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The Immunity to Change™ Personal Development Process

2011 June 22

To paraphrase Mark Twain,

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.

Changing one’s behavior is one thing; it’s keeping it changed that’s often the real challenge, particularly when it’s something we “know” we have to do.

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

For an overview of Kegan’s theory, go 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.

For additional resources on adult development, go here.


4 Responses Leave One →
  1. June 24, 2011

    Lucid and useful, Peter. Thanks for providing this!

  2. July 6, 2011

    This is really fascinating stuff, and I can definitely relate to it. I think for me it’s at points of stress when I’ve most started to think about hidden competing commitments – when I feel like I can’t get everything done, or my schedule is suddenly so full I’m struggling to fit in time for things that are really important to me. Part of that struggle, which I’d love to know more about from the perspective of this theory, is when there are simultaneous goals that compete. An example might be a commitment to excellence on a work project that requires a lot of focus on time in a given period, while also a commitment to supporting a family member or friend through a difficult time, which might also require significant focus and time. What do you think?

  3. Peter W. Pruyn permalink
    July 9, 2011

    Great comment, Madeleine!

    Your question is an opportunity to tease out the distinction between what Kegan and Lahey mean by “hidden commitments” in the context of their immunity to change™ process versus feeling “torn” between two known choices in the context of the Subject/Object Interview.

    The immunity to change™ process helps individuals uncover sub-conscious commitments that they didn’t know they had that are getting in the way of them achieving personal development goals. In Kegan and Lahey’s example with the manager Dave, his personal goal was to delegate more. But it turned out that he had a hidden commitment to himself to be independent. This competing commitment was sub-consciously getting in the way of him asking others for help. By identifying this hidden competing commitment by working through his four column exercise, Dave was now in a place to take a step back from his need for independence and be more flexible with himself in asking others for help.

    In contrast, your example of feeling conflicted between pursuing your work versus helping a friend I would categorize as an excellent example of feeling “torn” for possible use in an SOI interview. The reason you feel a sense of “tearing” is that in this case both “commitments” are fully known to you–not hidden–and you feel an allegiance to both. At least at the moment, neither commitment appears to be getting in the way of you achieving a larger personal development goal that you had previously identified and are actively working towards, as would be the case using the immunity to change™ process.

    Note that neither an SOI nor immunity to change™ necessarily solve such dilemmas for you, but they are likely to help you more fully understand your relationship with such commitments. From that greater awareness one can make more informed choices.

    I hope that helps!

  4. December 8, 2011

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