Home All Change Destined to Fail? Not Necessarily

Change Destined to Fail? Not Necessarily

written by Steve Safigan 5 January 2012

Steve Safigan, MAPP '09, is a practicing life coach (CPCC). He is president of Foundations Seminars and presents personal growth seminars specializing in positive interventions for healthy adults looking for more happiness, meaning, and connection in their own lives. Full bio.

Steve writes on the 4th of the month, and his articles are here.

It’s difficult to change. This is demonstrated by the number of New Year’s resolutions people make and how few of them actually lead to lasting change, which may seem like evidence that attempts to change are doomed from the start.

Yet most of us see our resolutions as worthy and important. We truly want change, and we are sincere in our commitment to achieving it. People may attribute failure to lack of motivation: “If I just felt like it was important enough, I would do it.” Others may attribute it to a lack of commitment: “I didn’t really go into this prepared enough. I made a half-hearted decision.” Still others may attribute it to a lack of will-power: “I’m so undisciplined and lazy, it’s no wonder I failed.”

   Dr. Robert Kegan

What if most failures to change are not because of a lack of motivation, commitment, or willpower? That’s what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan and research director Lisa Laskow Lahey claim in their book, Immunity to Change. Dave Shearon reviewed the book in his April 2010 article, Change is hard, Except when it’s not. In the spirit of the season, we now take a fresh look at their work.

Technical Challenges and Adaptive Challenges

Underlying Kegan and Lahey’s work is a distinction made by leadership author and speaker, Ronald Heifetz, between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges, such as learning to fly an aircraft or build fine furniture, can be overcome by relatively straightforward and well-defined means and do not require deep changes in the way we think. Adaptive challenges, such as developing confidence or learning to stop procrastination, require major changes in the way we think.

Change: Bud to Blossom

Let’s take the example of resolving to lose weight, perhaps the most common of all New Year’s resolutions. If the change required is technical, then technical solutions work: We proceed to eat less, exercise more, and eat only healthy foods. If the challenge is truly technical, we succeed. More often, however, what initially appears to be a technical challenge is a cover for a deeper, adaptive challenge. Attempting to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge is destined to fail.

What could be the adaptive challenge in this example? Unfortunately, there are many reasons why people eat, and only one of these reasons is because we’re hungry. We may eat because we are bored, lonely, anxious, fearful, or worried. All of these are adaptive problems which require adaptive solutions. Adaptive solutions require a change to the underlying systems we have in place to keep us feeling safe.

Immunity to Change

We all have well-tuned systems of coping mechanisms that make us feel safe and help us avoid fear, anxiety, and emotional discomfort. Kegan and Lahey call these emotional immune systems, likening them to our biological immune systems. Our emotional immune systems are vigilant and intelligent in order to identify an outside attack and mobilize to fend it off.

  Flu shots -
  enhancing biological immunity

So how is resistance to change like an immune system? Let’s break it down. We might first start with a desire to change something, a worthwhile goal. Let’s say that the goal is to have closer relationships with others. We then make a commitment to change certain behaviors to meet the goal. These may include: (1) get out more; (2) act more social; and (3) make more efforts to be with friends. These are all technical solutions.

According to Kegan and Lahey, when someone attempts to change a well-functioning coping system, the emotional immune system springs into action to keep the person safe and prevent feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, and other emotional discomfort. We may have trouble identifying our own emotions. Instead of perceiving that we are uncomfortable in the face of change, we may feel that we are undisciplined or unmotivated or that we avoid or procrastinate. Without understanding the feelings we’re avoiding, we are unlikely to address the real reason that change does not occur. So how can we reach for adaptive solutions?

Step One: What Are We Doing or Not Doing Instead of Sticking to Our Commitments?

Kegan and Lahey recommend uncovering true feelings, the hidden agenda, by looking at what we’re doing to sabotage our own change. We can ask ourselves the questions recommended by psychologist William Perry for people attempting change: “What do they really want, and what will they do to keep from getting it?”

Being with friends

Let’s return to our example of wanting closer relations with others. Instead of looking at technical solutions, Kegan and Lahey recommend looking at what we’re doing instead of what we want to do. A possible list might include (1) I stay at home and isolate; (2) I am reserved and shy in social situations; and (3) I resist any conversation deeper than “cocktail party” conversation. The gap between what we want and what we do is a sure sign that there’s a payoff to what we do, something that’s protecting us from emotional discomfort.

Step Two: Identify Hidden Competing Commitments

So why do we sabotage the very changes we sincerely want to make? Kegan and Lahey identify what they call hidden competing commitments. Something about the change threatens the status quo that feels safe and comfortable. The visible commitment (in this example, to have closer relations with others) may be in direct opposition to a hidden commitment that is designed to protect us. It’s like having one foot on the gas and another foot on the brake. In our example, the hidden competing commitments might be (1) I am committed to having other people’s approval; (2) I am committed to appearing confident and self-assured; (3) I am committed to not getting hurt in relationships; and (4) I am committed to a sense of invulnerability to others.

Immunity Map Worksheet

Step Three: Identify Big Assumptions

Once we uncover our hidden competing commitments, we can step back and observe the big assumptions that underlie them. Possible big assumptions in our example include: (1) Other people will reject me if I do not actively seek their approval; (2) If I don’t project a confident image of myself then I will be seen as weak; (3) I am not strong enough to risk being hurt again in close relationships; and (4) If I show vulnerability then people will take advantage of me.

