Overcoming the Immunity Change

Studies show that an estimated 85% of large scale change efforts – each involving millions of dollars – are destined to fail. This occurs not from intentional resistance and willful subterfuge, but is instead the result of unconscious dynamics that conspire to keep the status quo exactly as it is.

This training focuses on how leaders and team members unintentionally activate their own individual and organizational “immunity to change” mechanisms, and what they can do about it.

Most of us can relate to the expression: “The only thing that likes change is a wet baby. On a good day.”

We earnestly make New Year’s resolutions, only to have them become shadows by Groundhog Day, and the love we’ve lost by Valentines. What we do know about change: it’s hard, and it takes a really long time.

But maybe it isn’t all about getting a personal trainer who will push us to new levels of persistence and pushing through resistance. Harvard colleagues Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey claim that when we fail at a goal we’ve set for ourselves, we might suspect that a kind of emotional immune system is secretly at work. Toiling to protect us from perceived threats that change would involve.

To arrive at lasting change, Kegan and Lahey state that you must dig deep to identify what could be in opposition to your goal. These hidden competing commitments are rooted in our individual worldviews, grounding our “big assumptions” about how things are in the world. And change results from altering the way we think.

In their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Kegan and Lahey lay out a process for overcoming obstacles. It’s a four-column immunity map that helps you understand what feelings are at play and how you are sabotaging your efforts.

Mapping your immunity to change

Step 1: list your improvement goal.

In column one, list a goal that would have a significant impact on your life. Perhaps it’s spending less now and saving more for later, becoming a better communicator, or switching to a career you’re passionate about. At the bottom of the column, you list some actions that would help you achieve your goal.

Step 2: identify behaviors that keep you from your goal.

For column two, consider what you are doing (or not doing) that’s stalling your stated efforts.

Let’s consider the example of changing careers. Let’s say we have an accountant who really wants to become a psychotherapist. But she works many evenings and weekends at her current job, and keeps forestalling the GRE and putting off graduate school applications.

It might seem like enough to recognize and focus on changing these behaviors. But success comes from changing your mindset. The next two steps help you work toward that shift.

Step 3: discover your competing commitments.

Here’s where the real self-inquiry kicks in. Look back at the behaviors you listed in column two and ask yourself how you’d feel if you did the opposite.

Our career changer might worry that if she works less she’ll be perceived as a slacker. What if her GRE scores aren’t high enough for the top programs? If she completes the applications, she might actually get into a program and have to give up her stable lifestyle.

It’s easy to see the concept of the emotional immune system at work here, warding off feelings of shame, disappointment, and fear.

Given these feelings, we might actually be able to see that her competing commitments are in some sense a wish to be respected professionally; to perform at the highest level, and to enjoy security and stability.

For the exercise, the fears are listed in a worry box at the top of this column. And the competing commitments follow.

Step 4: identify your big assumptions.

So how can you move forward given what you’ve learned? Figure out what internalized truths are at the root of your competing commitments. Try framing your competing commitments in “if ____, then ____” statements.

For our accountant, one such statement might be “if I don’t perform at the highest level, I will be seen as a failure.”

List your big assumptions in column four.Download an immunity map worksheet

Download the immunity map worksheet we created to map out your goals, challenges, competing commitments, and big assumptions.

Making use of what you’ve learned

These columns form your immunity map, helping you see why you struggle to make changes. A solution must take your emotions into account.

You might test the assumption that presents the most significant obstacle in your life. Think of a low-risk scenario. Our career-changer might take a weekend off and see how her manager and colleagues respond. Is she really seen as less committed? Does slightly lowering the expectations for herself result in failure?

Given time to challenge a particular assumption, you may find your beliefs shifting in a way that frees you to pursue your goals with success.