Overcoming Immunity to Change — Testing a Big Assumption

1736_500Why do so many of our plans for behavior change tend to fizzle out and fade away?

In Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey offer one answer: We hold a Big Assumption — often laden with emotion and hidden from conscious awareness — that undermines our intention.

In a previous post, I gave an example. A woman says that she intends to stop gossiping at work. At the same time, she holds a Big Assumption: If I refuse to take part in gossip, my colleagues will see me as “Miss Holier-Than-Thou.” Given this assumption, it’s unlikely that her behavior will actually change.

Acting yourself into a new way of thinking

Discovering a Big Assumption is liberating. Once it’s openly stated, you can detach from it, think critically about it, and experiment with a new behavior.

Kegan and Lahey recommend that you run a SMART test of the Big Assumption by acting against it. The acronym stands for Safe, Modest, Actionable, Research-based, and Test:

  • Safe and Modest — Ask yourself: What is one small thing that can I do differently to challenge my Big Assumption? Remember that you can still hold on to your Big Assumption most of the time. The goal is to suspend it temporarily, and only in certain circumstances.
  • Actionable — Choose a behavior that you can do immediately.
  • Research-based — Remind yourself that you’re simply running a Test. This means acting against your Big Assumption in a small way and then observing what happens as a result. The goal is simply to collect data — not to “improve” yourself.

An example

For instance, the woman who values honest communication could set a new intention: When I’m tempted to repeat a rumor about my boss, I will remain silent.

This plan involves a modest change in her behavior. It’s also something that she can do immediately. In addition, it’s relatively safe: Her statement involves only one behavior in a specific setting.

According to Kegan and Lahey, the SMART test is about “gradually building up a psychological space between ourselves and our Big Assumptions in order to move them from subject to object, where we can look at them, turn them around in our hands, and consider altering them.”

Even small changes in our Big Assumptions can enlarge our sense of possibility — and start breaking down our immunity to change.


  1. To run a SMART includes the Test. I recommend removing the word test at the end of SMART, unless the purpose is to run a Test of SMART.


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