Written by: Amy Mervak and Mike Radtke
“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” - Wayne W. Dyer
Change can be hard. This isn’t necessarily a revelation, but instead a painful reality for many of us. We make New Year’s resolutions that we don’t keep, we have health goals that we can’t meet, and we have personal development goals that feel impossible to reach despite our sincere commitment and effort. In frustration, it’s easy to become resigned and think that “maybe this is as good as I get.”
Organizationally, we often run into this same painful reality. We roll out a best practice but find, two months later, that we’re back to the old way. We commit to a new communication pattern but give up on it when the new issues it reveals become too uncomfortable to keep talking about. Or, we put action steps we’re nervous about on hold, hoping things will just get better on their own. Does this sound familiar to you? It certainly does to us. It’s not fun, it’s frustrating, and in the end, it results in missed opportunities for personal growth and organizational improvement.
We know many behaviors that contribute to effective change…engaging people in problem solving, going to see what is actually happening, getting to the root cause, and making sure the “why” is clear to name a few. These behaviors are important, but they’re not always enough. And that’s because we can unknowingly sabotage our efforts. We can have unconscious, hidden goals to protect ourselves from fear or discomfort which produce the very behaviors that keep us from accomplishing our goals. So, just “trying harder” or “trying again” won’t work. We need a different approach. If only we had a model of change that helped us make these unconscious, hidden goals visible so that we could skillfully work with them!
Fortunately, Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have done just that with their Immunity to ChangeTM approach. They use the metaphor of the immune system to help explain how our hidden goals sabotage our best efforts.
Our physical immune systems detect and respond to threats to our health, keeping us healthy without our conscious effort, but sometimes our physical immune systems can get it wrong. Our body might attack healthy cells like in the cases of autoimmune diseases or hypersensitivities. Kegan and Lahey say we each have a psychological immune system too. This system also works to protect us from threats - psychological ones like worries, anxieties, and fears - and just like our physical immune system, our psychological immune system can get it wrong. It can be working to keep us safe from a perceived “threat” often without our conscious awareness, but instead, gets in the way of us making important changes that we genuinely want to make.
So, what does this immunity to change look like in an organizational setting? Here are some examples based on real clients we’ve worked with using the Immunity to ChangeTM approach:
- John’s improvement goal was “to enable his team to problem-solve themselves, experiment, and be more independent.” Yet when chances for them to do so came up, he’d always rush in and tell them what to do. John’s hidden goal was to never be perceived as not having the answers. This goal was shaped by an unexamined assumption John held that “Leaders are supposed to have the answers. If I’m not giving advice and solutions, I’m a poor leader and the organization won’t need me.” His psychological immune system perceived an action like giving his team space as a threat to be avoided at all costs.
- Lois’s improvement goal was “to be more open, transparent, and vulnerable with others about things I don’t know.” However, she often stayed silent or deflected issues she didn’t know much about. Lois feared being seen as incompetent and unskilled. She was committed to never feeling this way. The unexamined assumption getting in her way was “If I’m found out that I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll be seen as an incompetent failure.” Therefore, any attempts to say “I don’t know” were quashed by her psychological immune system.
- Lana’s improvement goal was “to get better at making big ideas happen and coordinating all the parts needed to do so,” but she stayed stuck in planning mode, frozen and not able to move into action. Lana uncovered a fear that taking any wrong step would prove she wasn’t competent to do big projects. An assumption driving this goal was “If I step off the preconceived project plan I have in my head, it will be too overwhelming to get back on track.” No wonder it was difficult for Lana to take action. Her psychological immune system wanted change to be 100% predictable.
Can you relate to these leaders and their situations? Or perhaps, more generally, to the possibility that hidden goals may be keeping you from making changes that are important to you? Now, think about some of the change challenges that you and your team are facing. How might collective hidden goals and assumptions be contributing to change failure? It’s likely happening more often than we think.
In brief, here are the steps you can take to uncover your Immunity to ChangeTM.
- Identify a goal that is important to you. It should implicate you, be stated in the affirmative, and be something you can practice doing.
- List all of your behaviors that work against your goal. We call this list your Fearless Inventory. They are counterproductive behaviors.
- Imagine doing the opposite of each of these behaviors. Notice the worry or fear that comes up for you. Whatever comes up is your hidden goal, the threat that your psychological immune system is protecting you from. Understanding this and what drives it is the key to unlocking the “stuck-ness” of your change efforts.
- Identify the assumptions you are making about yourself or about other people that make it important for you to keep your hidden goal. We call these “big assumptions” and they drive those counterproductive behaviors you are hoping to change.
Once you identify these big assumptions, you can begin to observe them and run small, safe tests to learn how accurate they really are. Perhaps they’re accurate only part of the time or in certain situations. Perhaps they were accurate at some point in your life but no longer serve you. Over time and with real-world evidence as support, you can change your relationship with the big assumptions and make room for the meaningful changes you want to make.
Change can be hard. Changing ourselves can be even harder. Let’s use better models like Immunity to ChangeTM to guide our efforts. Let’s move away from relying solely on willpower and behavior change and toward discovery and experimentation with the drivers of change inside of us - our beliefs and mindsets. Only then can we fully grasp the current condition, take skillful action, and make change stick. Using the Immunity to Change process has helped our clients do just that. And, it has helped us both personally as well.
You can learn more about Immunity to ChangeTM by coming to our upcoming workshop series “Making Change Stick” taking place in January and February of 2024.