We’re all a bit resistant to change. Making a New Year’s resolution is a classic demonstration of the gap between good intentions and our actual ability to alter an engrained way of behaving. A more sobering example comes from a study showing that for every seven people diagnosed with a serious illness and told they will die if they don’t adopt a different lifestyle, only one will successfully make that change.
According to Harvard Graduate School professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, when we fail at an improvement goal (e.g. I want to manage my time better or I need to lose weight), it’s likely that a sort-of psychological immune system is kicking in, defending us from perceived threats. It’s akin to having one foot on the accelerator of good intent, and the other on the brake of a hidden determination not to change at all. Going back to the study of people diagnosed with life-threatening illness, the researchers found 100% commitment amongst this group to taking the medication prescribed for them. Yet one year later only around 50% of them had kept it up. On probing to find the reasons for this resistance, they found that many people had stopped taking their pills because they “didn’t want to feel old” or “didn’t like consuming an artificial drug.” So their immunity to change was based on genuine, maybe even sensible reasoning. It was also almost certainly going to prove fatal!
The research led by Kegan and Lahey has produced a technique called “immunity mapping” which is a way of understanding those competing commitments which might prevent us from living up to our good intentions. Once we understand these psychological barriers, we have a chance of eliminating or at least reducing them, clearing the way towards the challenging goals we want to achieve.
I am highlighting this technique because the evidence so far (mostly from US studies) suggests that immunity mapping could be a genuine breakthrough in tackling resistance to change. A really exciting aspect of this work is that the process can work equally well with groups (teams and organisations) as with individuals. It’s a method we have begun to use with some success in my own business, and for those with a keen interest in the field of change management.
I would strongly recommend reading Kegan and Lahey’s excellent book on the subject – Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation.
Written by Alex Taskin
Director at Passe-Partout Consulting