Immunity to Change — How We Sabotage Our Best Intentions

078796378XWilliam Perry, an educational psychologist who taught at Harvard, once described his response to people who asked him for help: “I listen very hard and ask myself, What does this person really want — and what will they do to keep from getting it?

In How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey refer to our “hidden immune system.” This system creates psychological antigens to change, effectively locking our current behaviors — even those that create suffering — firmly into place.

Kegan and Lahey aim to expose this hidden immune system. By understanding how it works, we can stop defeating ourselves and start changing for good. This involves a four-stage process.

1. Describe your commitments

Complete this sentence: I am committed to the value or the importance of … .

For example: I am committed to the value or the importance of more open and direct communication at work.

2. Describe what you’re doing — or not doing — that undermines your commitments

Kegan and Lahey quote this example from a woman who said that she wanted her colleagues to communicate openly and honestly and avoid back-biting: I don’t speak up when people are violating the norm I value. Silently, I collude in it being OK to talk behind one another’s back.

3. Describe your competing commitments

Now imagine yourself actually changing the behaviors you listed in Step 2. Does this lead to any fear or discomfort? Those feelings probably stem from a hidden commitment that contradicts and competes with your first commitment.

For instance, the woman who said that silently colluded with back-biting discovered that she was also committed to “not being seen as the Righteous Crusader, Castrating Bitch, or Miss Holier-Than-Thou… .” She wanted coworkers to feel comfortable with her—not to see her as a self-appointed enforcer of rules about how to communicate.

4. Describe the Big Assumption behind the competing commitment

This is an assumption about what will happen if we violate the competing commitment. For example:

I assume that if people did see me as a Righteous Crusader, Castrating Bitch, or Miss Holier-Than-Thou, then I would eventually be completely shunned, have no real connections in my office other than the most formal and functional, and actually I’d find work a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up.

The Big Assumption reveals the raw core of our immunity to change. Once this assumption is openly stated, however, it starts to lose its power. We’re free to suspend the assumption, question it, and actively test it.

Real change becomes possible once we look at our assumption rather than look at the world through it.