Immunity to Change™ methodology

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.

  1. Identify the improvement goal to which we are committed, but are not making progress on.
  2. Identify the actual behaviors we are taking that are impeding our progress towards that goal – how are we undermining ourselves?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

3 thoughts on “Immunity to Change™ methodology


    This is the best article I’ve ever read on why people don’t change.

    To me, the process you’re describing is tricky because while it doesn’t necessarily rely on willpower, it relies on a level of self-awareness & analytical thinking that are effectively a form of willpower. 😛

    What I’ve found is the *most* effective way I’ve enacted personal change – and clearly if you look at the shape I’m in it’s not great for everything – is to find times when you have mental capacity and distance to create systems that force your behavior to be different in a way that you *cannot* deal with when you’re mentally weak and susceptible to bad decisions.

    For me, it’s an issue of being well fed and happy when I go grocery shopping so I don’t buy a bag of chips or ice cream. It’s not a matter of understanding “Why do I like ice cream,” and then confronting the deficiencies in myself that lead me to want sugar & fat when I’m bummed out.

    But I think the parallel in this article that’s meaningful is between the “hidden commitments” and “what you actually want,” as described in the Cracked article.

    The idea of thinking about what you lose by doing the thing you think you want provides, for me, a really powerful structure of thinking about what I think I *actually* want, and then that lets me try to think about how to correct that, or *if* I want to correct it, because I may want the right thing, I’m just going about a less productive way about addressing that want.

  2. I would actually say this methodology is about step #4 in that article, “Not Thinking About What Part of You Will Die” – the hidden commitments are about identifying what you’d have to give up, which may be an attitude or assumption you have about the way things are (e.g. eating sugar and fat when bummed out will make me feel better). And, as you say, in that process, you may decide that what you say you want is not worth giving up that part of yourself. But at least then you’re making the choice consciously rather than by default and habit.

    And, to be clear, the process I describe in this post is a one-off analysis to identify those hidden commitments, and isn’t going to “solve” them. You’re right that addressing those commitments is about using the mental capacity we have more effectively. That could include building systems with our capacity to circumvent those commitments (as you suggest for grocery shopping), or increasing our capacity with practices like mindfulness and exercise.

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