By Andreas Schumacher, PhD, PCC
Overcoming Immunity to Change
If you have ever tried to engage differently with your team, your boss, or people in general, you are likely familiar with this phenomenon: You created a goal, explained to yourself the reason for the goal, and have committed to taking steps towards its achievement. After initial success, you find that you are not really making any meaningful progress. Frustrated with yourself, you begin to analyze the situation: “I know WHY I picked the goal. I know HOW important it is to me. I know WHAT to do to achieve it. How come I’m still stuck”?
The answer may not lie in the complexity or unattainability of the goal you picked. It also may not have anything to do with the team or the environment within which you are trying to make this change.
Instead, the reason may be rooted in the assumptions you are unconsciously making about what happens when achieving the goal. In my coaching conversations with executive leaders, we explore exactly this dynamic — namely, our self-created “Immunity to Change.”
What is Immunity to Change?
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey first showcased immunity to change in their 2009 study of patients suffering from chronic cardiological issues. Despite being prescribed medications that were vital to their survival and outwardly fully committing, only 1 in 7 patients complied with the treatment plan because of their inability to change. This inability stemmed from a set of deep-rooted, unconscious assumptions and conflicting commitments. In other words, the urgency of taking the medication was understood. The actual behaviors, however, were in direct opposition to the goal to which they all agreed.
Something was getting in the way, and that something was not based on logic, fact, or data. It was a hidden commitment that competed with the change goal. Furthermore, such hidden commitments were based on the assumed change in perception others would have of them (e.g., if people see me take medication every day, then they must view me as weak, or possibly unfit to lead. I do not want to be viewed as weak, so I will simply not follow the prescription).
In coaching, we call this the “Big Assumption,” sought to be flushed out to create greater awareness. This assumption is at the root of our immunity to change as it not only supports, but even strengthens the persistence of our hidden commitment. Once identified we can test its relevance, reality, and likelihood, and thereby better reduce the goal conflict.
4 Steps for Breaking Immunity
- Create Do’s and Don’ts around your Change Goal
Reflect on the scenario from the beginning of this article, in which we wanted to engage with our team differently. Let’s say, we wanted to show more compassion and empathy as our team members continue to learn how to best perform and feel included in a hybrid work environment. What are some do/do-not-do behaviors we would need to model to achieve this goal?
- In the Do column we could consider checking in on both well-being and support needs; holding team meetings on platforms conducive to bringing together in-person and remote work teams, etc.
- In the Do-not-do column we could aim to guard ourselves against giving preferential attention to either one group of employees, or to form distorted expectations of performance because of team member location.
- Identify the Hidden Competing Commitment
The next step is to understand any underlying resistance you may have about this immunity to change. A good starting point is to imagine doing the opposite of your “doing/not doing” behaviors.
- What concerns or doubts come up for you?
- What risks (e.g., to your leadership presence, your core values, your self-concept, etc.) are you thinking about?
- What is your biggest fear of actually doing this (and succeeding at your goal)?
Answering these questions will make visible the “cost” you are assuming to incur because of your outward commitment to change. In essence, you are comparing the juxtaposition of what you are openly committing to change, and what you are unconsciously trying to maintain (not change).
- Flush out the Big Assumption
Now that you have identified the assumed cost hindering your immunity to change, you can begin to analyze the assumptions keeping you captive to your hidden commitment. Keep in mind that, as a general characteristic, the big assumption leads to a bad conclusion for you, which is why it is such a powerful deterrent away from your desired change.
- Start by determining what or how the assumption makes the commitment necessary. (e.g., I need to be viewed as a determined leader who values accountability above all.)
- How does what you assume connect back to your fears about the outcome of the change? (e.g., I’m afraid I will be viewed as a push-over, if I focus too much on relationship skills.)
- What makes your assumption feel real and powerful, even if you know it is wrong? (e.g., My boss will not want to hear about the challenges of managing a hybrid team and will view me as ineffective if I don’t firmly lead the team to deliver the same quality/quantity of work.)
- Conduct a Reality Test
Once the big assumption and its link to the hidden commitment (i.e., the source of your resistance) has been discovered, consider conducting a reality test of your “Do” behaviors with your executive coach.
Many of my clients take advantage of the safe space provided during our confidential sessions to role play their approaches and get immediate feedback on functional or behavioral effectiveness. It may be helpful to keep a log or create some type of biography of your assumptions as you continue to test them with your team and fine-tune your approach in-between your coaching sessions.
Breaking the Immune System
If you recognize some of the characteristics of immunity to change in yourself, do not be alarmed. We all hold an immune system inside us, carefully crafted from the basic human needs to be liked, to be socially connected, and to safeguard the vision and purpose we have for ourselves.
The good news is, in order to break the immune system, we do not need to create more goals or checklists of action items we may or may not ever accomplish. Instead, we need to identify and challenge the (at times catastrophic) assumptions underlying our resistance to actually do what we KNOW and WANT to do. Your executive coach can be a very powerful ally in this quest.
To learn more about setting goals, changing behavior, and strengthening your leadership skills, contact Andreas for a consultation.