Immunity To Change
Why Is Personal Change So Difficult?
In their latest book: "Immunity to Change. How To Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization", Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey address the question: "Why is personal change so difficult?"
Kegan is Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Lahey is the Associate Director of Harvard’s Change Leadership Group.
The "knowing doing gap"
This book and the tools and techniques outlined within it tackle what is often referred to as the "knowing doing gap", or as Kegan puts it:
"...how to close the gap between our intentions, things we actually want to carry out, and what we are actually able to do".
A dramatic and poignant illustration of the "knowing doing" gap can be seen in research in the US healthcare sector. As Kegan explains:
"If you look at people who are prescribed maintenance medications, people who should take, for example, a statin drug for the rest of their lives to control blood pressure or high cholesterol and stay alive, you would assume 100pc of these people would do so, wouldn’t you?
It turns out that research carried out here in Massachusetts shows that anywhere from between a third to a half of all Americans on maintenance medications, who understand why they’re on them, don’t take them after a year."
Even more dramatically:
"Another study showed that if heart doctors tell their seriously at-risk heart patients they will literally die if they don’t change their lifestyle, only one in seven, on average, is actually able to make the changes..."
"These are the kind of stark reminders which show us that the usual explanations for why people don’t make changes are pretty weak..."
"They’re usually around things like 'the incentives weren’t high enough'. Someone tells you you're going to die if you don’t make this change; that’s a pretty high incentive, right?"
Reconsidering the context of personal change
Adaptive rather than technical challenges
The inherent assumption in most training and work-related attempts at encouraging personal change is that it is skills based, in other words people can be taught to change.
They can be taught, but generally they won't change. They can't change and according to Kegan this is because of their inbuilt and invisible immunity to change. (I prefer to refer to this as resistance.)
The scale and pace of change that is impacting organisations now is such that it cannot often be planned for and thus it pushes leaders and followers into positions that require adaptive solutions - and that can only happen when leaders and followers interact with their environment and change their behaviour in response to that environment.
This is only possible when those being impacted by change have either the personal developmental capacities to do this, or have resources such as the immunity to change model and process to help them.
There are many developmental models that attempt to map and model the stages of complexity associated with mental development.
It has been assumed that adults don't change - can't change - beyond early adult-hood, that a level of development is reached and remains static.
Kegan & Lahey challenge this and assert that based on their research, adults are capable of continuing development throughout their lives. They identify three qualitatively different dimensions of mental complexity what they call —the socialised mind, the self-authoring mind, and self-transforming mind, each of which interpret the world in different ways.
To explore this model further and more fully understand the theoretical background, please see the following resources:
- "Immunity to Change: An Exploration in Self-Awareness"
By Scott J. Allen, Ph.D. Assistant Visiting Professor, John Carroll University Download PDF Here
- "Kegan's Constructive Development Theory"
By Professor John E Barbuto - video presentation: View Here
- "Immunity to Change: A Report From the Field"
By Jonathan Reams Download PDF Here
- "Immunity to Change - How to Release the Potential of Individuals and Organizations"
2 Case Studies - Download PDF Here
What is "immunity to change"?
Kegan and Lahey define immunity to change as a "hidden commitment", with an underlying root cause, that competes and conflicts with a stated commitment to change.
It these hidden commitments that cause people to not change and to fail to realise their best intentions.
Put simply, it is these hidden commitments that cause us to not keep New Year resolutions, to fail with diets, to not stop smoking etc.
So in summary, we can simply say that:
- We all develop our own inner map of reality
- We interpret the world through this inner map
- We have different levels of capacity to be conscious or aware of our own inner map and especially how we create our experience of life through it (most of us, most of the time, are completely unaware of this)
- In accordance with this inner map we have our own inner commitments to our own personal priorities
- These inner hidden commitments have a high priority and will over-ride any counter intentions that conflict with them
- The high priority is assigned because the hidden commitment is inextricably linked to an inner hidden perception of our own physical, psychological, social or emotional safety
- This hidden commitment is (nearly always) outside of our conscious awareness
This is the root cause of all personal resistance to change.
Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE
Why does this matter?
From a change management perspective, and in my own personal point of view (shaped by my own inner map of reality!), the single biggest significance of the immunity to change model is that it recognises - maybe instigates - a tipping point, namely that organisational change is inseparable from personal change.
In my view, Kegan and Lahey may be breaking new ground in the theoretical world of organisational development and putting this on the map for the wider business world with the credibility provided by their academic credentials and Harvard association, but there is nothing new here - this is not a shattering new insight into the human condition.
At root there is nothing here that hasn't been said so many times before in the world of personal development and in the main traditions of spiritual growth.
But, and this is a very big "but", the significance and critical importance of their work is:
- They have put personal change on the map and thus on the agenda for the business world
- They have demonstrated that personal change is inextricably intertwined with organisational change
- They have provided a language and a process that makes personal change accessible to the business world
How does the immunity to change process work?
The process is very simple - and very powerful for its simplicity - and is based around a four-column exercise. Here are the 4 columns:
(1) A Commitment to Change - that you are unable to keep
(2) Behaviour - what are doing or not doing to support that commitment [mindful observation]
(3) Hidden Competing Commitment - that has a greater priority
(4) Big Assumption - the underlying belief that underpins - the hidden competing commitment
Immunity to Change Diagnostic Test
Exercise Activity Guide
Exercise Activity Guide 2
The Real Reason Why People Won't Change
Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE
Resistance to change - how to deal with it
Dealing with resistance to change
Conflict resolution tips
Managing Personal Change
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