The Immunity to Change™ Personal Development Process
An old habit is a lot like a cow stuck on the second floor landing: you can’t throw it out the bedroom window; you have to coax it down the stairs and out the front door one step at a time.
Using principles of Constructive-Developmental Theory, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey developed a personal development process that allows individuals and teams to overcome their “immunities to change” and achieve the personal goals that are most important to them. The heart of this immunity to change™ process is constructing a four-column “change map” that not only outlines your personal development goal but also reveals the hidden commitments that have been getting in the way of you achieving your goal. By making these competing personal commitments visible, this chart serves as a guide for what specific actions you can take to bring about your desired results.
In the first column of this change map individuals list the particular development goal or “personal commitment” that they would like to accomplish. For example, Kegan and Lahey describe the case of a manager named David who has the fairly common problem of not delegating to others (Kegan, 2009: 127). (I am choosing this specific example because it is available publicly through Google Books here.) David’s first column commitment would therefore be to become a better delegator. In the second column, through guided reflection, one makes a list of the everyday behaviors one engages in instead of pursuing the desired goal. For example, a behavior that would get in the way of delegating might be not asking others for help. In the third column, one explores one’s hidden commitments that are underlying such avoidance behaviors. In this example, a hidden commitment that might get in the way of asking for help might be a personal commitment to being independent. In the fourth column, individuals are guided to identify the big assumptions underlying these hidden commitments. For example, someone who is committed to being independent might be subconsciously guided by the assumption that being dependent on others would lead to a loss of self-respect.
It is expected that as you work on this four-column exercise your change map will evolve over time. A first-iteration immunity to change™ map for the above example might look like the following (Kegan, 2009:128):
The choice of the term “immunity” is deliberate on the part of Kegan and Lahey. The job of your physical immune system is to keep you alive. The job of your psychological immune system is to protect you from things that feel dangerous to you, that is, to “save your life” as you know it. In the case of the manager above, this meant finding a way to continue to feel valuable while still delegating.
A review of your completed change map will reveal that your development goal is working at cross-purposes with such hidden personal commitments. Kegan likes to say that this “dynamic equilibrium” is analogous to putting one foot on the gas while keeping the other foot on the brake. Kegan and Lahey avoid the use of the more stagnant term “status quo” to describe this dynamic because it fails to capture the intense energy-level of such a system operating inside us. The promise of immunity to change™ work lies in imagining what our lives would be like if all of that energy was released, moving us towards our goals rather than merely standing still.
Part of doing this work is recognizing that your built-in resistance to change is actually a brilliant strategy for protecting a part of you from change by rejecting new behaviors, hence the term “immunity” (Kegan, 2009:43). This resistance serves as an “anxiety management system”, ingeniously allowing you to avoid confronting your greatest fears: letting go of assumptions you are so certain of that you’ve never examined them.
From a Constructive-Developmental Theory perspective, development can be regarded as learning to look at what before we were unknowingly looking through. The act of uncovering our hidden commitments is a way of shifting what we were subject to, to becoming an object for our inspection. This “subject/object reversal” is the underlying mechanism of development in Constructive-Developmental Theory. Personal change goals that we want to achieve but with which we struggle represent the limits of our current development. In the course of doing such work, one might say that it’s not so much that we solve our problem, as we allow the problem to solve us (Kegan, 2009:167).
It is important to note that such personal development work can take months or even years, depending on the significance of one’s goal. Kegan notes that personal development requires a “horticultural patience” with ourselves as well as with others who choose to engage in such work. He quotes Mark Twain to emphasize the point:
“It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” — Mark Twain
Individuals and teams can apply the immunity to change™ process either working through Kegan and Lahey’s very readable book or by working with a personal development coach.
Where to Go from Here
If you would like to learn about an interview technique that explores a person’s development in terms of this theory, see this post on the Subject/Object Interview.