I attended the facilitator’s workshop for the Immunity to Change™ methodology a couple weeks ago, and was surprised how powerful this simple methodology was at uncovering assumptions that hold people back from change. It can drive insights even when done in a perfunctory fashion, as when I did it on my own before the workshop; but when combined with a coach who is empathetic and challenging, it can elicit powerfully moving realizations (as happened for me in my third day at the workshop). I wanted to share a brief overview of this elegant methodology, in part because my last post was partially inspired by it.
For those that want the official version, you can read the Harvard Business Review article written by the creators, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, or consult their books Immunity to Change or An Everyone Culture.
The methodology grew out of Kegan and Lahey’s observation that people are often committed to changing themselves in some meaningful way, but fail to do so. Most of us subscribe to what they call the “New Year’s Resolution” model of change where we can just decide to be different; this can work for some people in some situations, but often fails because willpower is not enough even if one knows what one needs to do. Kegan and Lahey felt that a lack of willpower didn’t sufficiently explain why people don’t take action towards their improvement goals, and so they researched this phenomenon to come up with alternate models of change that might better explain what they observed.
Their theory is that people have what they call a Psychological Immune System, which is designed to protect us from unpleasant emotions or situations, much like our physical immune system protects us from diseases. When a potentially unpleasant emotion might arise, our Psychological Immune system kicks in, and steers us quickly and unconsciously away from the situation. If this happens when we are trying to change, it can set up a conflict where our conscious brain wants to change, and our unconscious brain doesn’t want to change; Kegan and Lahey make the analogy to having one foot on the gas pedal, and one foot on the brake pedal, spending a lot of energy going nowhere, which is an apt description for how many of us feel when trying to change ourselves.
They describe this conflict in terms of hidden, or competing, commitments. We have a conscious commitment to an improvement goal. But our Psychological Immune System has a set of hidden commitments that conflict with the improvement goal. The Immunity to Change™ methodology is a method for discovering those hidden commitments, and then working with them. If we can identify our hidden commitments, then we can notice how they are interfering with our lives, and perhaps loosen them somewhat; this would reduce the braking in the above analogy, allowing forward progress to occur. Note that this is similar to how to deal with the “Limits to Growth” archetype in The Fifth Discipline, where growth can only re-start when the balancing loop countering growth is addressed.
So how do we find the hidden commitments, when they are well hidden even from ourselves? I love the elegant way that Kegan and Lahey describe to get there.
- Identify the improvement goal to which we are committed, but are not making progress on.
- Identify the actual behaviors we are taking that are impeding our progress towards that goal – how are we undermining ourselves?
- Imagine doing the opposite of those behaviors (i.e. imagine doing what it would take to move towards the goal), and what feelings arise as you imagine that. This is the key step, as this is where people identify worries or anxieties or other “yucky” feelings that they unconsciously want to avoid.
- Once the worries or anxieties are revealed, lay them out as competing commitments, and investigate any Big Assumptions that are lying behind those competing commitments.
The power of the methodology lies in that third step – identifying what we are avoiding. If we can push deep on our underlying motivations and confront our “yucky” feelings, the methodology will have more power. To take one of my examples, I said I want to be excellent at my job (improvement goal), but I often wait too long to ask for help when stuck, and I often don’t speak up when I see something I don’t agree with (behaviors working against my goal). When I went through what feelings I would have if I do the opposite of my behaviors, it was pretty obvious:
- Asking for help might make me feel like I am stupid or ineffective at my job – there’s some part of me that believes I should be able to do my job without needing help.
- Speaking up or initiating conflict in any way might make other people uncomfortable, and then I might get mocked or ignored, and thus shown to be an idiot.
The competing commitments then become “I am also committed to (a) not feeling stupid or ineffective, and (b) not making other people uncomfortable”. These are not noble, or honorable, commitments – they are kind of yucky to admit. However, they make it very clear the ways in which I am in conflict with myself; because I am trying to avoid these yucky feelings, I am not taking clear, obvious steps to improve at my job, as I say I want to do. The gas pedal and brake pedal are both fully engaged.
Once the hidden commitments are out in the open, they can be examined and tested. Kegan and Lahey suggest observing how our behavior is influenced by these commitments for a couple weeks, and then start constructing safe, small tests to see whether the assumptions underlying the commitments are 100% true all of the time. For instance, the assumption in my first example above is that “If I ask for help, I will look stupid or ineffective.” The challenge is that the assumption may sometimes be true – if I ask “where is this document?” and it’s easily findable by a search, then I might in fact look stupid or ineffective. But it doesn’t mean the assumption is always true, so the coaching that follows is to understand better the limits of that assumption by testing it – if I ask for help after spending 30 minutes checking the obvious places, do others think that makes me stupid? Can I talk to others after I ask for help and see what they actually think, rather than what I project onto them? Lots of possibilities open up to investigate the assumptions once they are discovered.
I find the Immunity to Change™ methodology to be a powerful tool in understanding human behavior. In the couple weeks since taking the workshop, I’m constantly on the lookout for people’s hidden commitments when they are not making progress towards their stated goals, and asking questions to elicit those commitments. My last post grew out of that thinking – when people say they want to improve their relationship with somebody long-term, but they don’t speak up or act differently, it is because they want to avoid the short-term discomfort of speaking up. This post is obviously a very cursory summary of the methodology; if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend consulting the links to Kegan and Lahey’s work that I put towards the top of the post.