Those damn behaviours are hard to shift…Perhaps you are Immune to Change?

What's blocking you changing?

What’s blocking you changing?

The 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”. Isin’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 which 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!


PS: Check out Kegan on this You Tube clip. It’s just over 14 minutes long, so give yourself time to consider this stuff. Perhaps bookmark and look at this later?

PPS: Lighter Moment (for all the anti-Civil-Service types out there)

Scientific Researchers Discover New Element

Queens University researchers have discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (symbol=Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called pillocks. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2 to 6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places.

In fact, Governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass. When catalyzed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium (symbol=Ad), an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium, since it has half as many pillocks but twice as many morons.

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organisation development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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2 Responses to Those damn behaviours are hard to shift…Perhaps you are Immune to Change?

  1. Great article Paul, one of your best I’d day. Helpful, well researched, easy to read.

    I train people in behavioural skills for a living, subjects like Conflict Management, Leadership and so on. I run into this problem all the time, People get all fired up in the training room, make all sorts of plans to do things differently, and then when we follow up 6 weeks later I find they haven’t done anything differently.

    The depressing thing is that in my experience ’twas always thus, this isn’t new. But it is getting worse, and that’s because not only are the things you’ve identified spot on: people are also up against the complete barking madness of their lives: running at a million miles per hour, overwhelmed with information (most of it irrelevant), and being asked to do “more with less” every week.

    So not only are their own attitudes and beliefs stopping them from changing, they also lack the capability or capacity to do it, because they are paddling like mad literally to keep their head above water. In order to change you need time to think: reflect, analyse, plan, seek feedback etc, which is a nice to do but sadly unlikely to happen for many people.

    I need to stop this response right now, I can feel myself getting depressed!

    Thanks for the thought provoker.


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