Unlocking Change: Understanding Immunity to Change

Change is an inevitable and often challenging aspect of personal and professional life. However, despite our best intentions, individuals, teams, and organisations frequently encounter resistance to change. One study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. Desire and motivation aren’t enough: even when it’s literally a matter of life or death, the ability to change remains maddeningly elusive. Given that the status quo is so potent, how can we change ourselves and our organizations?

Immunity to Change, a groundbreaking framework developed by Harvard psychologists Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, offers a profound understanding of why change efforts often fall short and provides a systematic approach to overcoming these obstacles. In this article, we explore the key concepts of Immunity to Change, their applicability at the individual, team, and organisational levels, and highlight tools that leaders can employ to navigate successful change.

Understanding Immunity to Change:

At the heart of the Immunity to Change framework is the notion that individuals possess hidden, internal barriers preventing them from making desired changes. These barriers, referred to as “competing commitments”, are often subconscious and serve as protective mechanisms that individuals have developed over time. Keegan and Lahey argue that these commitments act as immunity, preventing change from taking place, even if the change is in our best interests.

The framework consists of four key pillars:

  1. The Improvement Goal:
    • Individuals, teams, or organisations identify a specific improvement goal they want to achieve.
    • For example, a team might aim to enhance collaboration or an individual may want to improve time management skills.
  2. The Doing/Not Doing Commitments:
    • Participants explore their current behaviours that contradict their improvement goals.
    • These are the actions they consistently do (or avoid doing) that hinder progress toward the desired change.
  3. Big Assumptions:
    • Participants uncover the underlying beliefs or assumptions that support their current behaviours.
    • These assumptions are often deeply ingrained and may stem from past experiences, fears, or cultural influences.
  4. The Hidden Competing Commitments:
    • This step involves identifying the unspoken commitments that counteract the desired change.
    • These commitments often serve as protection mechanisms, safeguarding individuals from perceived threats associated with change.

How does this show up at an individual, team and organisational level?

At an individual level, personal development and self-improvement efforts can be hampered by hidden commitments. For instance, an individual aiming to become a more assertive communicator might discover an underlying commitment to avoiding conflict to maintain harmony.

At a team level, teams facing challenges in collaboration might uncover hidden commitments that prioritise individual recognition over collective success. This insight allows the team to collectively address these challenges.

At the organisational level, leaders seeking to implement a cultural shift may discover that underlying commitments to traditional hierarchical structures hinder the desired change. Identifying and addressing these commitments can facilitate a smoother transition.

How can we overcome immunity to change?

There are a number of tools that can help us to understand what is making us immune to change and how to overcome it. 

  • Immunity Map:
    • This visual tool helps individuals and teams map out their improvement goals, current behaviours, big assumptions, and hidden competing commitments. It serves as a roadmap for understanding and navigating the change process.
  • The Big Assumptions Exercise:
    • Leaders can guide individuals or teams through an exercise where they critically examine their big assumptions. This helps uncover the deeply rooted beliefs influencing behaviour.
  • Experimentation and Reflection:
    • Leaders encourage small, manageable experiments to challenge existing behaviours and assumptions. Regular reflection on the outcomes of these experiments informs further iterations in the change process.

How does this show up in practice?

Here are some examples of how immunity to change can show up at an individual, team and organisational level:

  • Sarah, a project manager, identified her commitment to taking on all tasks herself due to a belief that asking for help signalled incompetence. By challenging this assumption, she learned to delegate effectively, improving team productivity.
  • A marketing team realised their resistance to sharing innovative ideas stemmed from a fear of judgment. By fostering a culture of psychological safety, the team embraced collaboration, leading to groundbreaking campaigns.
  • A company transitioning to remote work found hidden commitments to micromanagement. By addressing these commitments and promoting trust, the organisation successfully adapted to the new work paradigm.

Understanding our immunity to change to unlock successful change

Immunity to Change offers a powerful lens through which individuals, teams, and organisations can understand and overcome resistance to change. Leaders can pave the way for meaningful transformations by acknowledging and addressing hidden commitments. The framework, supported by visual tools and real-life examples, provides a roadmap for navigating the complex journey of change successfully. Embracing Immunity to Change can be a catalyst for unlocking untapped potential and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

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