But we know too well the sobering truth of February: change is hard, and even harder to maintain. Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey posit that the challenge isn’t a lack of willpower. Rather, they argue that failure to meet our goals may be the result of an emotional immune system that helps protect us from the fallout that can come from change—namely disappointment and shame.
In their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Kegan and Lahey outline four critical steps for overcoming emotional pitfalls and arriving at true transformation.
To start, they suggest thinking about what’s keeping you from your goal. What you perceive as obstacles could be competing commitments. Instead of surrendering your goal to a lack of time, money, or support, consider how you’re utilizing these scarce resources.
Can you change the allocations? And, if so, will you be comfortable with the tradeoff? Is going back to school worth the investment? Can you tolerate the professional reset you’ll have to make by switching careers—likely making less money at a lower-level position?
When embracing change, you’ll confront your core values and operating assumptions. Square off with the motivations that have been driving your decisions and determine whether those forces—such as stature, perfectionism, or risk aversion—are still relevant. If you are open to revising your guiding assumptions, you will find it easier to achieve your desired change.
To uncover the issues that are inhibiting change and identify opportunities for improvement, Kegan and Lahey developed a four-step framework for tracking goals, overcoming perceived barriers, and outlining productive actions.
Below is a worksheet that will help you apply this four-step framework to your situation:
Mapping Your Immunity to Change
Step 1: Get goal-oriented
In column one, identify the areas in your life that are due for a positive change. These might include things like saving more money, becoming a better listener, or switching careers.
Underneath, list the actions that will help you achieve your goal. If you are thinking of changing careers, for example, you might consider going back to school or taking an online course.
To illustrate this framework in action, we will follow a fictitious accountant, Alicia Accrual, through each step of this process.
Alicia Accrual, a fictitious accountant, has dreamed of becoming a psychologist. In order to change careers, she knows that she will need to pursue a graduate degree in psychology.
Step 2: Clear out obstructive behaviors
☑What’s stalling your efforts? Maybe you find yourself crushed under a jam-packed schedule or consistently deprioritizing your goal in favor of more immediate tasks. Detail these behaviors in column two.
Alicia wants to begin taking graduate psychology classes as her local college, but working evenings and weekends (and juggling a personal life) has kept her from enrolling.
Step 3: Confront competing commitments
Here’s where the real self-exploration comes in. Look at the behaviors you listed in column two and ask yourself how you’d feel if you did the opposite. Identify the fears you face in pursuing change by outlining key concerns in the box at the top of column three. Follow these concerns with what you fear will be compromised—your competing commitments.
Our career-changing heroine, Alicia, worries that if she reduces her work schedule to make time for graduate courses, she’ll be seen as a slacker. And what if she finds that the coursework is too challenging? What if she invests the time and money to earn her degree, but then cannot find employment as a psychologist?
The concept of the emotional immune system is clearly at work, warding off feelings of shame, disappointment, and fear before they can become real. By facing these feelings, Alicia can begin to identify the commitments that are competing with her goal: seeking professional respect, performing at the highest level, and having security and stability.
Step 4: Challenge your big assumptions
In this last step, you’ll identify the barriers you must overcome to achieve lasting change. Figure out what internalized truths are at the heart of your competing commitments by developing “if ____, then ____” statements. List these big assumptions in column four.
For Alicia, her big assumption might be “if I don’t perform at the highest level, then I will be seen as a failure.”
Put What You’ve Learned Into Practice
Apply what you’ve learned here by experimenting with an important assumption in a small, controlled way. For example, Alicia Accrual might take a weekend off and see how her manager and colleagues respond. Is she really seen as less committed? Does slightly lowering the expectations she holds for herself result in failure? If not, then her goal just got closer.
As we make our annual resolutions, we can take comfort in knowing that failure to realize our intentions has nothing to do with personal weakness. Quite the contrary. A surprisingly powerful and proactive emotional immunity is at work, safeguarding us from potential disappointment. Luckily, we have the antidote. By studying our perceived obstacles closely and shifting our perspective slightly, we may just find our way to meaningful change.