The psychological foundations of people’s immunity to change

The psychological foundations of people’s immunity to change

„We all know that change is hard, but we don’t know enough about why it is so hard and what we can do about it.”

This quote by Robert Kegan brings the dilemma of managers and employees to the point. It also indicates, that change is often painful, because it asks people to call into question beliefs they’ve long held close, perhaps for many years. And it suggests that it may help if you have an idea of psychology when you have to deal with change processes within organizations.

Kegan is licensed psychologist and practicing therapist, and moreover also Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Educational Chair for the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education and the Co-director for the Change Leadership Group.

In 2001 he published the much-quoted book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, co-authored with Lisa Laskow Lahey. There he presents a practical method to help readers (and leaders) overcome an immunity to change individual behavior.

„We uncovered a phenomenon“, Kegan writes.  „A heretofore hidden dynamic that actively (and brilliantly) prevents us from changing because of its devotion to preserving our existing way of making meaning.”

As explained in my previous article, the most common mistake is to try solving adaptive challenges with technical approaches. Behavioral changes usually include many adaptive elements. Under these circumstances, technical approaches such as new skills are not effective. The foundation of this lies in our mindset, which is made up of – often irrational – big assumptions that prevent us from changing our behaviors.

Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. The resulting dynamic equilibrium stalls the effort in what looks like resistance but is in fact the foundation of personal immunity to change.

In order to break this behavior Kegan has developed a three-stage process to help organizations figure out what’s getting in the way of change: First, managers guide employees through a set of questions designed to uncover competing commitments. Next, employees examine these commitments to determine the underlying big assumptions at their core. And finally, employees start the process of changing their behavior.

In his studies Kegan noticed a striking pattern when it comes to examining the people’s big assumptions. Once people have identified their competing commitments and the big assumptions that sustain them, most are prepared to take some immediate action to overcome their immunity. But above all, the beginning oft he process is exhausting for employees, because it involves detailed observation of themselves and others, not action. This tends to get frustrating, especially for high achievers accustomed to leaping into motion to solve problems.

Here is an example of how the competing commitments and big assumptions are examined with Kegan’s approach.

1. Stated Commitment: I am committed to … 2. What am I doing, or not doing that, that is keeping my stated commitment from being fully realized? 3. Competing commitments 4. Big assumptions
Supporting my staff to exercise more individual initiative. When they ask me to get involved or take over, I don’t refuse. I don’t delegate as much as I could. I too often am willing to be drawn into things when I should refer to the subordinate who is in charge of that area. Not having my staff feel like I’ve abandoned them; not having my staff unhappy with me; not having our work product be less than I think I could do on my own, even if it means disempowering or failing to empower my staff. The quality of our work, when I transfer authority, does fall below what I could produce by maintaining more control, then I will be seen as a failure.

As you go through this process as a leader with your employees, remember that managers are every bit as susceptible to change immunity as employees are, and your competing commitments and big assumptions can have a significant impact on the people around you.

As Kegan explains, competing commitments cannot be eliminated. But effective change helps people to support them while minimizing the behavior that sabotaged their other stated commitments before.

“If you have wanted to lose ten pounds for ten years and a diet finally helps you do it, you might well assume you have accomplished your goal. But your goal actually isn’t to lose ten pounds. Many people (even you?) have lost ten pounds many times! The goal is to lose ten pounds and keep the weight off. Dieting doesn’t lead to weight loss that endures. For this we must join a change in behavior with a change in the way we think and feel – and in order to change the way we think and feel, we need to change our mindsets. When we are working on truly adaptive goals – ones that require us to develop our mindsets – we must continually convert what we learn from behavioral changes into changes in our mindsets.”

Video: Immunity to change – an evening with Robert Kegan

About the Author

Stefan Pap

Stefan founded Stefan Pap & Partners in 2008 after a successful career as project manager at two well-known global consulting firms. He is a passionate and dedicated consultant with a unique combination of strategy, business technology, and people management experiences.

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