How to Overcome Immunity to Change

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Two prominent researchers share a step-by-step plan that can help you break through old patterns, and finally make the shifts that matter.

Most of us have changes we’d like to make in our lives, from our work and finances to our health and relationships. But often, despite years of effort, we don’t get very far.  So, what’s standing in our way?

Two Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan, PhD, and Lisa Laskow Lahey, EdD, believe they have cracked the code. And they’ve used their discoveries to develop a process that helps people overcome ingrained obstacles and successfully make what’s known in psychological circles as “adaptive change.”

Adaptive change requires a shift in mindset, not just behavior. And as Kegan and Lahey explain in their book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Your-self and Your Organization (Harvard Business Press, 2009), this sort of change necessarily involves a certain amount of self-inquiry and self-exploration. Their systematic method for accomplishing that work, and for overcoming our inherent resistance to it, has now been successfully used by a number of organizations, from medical practices to government agencies. Kegan and Lahey have also trained dozens of psychotherapists and personal coaches who now use the system with clients, and they note it can work for motivated laypeople, too — as long as you’re willing to see your own entrenched patterns through a fresh lens.

A Change of the Guard

Kegan and Lahey see our resistance to change as an immune system of sorts, and they note that our “immunity to change” has a positive purpose — namely, to protect us from the psychological trauma and danger that sudden changes can bring.

Unfortunately, this same system that’s meant to keep us wary of negative and disruptive changes can also inadvertently dissuade us from making significant positive changes in our lives. Even the mere prospect of change can be enough to trigger our inborn defense mechanisms, causing us to sabotage our best efforts almost before we’ve begun.

Because our immunity to change is so often rooted in unexamined beliefs, Kegan and Lahey have found that shifting our behaviors typically requires first instilling a more conscious and constructive set of beliefs. The foundation of their methodology for this work is a four-column “immunity map” (PDF), which guides people through a process of self-examination, thereby helping them identify and adjust assumptions that may be holding them back.

The Making of an Immunity Map

Column No.1: Your Goal
At the top of this first column, write your goal — something with a big payoff that you’re motivated to achieve. Below your goal, identify specific, concrete behaviors that will be required to achieve your goal.

Here’s a hypothetical example: Simone is a perfectionist. She stays at the office every night long after others go home; when she leaves, she takes work with her and some nights stays up working until 3 a.m. She doesn’t ask her colleagues for help because she doesn’t trust anyone else to do the job as well as she can. She knows she’s working too hard and wants her life back, but she can’t seem to change.

Simone’s primary goal might be to relax her perfectionist tendencies. Behaviors essential to creating a positive shift might include delegating and easing up on work.

Column No. 2: What You Do
This is where you list the behaviors that prevent you from achieving your self-improvement goal. Perhaps Simone, the perfectionist, lies when someone offers to help her. “I’m almost done,” she’ll say, as she loads reports into her briefcase to work on at home. Or perhaps she tells herself she’ll stop working at 10 p.m., but when she looks up from her spreadsheet, it’s well past midnight.

You might be tempted to simply say, “Aha, I’ll just alter those behaviors, and voilà, I’m done!” But don’t give in to that temptation. A technical change — simply changing the behavior — won’t get at the root of the problem; it won’t change your mindset and soothe your subconscious fears. Only an adaptive change, which the next two columns address, will do that.

Column No. 3: Why You Do It
Typically, when you’re not doing something you believe would benefit you, it’s because you have “competing commitments” that are holding you back. These are typically rooted in the fears that arise when you read through column No. 2 and ask yourself: “If I imagine myself trying to do the opposite of this, what is the most uncomfortable or worrisome feeling that comes up for me? What makes not doing column 2 feel so scary?”

When Simone imagines delegating part of her workload to a coworker, for example, she worries that the results won’t be as good. She might also worry that if someone else does do the work, she’ll become less essential or less respected at work. So Simone’s “worry box” would reflect these fears. Her competing commitments? To be necessary, indispensable, respected.

Column No. 4: Assumptions  
The competing commitments listed in column No. 3 are typically the result of some “big assumptions.” These are ideas we hold to be true even though, until we challenge them (more on that, below), we have no way of knowing for sure.

One way to uncover our big assumptions is to apply “If ____, then ____” thinking to our competing commitments in column No. 3.

Simone’s assumption might be something like: “If I weren’t admired and seen as essential, then I’d just be average. I’d cease to be special.”

You’ll know you’ve hit on a big assumption, say Kegan and Lahey, when you feel a sense of “oh, this is why I’m stuck” — even if part of you can see the assumption as flawed or at least questionable. Next step: Design a test of your assumptions — one that can help you get unstuck.

Experiment With Assumptions

Once you’ve developed your four-column immunity map (Kegan and Lahey’s book goes into great detail on how to do that), it’s time to begin experimenting with and evolving your big assumptions.

Start with a single assumption. Ask yourself which assumption gets most in your way. Which one, if changed or acted against, would make the biggest, most positive change in your life?

When testing big assumptions, Kegan and Lahey suggest that you play it SMART. Your experiment should be:

Safe (many experiments will involve a certain amount of risk, but don’t devise a test in which the end result could get you fired or badly hurt)
Modest (start with a small test and work your way up)
Actionable (make the test one you can undertake, not just think about)
Research-based (you’re gathering information here, not trying to prove a point, or immediately trying to change a behavior)
• An effective Test of your assumption (one targeted toward gaining better insight into the accuracy of your beliefs and how they do or do not serve you)

Keep in mind that “the goal of the experiment is not to prove your assumption wrong,” says Jonathan Sibley, a psychotherapist in Montclair, N.J., who trained under Kegan and Lahey and who uses the immunity map with his clients. “The goal is to gather data.”

Your experiment will allow you to better understand how accurate your assumption really is, and whether the behaviors you’ve been engaging in to protect yourself from your imagined worst-case scenarios are actually helpful — or ultimately counterproductive.

For Simone, a test of her big assumption could involve selectively  delegating a relatively low-value task to a qualified team member. She could then see what happens. Does the delegating really result in disaster? Do her coworkers really view her with less respect? Does her value and specialness actually drop the way she feared?

It’s quite possible that nothing noticeable at all will happen — even if the delegating itself doesn’t go perfectly. It’s also possible that over the course of similar experiments, as the result of delegating and setting better boundaries, Simone will find herself being more effective, not less, and thus better respected, too. Either way, as the result of her experiments, it’s likely  that both her beliefs and her behaviors will continue to shift in healthier, more rewarding directions.

Obviously, retraining your psychological immune system requires both time and willingness. The authors suggest dedicating 30 to 60 minutes a week for several months to practicing your new habits. And you may want to consider working with a partner or a coach to maintain your momentum. But as you continue to test a limiting assumption and begin the process of change, says Lahey, you’ll find that your assumption “will start to morph. It won’t have so much control over you. You’ll start understanding where it’s valid and where it isn’t valid at all.”

Download your own “Immunity Map” (PDF).

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Jessie Sholl is the author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding (Simon & Schuster, 2010). She lives in New York City.

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