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How to Overcome Immunity to Change

Have you ever set a goal for yourself, but failed to achieve it? Have you ever wondered why some changes are so hard to make, even when you know they are good for you? If so, you are not alone. Many people struggle with changing their habits, behaviors, or mindsets, even when they have a strong motivation to do so. This phenomenon is called immunity to change, and it is one of the biggest obstacles to personal and professional growth.



Immunity to change is a term coined by Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, who have studied how people learn and develop throughout their lives. They define immunity to change as a hidden dynamic that prevents us from making the changes we want, even when we have the necessary skills and resources. Immunity to change is not a lack of willpower or commitment, but a natural and adaptive response to protect us from perceived threats or risks.


According to Kegan and Lahey, immunity to change arises from a conflict between two competing commitments: a conscious commitment to a desired goal or outcome, and an unconscious commitment to preserving the status quo or avoiding some negative consequence. For example, you may have a conscious commitment to lose weight and improve your health, but an unconscious commitment to avoid feeling deprived or uncomfortable. Or you may have a conscious commitment to speak up more in meetings, but an unconscious commitment to avoid conflict or criticism. These unconscious commitments are often rooted in deeply held assumptions or beliefs about ourselves, others, or the world, that may not be true or helpful.


The problem is that we are often unaware of our immunity to change, and we tend to blame external factors or ourselves for our lack of progress. We may try harder, set more goals, or adopt new strategies, but without addressing the underlying immunity, we are likely to repeat the same patterns or give up altogether.


So how can we overcome our immunity to change? Kegan and Lahey suggest a four-step process that can help us identify and challenge our hidden commitments and assumptions, and create a plan for testing and implementing new behaviors. The four steps are:


  1. Identify your improvement goal. This is the change you want to make in yourself or your situation, that is important and meaningful for you. It should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

  2. Identify your doing and not doing behaviors. These are the actions or inactions that are keeping you from achieving your goal. They should be observable and verifiable by yourself or others.

  3. Identify your competing commitments. These are the fears or worries that are driving your doing and not doing behaviors. They should be stated as positive commitments that reflect what you are trying to protect or preserve by not changing.

  4. Identify your big assumptions. These are the beliefs or hypotheses that support your competing commitments. They should be stated as if...then statements that imply a causal relationship between two variables.


Once you have completed these four steps, you will have a map of your immunity to change system, which will reveal the hidden logic behind your resistance to change. The next step is to test the validity of your big assumptions, by designing small and safe experiments that can challenge them in real life. The goal is not to prove yourself wrong but to collect data that can help you evaluate your assumptions and decide whether they are still true or useful for you. As you test your assumptions, you may discover new insights or perspectives that can open up new possibilities for change.


Overcoming immunity to change is not easy or quick, but it is possible and rewarding. By following this process, you can uncover the hidden barriers that are holding you back from achieving your goals, and create a plan for overcoming them with confidence and courage. You can also apply this process to help others overcome their immunity to change, by coaching them through the same steps and supporting them in their experiments.


If you want to learn more about immunity to change and how to overcome it, I recommend reading the book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. You can also reach out to me directly at wrawe@williamcrawe.com.

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