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Rise Up – Overcoming Immunity to Change

Ever find that the change goal you most wish to breakthrough is the hardest to tackle? It’s like having one foot on the gas and one on the brake, you just can’t seem to progress. 

Chris wants to learn to delegate more effectively but every time he tries he gets burned and concludes it would have been easier if he had just done it all himself. Carrie has perpetually got too many of other people’s priorities on her plate. She would like to say no more often but every time a colleague or friend asks her for help she feels compelled to say yes. 

What’s going on with Chris and Carrie? Why is it so difficult to achieve one small change and make it stick? 

Think for a moment about your own experience. What change goals do you set for yourself time and time again only to find you are making no headway? What is causing this internal resistance?

We Have Excellent Reasons for Resisting Change

It is tempting to berate ourselves for lacking the willpower and strength of character to tackle a change and make it stick but we would be wrong to do so. 

Immunity to Change – that’s the title of Ronald Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s latest book as well as an apt description of something we all struggle with

Kegan and Lahey have a different way of looking at this change immunity: People don’t change because they have a very good reason not to. We aren’t stupid. We are simply dedicated to honoring our commitments, just not the ones that we are conscious of. 

Two Different Types of Challenges – Technical, Adaptive

To explore this idea of immunity to change it is important to distinguish between two different types of change challenge: technical and adaptive. (These definitions are attributable to Kegan’s friend and colleague Ronald Heifetz.)

 A technical challenge calls for learning a skills set, process or routine in order to successfully meet the challenge. Learning how to perform open heart surgery or how to lead a complex acquisition for a private equity client are two types of challenges that can be effectively resolved through learning a skill set – that of the heart surgeon or of the corporate transaction lawyer. 

Adaptive challenges on the other hand “can only be met by transforming your mindset, by advancing to a more sophisticated stage of mental development.” One way you can tell when you have encountered an adaptive challenge is that no matter how much technical knowledge you develop and implement you still can’t make progress. 

Kegan and Lahey’s immunity to change process is aimed at helping people to take on big adaptive challenges. 

Mapping Immunity to Change

I had the opportunity to attend a half-day work shop with Kegan at the International Coaching Federation Conference this year. Kegan led our group through the exercise of building what he calls an X-ray immunity map. The purpose of the mapping process is to surface the hidden commitments and assumptions that are blocking our progress. While we consciously have very good reasons for making a change, at a less conscious level we are also holding on to commitments and assumptions that go against the very change we wish to make. 

“The countervailing tension between two sets of equally sincere motivation drives the “immune system” and sustains the status quo.” 

A caveat: I am going to offer a brief summary of how the immunity mapping process works but be warned. Just like the warnings on television for children, please do not try this out on your own. At least not yet. Please read the book or attend a workshop or work with a coach who understands the process. 

The mapping processes starts with writing down our big change goal and reflecting on why it is so important to us. For Carrie her goal is to learn to say no to the tasks that people ask for her help with but that can be better be handled by others and will get in the way of her own work and priorities.

Step two is to reflect on and record all the actions that we are taking or not taking that are contrary to our big goal. For Carrie, she is saying yes to people when she really wants to say no. She is volunteering herself to do things without being asked. She is not making time for her own priorities.

Step three is to uncover the fears, worry and other intense emotions that come to the surface when we think about doing the inverse of the actions listed in step two. When Carrie thought about saying no to people her overwhelming emotion was one of anxiety. She felt horrible. She was deeply afraid that if she said no or didn’t volunteer to help that she would be perceived negatively as selfish, self-centered, a bad team player. 

Once we have surfaced these emotions it is time to look for and identify the things we are committed to that are in opposition to our big goal. Carrie discovered that she was committed to being perceived as a good person and team member. She was committed to being a helpful person. She was also committed to avoiding conflict.

Step four of the immunity mapping is to list the assumptions that underlie the commitments listed in step three. Carrie discovered that she assumed that if she said no to people they would be angry or disappointed in her and she would harm her relationships perhaps even irreparably.

The result of the mapping process is that all the good reasons for not changing are made evident. In Carrie’s case she is not able to tell people no because she is deeply concerned about the negative implications that could have on her relationships. She is committed to being perceived as a team player.

With this information uncovered Carrie can now begin a process of paying attention to how her step three commitments and step four assumptions are impacting her actions. She can create some safe little tests to learn about whether these assumptions are actually true. In Immunity to Change the last third of the book is about how to work with the information that has been mapped to build lasting change. 

Next Steps

Kegan and Lahey’s process helps people to reflect on their goals and their competing commitments with clarity and focus. It helps bring new information to light that can then be acted on. I and my clients find this immunity to change approach practical and effective. It quickly helps to surface valuable insights for the individual. It is non-judgmental. Assumptions are not good or bad they just are. And once they have been recognized they can be delicately tested out for validity. Once our hidden fears, commitments and assumptions are brought to the surface they can be examined objectively and over time lose much of their power leaving us free to make the very changes we were once immune to.

If you are currently struggling to make an important change then I recommend this resource to you. The book provides all the information you need to take yourself through the process either alone or with a partner. If you would like to learn more, explore the links I have sprinkled through this article for additional insight into the process.

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