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Navigating "Immunity to Change"

The concept of "Immunity to Change" offers groundbreaking insights into why people and organizations often struggle to adapt and evolve despite their best intentions. Developed by Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey, this theory delves into the hidden forces that keep us tethered to the status quo, revealing the underlying assumptions that act as barriers to our growth (Kegan, 2015). Through their extensive research and practical frameworks, Kegan and Lahey guide us through a journey of self-discovery and organizational transformation, challenging us to confront our deepest fears and unlock our full potential. As we explore the nuances of this concept, including personal anecdotes and actionable strategies, we embark on a transformative path that not only questions our current behaviors but also equips us with the tools to overcome the unseen obstacles that lie within.



What Is “Immunity to Change”

Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey, both of whom are regarded as Chief Knowledge Officers at TDE, have made significant contributions to the field of adult development and organizational change. One of their most notable works is the book "Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization." In this book, Kegan and Lahey explore why individuals and organizations often find it challenging to change, even when they have a strong desire to do so. The core idea is that there are hidden assumptions or "immunities" that protect us from the perceived threat of change, but at the same time, prevent us from achieving our full potential ​​(Changing for the Better. (n.d.))..


These hidden assumptions form an "immunity to change," a self-protective but ultimately self-defeating mechanism. By identifying these underlying assumptions, individuals and organizations can start to work through them, allowing for transformational changes. This process is not only about personal growth but also about enhancing one's ability to meet the complex demands of work and lead a more fulfilling life (Kegan, 2015).


Examples of “Immunity to Change”

The concept of "Immunity to Change," as developed by Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey, refers to the psychological resistance individuals and organizations exhibit towards change, even when they consciously desire it. This resistance is often due to deeply held, hidden assumptions that protect us from perceived threats but also prevent growth and transformation (Kegan, 2015). Below are some common examples of how this immunity to change manifests in personal and professional contexts.


Health and Fitness Goals

An individual may genuinely want to improve their health by exercising more regularly and eating healthier foods. However, their immunity to change might stem from a hidden assumption that dedicating time to exercise signifies being selfish or neglecting family duties. This belief creates a conflict that hinders the adoption of healthier habits.


Career Advancement

A person may aspire to take on more significant challenges at work, aiming for a promotion or a leadership role. Yet, they might unconsciously avoid opportunities to showcase their leadership skills due to a hidden commitment to avoiding failure or criticism, believing deep down that they're not truly capable or that success would lead to undesirable personal sacrifices.


Organizational Change Initiatives

A company may commit to becoming more innovative and agile, encouraging risk-taking and creativity among its staff. However, the underlying culture of penalizing failure and valuing predictability acts as an immunity to change. Employees might fear the repercussions of taking risks, despite the overt encouragement, because they assume that mistakes will negatively impact their careers.


Team Collaboration

A team leader might express a strong desire for more collaboration and open communication within their team. Nevertheless, if they unconsciously equate leadership with having all the answers and making all decisions, they may unknowingly discourage input from team members, perpetuating a cycle of limited collaboration.


Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

An organization may publicly commit to increasing diversity and fostering an inclusive culture. However, if there's a deep-seated belief that prioritizing diversity could compromise the quality of hires or that "fit" is paramount (where "fit" is narrowly defined by the existing, homogenous culture), these efforts might be superficial or ineffective.


Implementing New Technologies

A company might recognize the need to adopt new technologies to stay competitive. However, an underlying immunity to change can be a collective anxiety about the unknown and a covert commitment to maintaining the status quo, fearing that new systems will disrupt established processes or diminish individual roles.


Additional Examples

Consider the additional examples below as provided by Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey:


Source: Kegan, 2015


In all these examples, the key to overcoming immunity to change lies in identifying and challenging the hidden assumptions and commitments that fuel resistance. By addressing these underlying beliefs directly, individuals and organizations can begin to align their behaviors with their aspirations, enabling true transformation and growth.


Overcoming “Immunity to Change”

Overcoming immunity to change involves a structured and introspective process that helps individuals and organizations identify and address the hidden assumptions and commitments that hold them back. Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey have outlined a methodical approach in their work on the subject, which can be distilled into three key steps.


Identifying and Addressing Competing Commitments

  • Transforming Complaints into Commitments: Initially, individuals are asked what changes at work would enhance their effectiveness or satisfaction. Often, this question elicits complaints. However, these grievances can be valuable, as they reveal underlying personal commitments. The key is to shift from voicing complaints to identifying the commitments these complaints imply.

  • Acknowledging Personal Contribution: Individuals must then examine how their own actions or inactions are hindering the fulfillment of these commitments. This introspection often reveals a pattern of behavior that, while seemingly protective, actually undermines their goals.

  • Confronting Underlying Fears: By contemplating the opposite of their counterproductive behaviors, individuals can uncover any discomfort or fears driving these actions. The aim is to articulate these fears as active commitments to avoid certain negative outcomes, revealing the competing commitments at the core of their resistance to change.


Exploring the Big Assumption

  • Articulating the Big Assumption: Individuals invert their competing commitment to start forming a statement, then complete it to express the underlying assumption. For example, a belief that hearing about unsolvable problems would expose incompetence, or a conviction that only they have the necessary intelligence or experience, illustrates deep-seated assumptions fueling their immunity to change.

  • Addressing the Discomfort: Admitting to these big assumptions is challenging as it brings to light personal insecurities or overly critical views of oneself and others. Recognizing these assumptions is crucial, as they are the bedrock of the behaviors that conflict with one's stated goals.


Challenging the Big Assumption

  • Observation Before Action: The process begins with observation rather than immediate action, a step that might frustrate those eager for quick fixes. This reflective phase is essential for understanding and eventually overcoming the immunity to change.

  • Steps for Challenging Assumptions:

  • Keep a detailed account of behaviors related to the immunity.

  • Search for instances that contradict the big assumptions.

  • Investigate the origins of these assumptions.

  • Design small experiments to challenge the validity of the assumptions.

  • Reflect on the outcomes of these tests to inform future actions.


By methodically working through these stages, individuals can begin to dismantle their immunity to change, aligning their actions more closely with their aspirations and achieving greater satisfaction and effectiveness in their professional lives.


The Main Takeaway

In delving into the "Immunity to Change," we uncover a path that demands courage and introspection but promises significant growth for individuals and organizations alike. Dr. Robert Kegan and Dr. Lisa Lahey provide not just a diagnosis of our resistance to change but also a practical guide for overcoming it. By identifying and confronting the hidden barriers within us, we unlock a potential that transcends our limitations, fostering a culture of adaptability and innovation. As we integrate these insights into our daily practices, we not only navigate change with greater ease but also open ourselves to the profound possibilities of transformation. This journey, challenging yet deeply rewarding, beckons us to a future where change is embraced as an essential ally in our quest for fulfillment and excellence.


References

​​Changing for the Better. (n.d.). Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/hgse100/story/changing-better


Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2015, November 10). The Real Reason People Won’t Change. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2001/11/the-real-reason-people-wont-change


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