach of a semi-professional sporting team in Melbourne, Australia.

We were having a conversation about the excuses that he is receiving from players regarding their inability to make it to training. He was planning to ‘have a go at them for their lame excuses‘ at their next training session.

He provided an example that one player had told him that he couldn’t attend training because he would be attending his niece’s birthday party.

My client was frustrated. He felt that such excuses were pretty lame. “I would never have missed training for my niece’s birthday party. How lame!”

Just as I asked him if it was possible that this player did in fact place his niece’s birthday party as a higher priority than training, at least for this one day in the year, my client’s phone rang. It was one of his assistant coaches so I encouraged him to take the call.

After a few minutes he came back.

“Gee. The excuse was true. His sister is extremely unwell and her daughter is without her mum on her birthday. He’s doing the right thing.”

I couldn’t have been more excited. The information that my client received was perfect for what I was about to ask him.
“What have you asked your players to do if they can’t make training?” I asked.

“Ring or text me” he replied.

“Is that what they are doing?”


“So they are doing what you have asked them to do?” I re-enforced.

“Yyyeeeesssss?” He said, his brow slightly furrowed.

The penny had not yet dropped.

“It seems to me that your players are doing exactly what you have asked. They are ringing you or texting you when they cannot attend training and providing their reasons. Yet your focus has shifted to the content of their reasons. You are focussing on whether or not you think their reasons are valid. As this example with the niece has shown, clearly you thought the excuse was lame, but when you found out the whole story you found out that it made sense.”

“What if,” I continued, “you stopped worrying about the content of the excuses you are being provided. Why not believe whatever they tell you, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. This example shows that the player involved was being honest with you. Ultimately, isn’t that what you want?”

“Yes it is” he replied.

He then said, “If I had used the niece’s birthday party as an example of the types of excuses for not training that I was getting, as I had planned to do, and I had ridiculed such an excuse I could have ruined my relationship with that player and shown the players that I didn’t really want them to be honest with me. Maybe I could use this example to show that I will believe whatever they tell me. Ultimately, if players want to lie to me, that’s about them, not me.”

He continued, “I was getting pressure from the other coaches to stop accepting all the ‘lame‘ excuses we believed we had been getting, but training attendances are actually far exceeding those of previous years. The collective data on the whole group is actually very good. I want the players to be honest with me and that is what they have been doing. I can see how easily I could have changed that behaviour and inadvertently encouraged them to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. I’m glad we’ve had this chat!”

If you have ever played sport, or acted in a play or played in a band and felt the ‘sweetness‘ of perfect timing, this is how I felt at this point in the conversation.

I see this a lot in my work. Leaders asking their people to do something, which they then do, but the leader loses focus on what they had asked their people to do and shift their focus onto something else, albeit closely related. But they effectively ‘move the goalposts’. This causes confusion and triggers the “Guessing Game”. Team members start guessing what the leader really wants. This is extremely destructive. Yet the leader, from my experience, has little awareness that they had in fact moved the goalposts.

One of the great challenges for leaders is to maintain behavioural alignment between what they say and what they do. Fortunately, in the above example my client was able to maintain his.

What are your examples of this challenge?

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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