Immunity to Change

Blog post by Leslie Helmuth, Harvard Extension blog editor

We’re all a bit resistant to change. Eight days into January, and how many of us have already broken a New Year’s resolution? (I haven’t, but then this year I didn’t bother setting one.) It’s a cliché, yes: but change is hard.

Photo of Change Just Ahead sign - immunity to change blog post imageJust maybe, though, the problem isn’t inertia or lack of willpower. According to Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, when we fail at a goal we’ve set for ourselves, it’s likely that a sort-of emotional immune system is covertly at work, defending us from perceived threats.

To arrive at lasting change, Kegan (who teaches Adult Development) and Lahey say you must dig deep to identify what may be in opposition to your goal. These hidden competing commitments are rooted in our individual worldviews—our big assumptions about how things operate. 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 and saving more for retirement, becoming a better listener, or finally switching to a new career. At the bottom of the column, 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 efforts.

Let’s focus on the example of changing careers. Say we have an accountant who really wants to become a psychologist. 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 shifting your mindset. And the next two steps help you work toward that shift.

Step 3: discover your competing commitments.

Here’s where the real self-exploration comes in. Look 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 see her competing commitments as a wish to be respected professionally, to perform at the highest level, and to have 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.

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