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Case Study: How Identifying Difficult Change Makes a Difference

The CTO of a high-tech client organization was seen as dismissive, insensitive, one-sided, and at times manipulative and vindictive. His team experienced his unpleasant responses in meetings and everyday interactions. The senior leadership team coped with being told their opinions or concerns were irrelevant or ignorante on a regular basis. While the CTO was highly respected for his professional knowledge, these type of behaviors created negative ripples all around him.

Most of us think of difficult change as high resistance, low cooperation situations. We recognize that when faced with such responses we'll need strong principles to guide us through. What we often don't realize is that our very first step may be failing us before we even begin.

Even without understanding definitions and principles of difficult change, most change leaders instantly recognize the CTO situation as one. The resistance level, disruptive behavior, and one-sidedness of the CTO's responses may seem too difficult to get around. This is certainly extreme behavior even for non-coachable individuals and it was by no means a walk in the park, but correctly using a non-coachable model allowed coaching to gradually achieve deep, sustainable desired outcomes.

If you find it easy to accept that traditional coaching models may not be a good fit to support individuals like the CTO in this example, you may be surprised to hear there are many more types of "non-coachables" out there. Difficult change can be shifty and put on some fancy disguises. For example, the COO of a financial client-organization we worked with was very friendly, openly and happily sharing his experiences and feelings, eager to create an environment of trust, but extremely uncomfortable being vulnerable and talking about his weaknesses or any behavioral area he could improve on. He often said one thing to one leader and then when pushed, agreed to something else when talking to another. He struggled to talk through sensitive topics and avoided conflict by diverting the conversation to long irrelevant stories from his past experiences or by joking around. Although not necessarily best managerial practices, it may seem like this is very much a coachable individual. It is very easy to conclude that people who are easy to talk to, nice, or caring, like this COO seemed to be most of the time, are coachable individuals. But using a coachable model here too would get the change stuck. It may seem like the COO is cooperating but he will only partially cooperate. If you go by what he says, it may seem like he genuinely wants to improve, but his actions will tell a different story.

How will you know when to use a coachable model and when to use a non-coachable one when it comes to supporting individuals through change?

The best rule of thumb for identifying coachable individuals is their comfort level with being vulnerable. When people are comfortable being vulnerable they are able to recognize areas of improvement, gain motivation around it, and work through subconscious and conscious resistances to the discomfort the change presents. People with a high level of comfort being vulnerable will allow themselves to be exposed, unguarded, and open. They’ll be willing to “put their guts on the table for examination” so to speak. They may not agree with what others have to say about them but they will truly surrender their ego, at least temporarily, to sufficiently listen with curiosity and an initial desire to understand before they seek to respond. Coachable individuals benefit tremendously from traditional coaching models because they can depend on their:

  • Understanding, acceptance, and motivation to make needed changes.

  • Ability to keep making progress despite any internal resistance associated with the discomfort of change.

Being comfortable with vulnerability is not the same as being able to talk openly about how you feel btw. Many people, like the COO, can easily do the later and talk a great deal about how they feel and express deep emotions, but are far from coachable. Both the CTO and the COO in the above examples (as well as other non-coachable individuals) resist accepting needed changes and will often be unable or unwilling to continue making progress when they feel the natural discomfort associated with change. They will tend to block access to sensitive issues (which improvement areas typically are). They do that because they lack specific skills and typically will not to truly engage with needed changes unless provided with those skills first.

At a most basic level non-coachable models support change by combining:

  • The right skills for non-coachable individuals (ones that change the way people respond to discomfort and disagreement).

  • The right accountability structure (effective but non-punitive).

  • Masterfully guiding the individual through the Unlearning-relearning process (this is needed to support coachable individuals too, but requires different, more "advanced" facilitation skills in it's non-coachable version).

The importance of distinguishing between the need for different types of change models extends well beyond individual coaching. At the end of the day, teams and organizations are made of individuals and the starting point of the change will matter. A coachable team or organization, in which the culture is open and high levels of comfort with vulnerability "runs through people's veins" will not need to worry about newer change models. When change is introduced and many individuals on the team (or a few individuals in key positions of influence) are not coachable, non-coachable principles will need to be integrated into the team's or organization's change process.

When offering coaching, team development, or organizational transformation processes in your organization, do you first asses which model you should choose based on how coachable the relevant individuals are in each specific situation?

The KCI Change Acquisition Method is specifically designed to overcome the obstacles blocking non-coachable individuals from adopting needed changes. 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,


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