How coaching can support organizational change management


Research Paper By Michèle Smole
(Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND)

How coaching can support a people-centered approach to organizational change management

When you meet people where they are, you can take them where they want to be.

Why Change Initiatives Fail

The human resistance to change

A global survey by McKinsey & Company concluded that only by changing constantly could organizations hope to survive. However, the McKinsey survey also claimed that some two-thirds of all change initiatives failed.[1] Why? Although myriad factors are cited in the change literature, the inability to engage people is the factor noted longest and most often. As organizational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted, a person’s reaction to organizational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” This phenomenon, often referred to as “human resistance to change,” is possibly the most important issue facing the field of organizational change.[2]

A multitude of reasons for this phenomenon has been researched. What they have in common is that people understand and react to change differently because of their assumptions, expectations, and perspectives. So how can the human resistance change be overcome? The Human Capital Institute (HCI) and the International Coach Federation (ICF) have partnered to research coaching cultures in organizations and explored how coaching can be integrated with change management initiatives. Their survey showed that coaching-related activities are rated the most helpful in achieving the goals of the change management initiative.[3]

This research paper builds on their research and explores how coaching can be a part of change management initiatives, supporting that affected move through the different phases of the change curve, and introduces a variety of coaching frameworks and tools, which can be used in the change coaching process.

When people face change

The Change Curve

There is not a fixed recipe for managing change. Even though the goal of any change initiative is most like to move organizations, people, and culture from A to B, change simply does not work linearly following a certain amount of steps. When leading change managers will need to tailor their strategies to the emotional responses their people and teams are likely to be experiencing during different stages of the change process.

The Change Curve provides a framework for mapping these emotions. Knowing where individuals and teams are in this process allows management, change leaders or coaches to have greater efficacy and impact in helping people move forward.[4]

Michèle Smole Research PaperCopyright Moss Warner

Coaching for Change

Sliding through the change curve

Change managers often take on the role of project managers. Their goal is to implement the change as efficiently and effectively as possible – on time and budget. Unfortunately, the personal situation of the affected employees is often overlooked. Even though coaching is often associated with personal or team-related performance improvement, self-optimization and problem solving, coaching can also help those affected by the change to better deal with it, to look at it from different angles, and to check their attitude.

For coaching to be a success, it must however not be misused for change to bend those affected towards the intended change. Hence the change manager as a coach cannot credibly assert his or her impartiality, because of a potential conflict of interests. Instead affected employees and teams should be offered the possibility of neutral coaching, for example by an external coach.[5]

Let’s look at the different stages of the change curve and how a coach can support individuals to move forward and beyond.

STAGE 1: Shock & Denial

In the beginning, people may be in shock and defensive about the announced change. They may not be able to digest the fact that they will have to adapt to something new. It can bring about a dip in productivity and the inability to think and act. After the shock, a person may cling to the past and move forward as nothing has changed. In the most extreme cases, they may remain in a state of denial for a long time and lose touch with reality.

How coaching can help: During this phase, a coach can help people understand why the change is being made and gain clarity on what it means for them. Focusing on face-to-face; one-on-one communication and listening to individuals concerns will help ease the process and avoid groupthink.[6]

STAGE 2: Anger & Depression

When the realization finally hits, people may begin to feel fear for what lies ahead and some may even become angry and full of resentment. Anger can be manifested or expressed in many ways. While some take out the anger on themselves, others may direct it towards others around them. People in this phase remain irritable, frustrated, and short-tempered. The realization that there is no way out of the situation, can result in low morale and energy, and even depression. People stuck in this stage may display signs of indifference or push others away.[7]

How coaching can help: This is a low energy phase and requires a lot of support to renew motivation. A coach can help people address anxiety, overcome fear, and deal with uncertainty so it can make way for acceptance and new opportunities. Coaching can help to consciously deal with the change, become active, take responsibility, and leave the role of the victims.[8]

STAGE 3: Acceptance & Integration

After the darker emotions, a more optimistic and enthusiastic mood begins to emerge. Individuals accept that change is inevitable. Now come thoughts of excitement about new opportunities, relieve that the change has been survived, and impatience for it to be completed. Primary feelings now include acceptance, hope, and trust. People start to take ownership. They stop focusing on what they have lost and start to let go and accept the changes. They begin testing and exploring what the changes mean, and to learn how they must adapt.[9]

How coaching can help: Despite an amazing ability to learn new things, human beings all too often lack insight into what they need to know but don’t. Biases can lead people to overlook their limitations and be overconfident of their abilities. Even when people overcome such biases, they can handicap themselves by doubting their ability to change. Instilling a sense of control and competence can promote an active effort to improve.[10] A coach can help people focus on their existing strengths, passions, and values and identify skills they need to best strive in the changing environment.

