You may be asking yourself at this point in our discussion of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s concept of immunity to change why people don’t just eat less or listen more or give someone else responsibility or do whatever they have to do to make the change they want to make. After all, people do lose weight and keep it off by dieting, they do learn to let go of control by learning delegating techniques, they do become better listeners by learning listening skills. But that’s the point. For some changes, skill development is enough. For others, it isn’t.
The “just do it” philosophy of change ignores the power of our mindsets--the many assumptions we make about how the world works and what we must do to get along in it. These unconscious beliefs developed in us as we observed the world around us and they are designed to keep us safe. They carry a powerful emotional charge. Attack them directly and they can put up a stiff resistance. This is why so many change efforts fail.
Neither are we stuck with “that’s just the way I am.” Mindsets can be changed and assumptions modified, making real change possible. But because our big assumptions are designed to protect us, they are hardwired into our bodies as well as our minds. All kinds of alarm systems go off when we try to go against them.
This is why Kegan and Lahey stress that when overcoming your immunity to change it’s important to observe the big assumption, test the big assumption, and understand the roots of the big assumption rather than attacking it directly (see my previous two blog posts for a description of the immunity to change and initial strategies for overcoming it). One of the most powerful tools in their toolkit is the test of the big assumption.
You test big assumptions through a series of experiments on the their validity, intentionally acting in ways that run counter to the assumption, observing the results and reflecting on their implications for that mindset. Tests start very small and get larger in scope over time.
A client of mine needed to be able to create some time for himself to plan and strategize and to delegate to others so he could reduce his own overwhelming workload. The big assumption holding him back was that he didn’t want others to see him as unavailable and unapproachable. He believed that he would be seen as not pulling his weight and could potentially lose his job if there were layoffs.
His first test was to take a half an hour 2 days a week and do something relaxing for him. He did that and found the time was restorative and enabled him to concentrate more at work. His next test was to delegate something giving clear instructions. A third test was to work from home one morning a week so he was unavailable to others. He found the 2 hours to be tremendously effective. Each test gave him the opportunity to test his assumption that he had to be available all the time to be seen as adding value and that others could share the burden.
Kegan and Lahey use the acronym SMART to describe the criteria for a successful test:
Safe and modest means the test doesn’t carry too big a risk. You start out small and gradually increase the scope as you get more comfortable with new ways of seeing things. Actionable means it’s relatively easy to do—it doesn’t require a big a change in your routine and you can begin the test within a few days. Researcher’s stance and test mean you are looking at your big assumption objectively and are running the tests to see if the assumption is valid or not rather than trying to achieve your improvement goal.
If the tests demonstrate that your assumption is no longer valid, you begin thinking with a new and more expansive mindset. That change is what enables you to easily reach your improvement goal.
Next post: Immunity to Change in Organizations.
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership and professional development. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.