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 5 frogs on a logThe Holy Grail for consultants is to understand change

How organizations and individuals make progress. While most consultants are happy to chat freely about success stories, poster boys and girls who’ve successfully made the journey, they may be reluctant to highlight cases where progress has been less than stellar. Because the reality is that some clients get ‘stuck’. God, if only someone would write a book and decipher all this complex psychology stuff. Well, now that you mention it…the book Immunity to Change, written by Professor Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard University fame covers this topic. It’s hard to do justice to their thesis in a short blog, but here’s the skinny.


Change is Difficult: To illustrate the point that people find it difficult to make behavioural changes, they cite the example of medical patients. Picture the scene. You’ve been told to take a particular medicine to prevent you from having a stroke and dying. That seems like a pretty good motivation. Add in the idea of zero cost (the medicine is covered by your health insurance company) and there are no side effects. Whoppee! A no-brainer; gimme that pill. But studies in the USA demonstrate, time after time, a high percentage of the population stop taking vital medicines. One estimate in the USA put the percentage long-term compliance at just 54%. So, what’s going on here. Why are intelligent people doing stupid things? (or, more correctly, not doing clever things).

Immunity to Change: The book sets out to answer that question. To cut to the chase, there are often forces – things outside of our conscious unawareness that sabotage behaviour. If you don’t uncover and understand these factors – you don’t make progress i.e. nothing changes. Let’s use a less dramatic example than someone dying of a stroke. Think of administering a 3600 feedback instrument. When the person receives the feedback – sometimes the response is: “There’s nothing really new here. I knew this stuff already”. Isn’t it hard to restrain yourself from saying: “And if you knew this already, how come it’s still on the shit list?”

How does it work? Immunity to change is based on the fundamental idea that ‘not changing’ is actually an anxiety management system. The analogy of an ‘immune’ system was chosen because this protects the body from disease. In similar vein, a ‘mental immunity’ protects the person from anxiety – working in the background and automatically – keeping us ‘safe’. The good news = we don’t become overwhelmed by anxiety. If I hate conflict and shy away from it, I am ‘protected’ from the anxiety that this generates. The bad news? It creates a false belief that certain things are impossible. For example, if I avoid conflict all the time (because this makes me anxious and I have ‘self-protected’) then there are situations where I am limited as an executive or in my personal life. Because, there are times when ‘conflict’ is exactly what’s needed to move the needle forward (I’m not revealing anything about Linda dropping that sofa on my foot in 1997; my lips are sealed).

Learning provides another good example. When I learn something new (to drive a car or write computer code), it makes me feel anxious. I feel a bit stupid when material is hard to grasp or when I can’t perform some motor function. So, should I stop learning in order to avoid the anxiety that this provokes? Hardly. But that’s exactly what some people do. They stop growing in order to avoid anxiety. And the killer part is that a lot of this ‘avoidance’ happens subconsciously – below our level of awareness. It’s like a governor being placed on your car accelerator, limiting the speed at which you can travel, without anyone telling you this. This ‘mental governor’ limits the speed at which we develop and grow as a person.

The Fix: So, what’s the solution? Well the first step is to become aware of this. You ‘peel away the layers’ of this onion and get to the core. The methodology is not straightforward to explain. Firstly, you pick ‘one big thing’ that you are going to change in your life’ (something important thing that would really make a difference). You then create a sort of X-Ray to understand why you are not changing this, listing all the things you are doing or not doing that actually work against your goal. The third step is to reveal your ‘Worry Box’ (hidden competing commitments which you feel will happen if you did change). Example: In the case of the ‘non-taking’ of stroke medicine, a common underlying concern was that people felt “taking medicine daily was the behaviour of old men” (to avoid looking like ‘old men’ they behaved in a way where they would soon become dead men). I know, I know. Outwardly, this seems ridiculous – but these are not rational processes which can be held up to the light. The final ‘step’ is to figure out the core assumptions – hidden beliefs that make sense of this type of behaviour. By reviewing the ‘completed map’ you make sense of it.

Unlimited Possibility: The core idea is to ‘remove the unconscious ceiling’ that may have been holding you back from reaching your potential. Those assumptions – like an electric fence marking out forbidden territory – could be making you ‘immune to change’. It sounds a bit complex but my personal take on this was that it’s well worth the effort.

Not Easy: I know this stuff is not easy – but don’t let that put you off testing it. Lets leave the last word to Professor Kegan: “If 14 frogs sat on a log and 3 decided to jump into the lake, how many would be left? You’re probably thinking 11. But the answer might be 14. There is a big difference between desire and action”.

Now, go jump in a lake!