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Don’t be so theoretical!

This goes out to all change agents, all teachers and coaches, everyone that tries to introduce a paradigm shift of some sort. Be it helping a society to understand the value of diversity, or helping a company to understand the need of transformational leadership, or helping a team to organize differently (#agile), or helping your clients (or however you want to call the people you’re dealing with) to do their work in a different way… Whenever a person claims for something to be too academic, you’re doing something wrong! 

In times of alternative facts and fake news it became very fashionable to consider things being too academic and people are accused of too much theorization and forgetting about reality. I hear that frequently. Two examples: I have a blog in which I analyze football matches ( and people sometimes comment on it that sports are no science. I work as an agile coach, helping teams to adopt a different delivery methodology and customers sometimes tell me that I’m too focused on the approach by the book. I’m sure you have something similar in mind from your own everyday life.

Let’s talk theory

Feel free to skip this part or come back later.

From a change management perspective, the reason for this is very simple. Resistance. Whatever it is that you’re talking about requires your client to do something (e.g. think) in a different way than they did before. That pulls people out of their comfort zone and as such causes pain, as the view of their world is being shattered. From the psychological perspective, a human therefore undergoes the same process like when losing someone. Don’t call me too academic comparing the death of a dear person to having to take a different route to work, I’m just saying that the mind has to take the same steps overcoming this different situation.

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described the 5 stages of grief, which is what people go through when their situation changes to a way that was not anticipated or hoped for.

Denial. People are not accepting the new situation. “This can’t be true!”

Anger. People learn that they have to accept the new situation, which causes frustration. “Why me? It’s not fair!”

Bargaining. People negotiate to avoid the cause. “I promise to be better in the future.”

Depression. People despair at the recognition of their morality. “What’s the point?”

Acceptance. People embrace what’s not avoidable. “I can do it!”

It’s important to understand that these 5 stages are a huge simplification. They are rather a collection of common experiences than a blue print and can happen in any order if at all. For us change agents that’s irrelevant though, what’s important is to understand the stage your client is in and help them through it.

Guiding someone through this process as part of change management of any sort is a crucial part of coaching, teaching, training… this is where the change happens. It starts with the denial stage, where you have to explain why this change is necessary. When in the anger stage, you should just be listening, refrain from giving advice. It’s difficult, I know. In the bargaining stage you should open to suggestions and discussions. This is where you can show all your knowledge and use it to help them overcoming their resistance. In the depression stage then clients start to realize the need for the change and feel powerless. Your job now is to encourage your clients and show them how exciting it could be and all the good parts coming out of it. Finally, in the acceptance stage, the benefits are being recognized and the change is happening. Here people need lots of support and further encouragement.

Note that most of the time it’s not your time to shine, but to hold your clients’ hand. That’s difficult, because most coaches like to talk. A lot. Especially about the things they think about all the time and know so much about. But this is what makes the difference. Patience you must have, my young padawan.

Enough with that theory!

You might think now: “I was told this was about not being too academic, why are we knee-deep in grief theories suddenly?!” Good point. Let me elaborate. It’s all about being in denial. Clients who complain about something being too academic, don’t understand the motivation for it, hence not accepting the situation. Denial stage from the text book. The manager not wanting to change to the new process might say: “Everything you told me is theoretical jibberish, it doesn’t apply in our specific reality.” Or a software developer, who doesn’t want to follow the code craftsmanship standards (test agreements and quality levels) might say: “It all sounded great, but look, if I don’t do it, I’m so much faster!”

Often, we as coaches get frustrated here and throw in more of the same ingredients. A slightly different angle, same story. But it means we did a bad job. You can explain a theory, that’s easy. Explaining why this theory applies and why it is necessary to change, the adoption of a new mindset for example, that’s usually not so easy. This is what the stage of denial is all about. Help your client to understand the need for this so that they move toward the acceptance stage. And no approach is a one size fits all. What works for one client doesn’t have to work for the next one. Throwing theories and numbers at your clients might be the perfect choice for some, but it can be the worst pick for others.

I know experienced coaches that tell me you can’t train developers to work according to certain standards, if they have never experienced the problems that occur if you don’t. I’ve seen employees of all hierarchical levels not wanting to change the organization, because things are just fine. Don’t fix something that’s not broken.

Now, we have two options here. Either we’re all cocky and push it to them. It’s their own fault, if they don’t see the need for the change. That’s easy and comfortable. Or we accept the challenge and help our clients understand the need for the change and guide them through this stage of denial. Teaching algebra to a straight-a student can be done by everyone. But teaching algebra to the smarty-pants in the back of the classroom, who engage more into their cartoon drawing skills… that’s the champions league.

Obviously there is no solution to this problem. I can not provide guidelines how to approach this, as it highly depends on the specific situation and on the context and on the individuals. It’s on you, you have the power. You should see it as your job to help clients through the change process. Straight from the beginning, namely the denial stage. Show the alternatives, discuss the problems, make the reasons why the change is a necessity tangible, explain consequences, paint a picture of scenarios and eventualities, talk likelihoods, present studies and figures… Get into a dialogue with the individual person, find out what they need and give it to them. And if you ever hear someone mentioning that what you’re doing has nothing to do with their reality, be aware that you’re in the middle of the denial stage and should probably reconsider your approach.


Change is a difficult and painful process. Please, take it serious, it’s not easy for the people you’re dealing with. Obviously this doesn’t mean that you as a client can lean back and have the other one struggle. It’s easy to blame the others. Coaches tend to be show offs and clients tend to be stubborn.  Think about yourself. Are you open enough to see the real struggles? Are you perhaps pushing a little bit for your own comfort zone? If we all would become better at listening to each other, the world would be a better place. Make an effort to understand what your Coach/Client is trying to tell you. Communication always works both ways and we’re all just humans.

BTW: The ‘skill’ of overcoming the 5 stages of grief fast, is what people mean when they use the term resilience, a widely discussed buzzword these days. Even though this post should make clear that it is hardly a skill but a matter of guidance and being open for it.

P.S.: If you skipped it earlier, you can go back and read about the theory part now. I promise won’t tell anyone. 😉

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