top of page

How to Identify Difficult Change?

Change efforts sometimes run into complicated obstacles. Correctly identifying a change effort as difficult or non-difficult allows you to select the right model. This way, when you step into difficult change you are taking the right steps from the start.

There's a saying: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Unfortunately, not all change efforts are created equal and if your change education was anything like mine, you didn't get access to difficult change models. Stepping into difficult change armed with the right models often means you are ready to successfully guide people through difficult change because you can clearly see the steps of an otherwise complicated maze. Unfortunately, change models that are not specifically designed to overcome unique difficult change obstacles often can't stretch to provide sufficient guidance and support. So the first thing we need to talk about is: How can we identify difficult change?

The top 5 factors that can be used to identify difficult change are: shift, gap, how widespread it is, duration (specifically when duration leads to emotional investment), and comfort with vulnerability.

To get an intuitive sense of how these apply to difficult change, try thinking of an individual, team, or organization you know that can benefit from improving. Ask yourself: What is the current state? What needs to change? What are the desired outcomes? And explore the following criteria to assess if this is more likely non-difficult or difficult change:

  • Will it Require a Big Shift: from a previous way of doing things to a new way of doing things. If, for example, an open, receptive individual needs to adopt greater mastery of effective listening skills this will be less of a shift than if a defensive, argumentative individual needed to acquire those same skills. If a team or organization is learning-oriented, feedback-seeking, and frequently questioning assumptions and needs to adopt greater mastery of diversity and inclusion skills it will be less of a shift than if a team that generalizes truths, sees things in black and white (us vs. them etc.) and believes that "our way is the right way" had to acquire the same skills. Will a big shift be required to achieve the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?

  • Is there a Big Gap: different groups of people seeing things differently. For example, when an individual who needs to change recognizes and accepts the feedback given from other people's perspectives it will be less of a gap than when an individual is given feedback from other people's perspectives but sees things very differently himself. When a team all agree about the issues they need to resolve and the way to resolve it, it will be a smaller gap than when there are sub groups in the team, each with their own different beliefs about what the issues are and how they need to be resolved. If an organization wants to adopt a new process and the different management levels are aligned, it will be a smaller gap than if different management levels are not aligned and are focused on different things. Is there a big gap in the context of the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?

  • Is it Widespread: the behavior, thinking, response that needs to change happens in multiple contexts or just in one specific situation. When an individual who is generally inclusive is behaving in a discriminating way only in one specific context toward one specific individual we'll say it is less widespread and hence less difficult than an individual who acts in discriminating way towards many people in many different contexts. When an organization is trying to adopt a culture of positive, effective, non-punitive accountability only in one specific department, when the rest of the organization already practices this prefered type of accountability, the change will be less difficult than when this type of accountability is lacking throughout many different departments in the organization. Is the change in the specific situation you identified very local or is it more widespread?

  • Duration of Previous Way of Doing Things: Behaving, thinking, acting or otherwise doing things a certain way for a long time may lead to emotional investment in previous ways of doing things. If, for example an individual is used to doing things without being supervised for two months, changing this will probably be less difficult than if the same dynamic has been in place for ten years and the individual has become emotionally invested in the freedoms this lack of supervision allows. If a team or organization is trying to deliberately adopt new values or a new culture, this will probably be easier a few months after the team or organization formed than after the organization has been practicing previous values for twenty years or more and people are already emotionally invested in those previous values. Have people been practicing ways of doing things for long enough for them to develop an emotional investment in the specific situation you identified?

  • Are People Comfortable Being Vulnerable: Open, receptive, feeling safe and confident enough to explore weaknesses or aspects that require improvement. When individuals in the context of individual coaching, team development, or organization-wide change are more comfortable being vulnerable, change will be far less difficult than when the environment is making people feel unsafe about exploring weaknesses or difficulties or when individuals need greater mastery of skills, without which they will be less comfortable being vulnerable, even if the environment is supportive of it in every possible way. Are people comfortable and feeling safe to explore their weaknesses, difficulties, and other areas of vulnerability in the specific situation you identified?

Any one of these factors can make change difficult but unfortunately it is not at all uncommon to find two or three of these factors present at the same time. Furthermore, where these are, a secondary list of difficult change aspects like low trust, fake buy-in, and dysfunctional politics will follow.

The good news is that there is an underlying cause at the heart of why these factors make change more difficult. They are each triggered by the need for Unlearning. The more change requires Unlearning, the more these factors as well as conscious resistance (visible, external) and subconscious resistance (invisible, internal) will be present. It's true that change can become more difficult if not facilitated correctly, but changes that require Unlearning are difficult before you ever take the first step.

There is a simple way to go about it that is designed specifically to overcome these difficult change obstacles. There are new science-based principles to guide people through difficult change in coaching, team development, and organization-wide change management efforts. If that's relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out the KCI training and certification programs, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.

With appreciation,


Featured Posts

Recent Posts


Search By Tags

No tags yet.

Follow Us

  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page