Have you ever wanted to get better at something but every effort has produced little or no result? Did you resolve to exercise more, be more available to your children, listen better, delegate more, or have a better work/life balance only to fall back into old habits in a few weeks or months?
If so, you’re not alone. A recent study of heart patients reveal that even when told they must make certain lifestyle changes to stay alive, only one in seven patients were actually able to make the changes. Really. If death isn’t enough to motivate us, what is?
The same is true in organizations. How many well-intended and sincere efforts to change the organization’s culture or leader behavior have failed, leaving employees more cynical and discouraged than before the effort began?
A solution to this dilemma, familiar to so many of us, is an outgrowth of Harvard University faculty Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s 30 years of research and the subject of countless training sessions they have facilitated all over the world. Kegan and Lahey are clear that the failure to change is not the result of laziness, lack of discipline, or inadequate willpower.
Instead, they have uncovered a hidden dynamic behind our fruitless (so far) efforts to behave in ways we know are beneficial—sometime critical--to our health, well being and professional success. Understanding this dynamic, which they call “immunity to change,” is the first step toward making impossible change possible.
Kegan and Lahey’s 2009 book, Immunity to Change, outlines a simple (but not easy) process to uncover the source of our inertia. What Kegan and Lahey discovered is that underneath all the behaviors that sabotage our very real commitment to our goal is a hidden and competing commitment.
This commitment isn’t one we necessarily have consciously made. It generally is something we determined a long time ago without really thinking about it and often its roots were created early in our careers and even in childhood. It has a powerful hold on us and its power is based on what we are afraid will happen if we stopped doing all those behaviors that are keeping us from our goal.
Please allow me to illustrate what I mean. Peter Donovan, one of the executives identified in the book, knew it was criticalfor his growing company’s success that he listen to others ideas and delegate more. He was firmly committed to doing just that, but he couldn’t seem to stop giving “curt” responses to new ideas, cutting people off, and not asking for others opinions.
When Peter completed an Immunity Map, the tool Kegan and Lahey use to help people discover their immunity to change, he found that these behaviors were important to him because he was afraid that if he did open things up he might lose his ability to directly influence what went on in his company, and he might no longer be seen as the “super problem solver” –something very important to his identity. In Kegan and Lahey’s words, Peter isn’t just afraid those things would happen, he is completely committed to making sure they never happen.
So Peter’s current behaviors are doing a brilliant job protecting him from something he’s afraid of. Unfortunately, they are also making it impossible for him to open up to others ideas or to give people enough freedom to get things done without his guidance—something he knows he must do if he’s to avoid becoming the bottleneck for his growing company.
The dynamic of his dueling commitments is his immunity to change. He, in essence, has one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake and is basically going nowhere. But a car where the driver has one foot on the gas and one on the brake is channeling tremendous energy even if it isn’t going anywhere. If that energy can be directed toward change, there is huge potential for movement.
What Kegan and Lahey have found as they have helped thousands of people discover their immunities to change is that just the awareness created by the discovery of the dynamic of the competing commitment is enough to spur a shift in behavior. But some people need more.
That will be the topic of next week’s blog.
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership and professional development. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.