Kegan and Lahey use the term immunity map for the combined picture that includes our visible commitment, what we’re doing or not doing instead, our hidden competing commitments, and our big assumptions. The map is like an X-ray, showing us the real reasons why we resist the change we want.

Step Four: Implement an Adaptive Change

   Protective gear

Technical changes to adaptive problems stimulate our emotional immune systems, which protect us from being defenseless in the face of danger. Like a biological immune system, an emotional immune system may reject something that is, in fact, good for us. Doctors suppress the biological immune system during organ transplants so that the body does not reject the new organ. It’s not a good idea simply to suppress the emotional immune system, however. It’s likely to produce deeper, buried emotions that are even thornier to pick out and address. Instead, we can design adaptive changes that integrate our emotional needs into the solutions themselves.

Adaptive changes take the immune system into account, addressing the alternative commitments and assumptions. It is not change itself that causes anxiety and discomfort; it is the feeling that we are defenseless in the face of apparent danger. When we are aware of alternative commitments and assumptions, we can draw on our creativity, courage, and resilience to redefine how we look at the real issue, honoring our need for self-protection.

What Next?

A short article summarizing Kegan and Lahey’s approach is necessarily limited. For a step-by-step guide to how to create your own immunity map, refer to Kegan and Lahey’s book-length treatment of this subject in Immunity to Change. For a different look at the book, check out Dave Shearon’s article.

Cheers to your change efforts in the coming year.


Heifetz, R. & Linksy, M. (2002). A survival guide for leaders. Harvard Business Review. Also in J. P. Kotter & W. C. Kim (Eds.), HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article ?Leading Change,? by John P. Kotter). Harvard Business Review.

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2002) The Real Reason People Won’t Change. In J. P. Kotter & W. C. Kim (Eds.), HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article ?Leading Change,? by John P. Kotter). Harvard Business Review.

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Shearon, D. (2010). Change is hard, Except when it’s not. Positive Psychology News Daily.

Buds to Blooms courtesy of Vicki DeLoach
Flu Shot courtesy of Lance McCord
Cocktail party conversation courtesy of Vox photo

Immunity Map Worksheet
– Pointer to the Minds at Work worksheet – where you can see it much more clearly
Protective gear courtesy of Katrina Cole

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Kevin Simmons 5 January 2012 - 12:34 pm

Thank you for the article Steve. The distinction between Technical and Adaptive Change makes a lot of sense. In education we are asked to think about the misconceptions that students may have and must unlearn in order to gain a deep understanding of the content. It sounds like the Technical/Adaptive Change dichotomy may be at work here.

The analogy of the immune system is a good one too. Daniel Gilbert also used the immune system analogously in Stumbling on Happiness, pointing at that our psychological immune system (which includes self-talk) is engaged when thinking about our mistakes, but not when thinking about our missed opportunities. Do you think this is related to Kegan’s and Lahey’s emotional immune system?

Adrienne Keane 5 January 2012 - 1:46 pm

Great article, Steve.
I can easily apply this to my own starts and stops at making career change. I’ve put all my focus on the technical changes and ignored the adaptive. When I fail to move forward, one more time, I feel undisciplined and unmotivated. I can see that it’s my approach that needs to be adjusted. I have made many technical advances, but have not dealt with underlying fears and anxiety toward the changes – my immune system just doing the job it’s there to do. Your article also gives me a different perspective on viewing others in a more compassionate way.

Judy Krings 6 January 2012 - 8:34 am

Super article, Steve. I am especially grateful for your work sheet and discussion of competing goals/agendas, not to mention immediate gratification during emotionally stressful times = more eating and less staying on track. Emotions are the key, but quelling them after a long day is difficult. Thanks again for the road map to inoculation.

Admin K.H.B. 6 January 2012 - 1:17 pm

Just to be clear, the work sheet is not ours, but we did find it freely available on the web:

From the bottom righthand corner:

Worksheet courtesy of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey.
©Minds at Work

Yes, we created the blurry picture — we needed an illustration for that spot, but the credit for the worksheet belongs to Kegan and Lahey and the Minds at Work group.


Bridget 28 January 2012 - 8:30 am

This is an excellent article Steve, and thanks for reminding me of Kegan & Lahey’s work. I have a couple of their books, on communication & change, which I would also recommend.

I love the analogy of having one foot on the gas & one on the brake which brilliantly illustrates why we don’t move forward – every time you press harder on the gas the other foot responds by pressing harder on the brake. A bit like Kurt Lewin’s work on force fields.

When I talk to clients I remind them that change, even if it’s positive/something they want, can be uncomfortable, because the status quo is changing. People are often blindsided because they’re not expecting to feel uncomfortable.


Amanda Horne 30 January 2012 - 2:50 am

Steve, it’s great to see linking Kegan and Lacey’s work with Heifetz. Interesting also to see that although Heifetz’ work has been around for some time it’s gaining greater interest these days (people are ready for it now?). I have found that adding an appreciative inquiry mindset into the mix also helps with change and with adaptive challenges.

Steve Safigan 1 April 2012 - 12:21 pm

The Immunity to Change approach advocated by Kegan and Lahey was the subject of a recent New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/business/minds-at-work-helps-managers-find-and-fix-their-flaws.html?_r=2


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