Coaching Activities

Tools & Frameworks

Coaching and mentoring people through organizational change encompasses a variety of activities. These include explaining why the change is necessary, communicating the positive and negative for supporting or not supporting the change, soliciting and including their ideas, clarifying performance expectations, giving positive and or constructive feedback, providing training, removing obstacles, acknowledging, and reinforcing success, addressing resistance.[11] Coaching offers a variety of tools and frameworks that can support this process.

As Silky Fischer-Lee[12] has shown in her research paper, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be integrated into team coaching during agile transformation.

Even though Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is more frequently employed in working with organizations or groups, there has been much made available on its implications for work with individuals.AI encourages people to notice and specifically identify what is working and what is strong in ourselves and our organizations. It does not deny negative data or information but chooses to notice it and then move on.[13] This is most important in Phase 1 and 2, when people bounce in and out of anger, depression, and acceptance, but also in Phase 3 to identify options that the change might bring or that are outside of the organization if they cannot align their believes and values with the change.

The Clifton Strengths Finder can support people in Phase 3 discovering their strengths and learn how to use them to thrive, identify, and seize opportunities that are opening up for them.

A great tool for spotting victimhood is the Drama Triangle. Coaches can leverage this model of human interaction to understand system dynamics at work. The Empowerment Dynamic or TED developed by David Emerald takes the classic drama triangle and flips it upside down with a positive expression of each of these roles.[14]


Change occurs one person at a time

Transformational change initiatives are only successful if individuals change how they think and act when performing their day-to-day activities. Successful organizational change is the result of several individuals transitioning from their current behaviors to their future behaviors. Whether – and how quickly – the organization will realize its return on investment depends on how efficiently employees make the change.[15]

When leading change organizations hence must plan for the “human resistance to change.” In addition to supporting individual sliding through the different phases of the change curve, a Change Coach can support project managers, teams, and management in the realization of their change project. She or he focuses on the obstacles encountered, aims to understand the “system dynamics” and makes the interaction of forces and interests transparent.

For coaching to be a success, it must not be misused for change to bend those affected towards the intended change.[16] Instead, coaching capitalizes on people’s strengths, spurring everyone to share responsibility, and pool their resources. Working with a change coach not only saves the change leader’s time, so that she or he can concentrate on running the business, but it also makes people feel as if they have more control. In the workplace, this translates to an environment where people are more at ease with risk, have higher energy, and show greater resilience, all of which are key factors in successfully handling change.[17]


Basford, Tessa, and Schaninger, Bill (2016) “The four building blocks of change.” McKinsey Quarterly. (accessed April 2020).

Emerald, David (2019) 3 Vital Questions. Transforming Workplace Drama. Washington, Polaris.

Fischer-Lee, Silky (2020) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)for an Agile Transformation (accessed April 2020)

Gentry, Brad (2014) “Coaching people through the Change Curve,” The Insight Group Ltd. (accessed April 2020)

International Coach Academy (ICA) (2019) Appreciative Inquiry (AI). (accessed April 2020)

International Coach Federation (ICF) and Human Capital Institute (HCI) (2018). Building a Coaching Culture for Change Management. (accessed April 2020)

McFarland, Walter (2012) “This Is Your Brain on Organisational Change.” Harvard Business Review. (accessed April 2020)

McKinsey & Company (2008) “Creating organizational transformations.” The McKinsey Quarterly. (accessed April 2020)

Nevenhoven, J. (n.a.) “Coaching Employees Through Change,” LCE Life Cycle Engineering. (accessed April 2020)

Scarlett, Hilary (2018) ” The impact of organizational change on the brain,” HRZone. (accessed April 2020)

Solèr, Ivo (2018) Mitarbeiter-Coaching im Change-Dschungel. HR and Leadership, Kaleidos Fachhochschule Schweiz. (accessed April 2020)

Petersen, Glen (2017) ” Leverage the change curve to boost your change management process.” Generator Talent Group.  (accessed April 2020)

Wilson, Carol (2014) Performance Coaching: a complete guide to Best Practice Coaching and Training. London, Kogan Page.

Zartler, Jessica (2016) “How to Coach Your Team Through 5 Stages of Grief. Based on the Kübler-Ross Change Curve,” Medium Taskworld Blog. accessed April 2020)

[1] McKinsey & Company (2008)

[2] McFarland (2012)

[3] ICF and HCI (2018)

[4] Petersen (2017)

[5] Solèr (2018)

[6] Zartler (2016)

[7] Zartler (2016)

[8] Scarlett (2018)

[9] Gentry 2014)

[10] Basford and Schaninger (2016)

[11] Nevenhoven (n.a.)

[12] Fischer-Lee (2020)

[13] ICA (2019)

[14] Emerald (2019)

[15] Nevenhoven (n.a.)

[16] Solèr (2018)

[17] Wilson (2014)

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