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 vuln