This past October, I had the pleasure of attending a three hour seminar given by Robert Kegan, from the Adult Learning and Professional Development department of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Kegan’s topic entitled “Immunity to Change”, fascinated me at the time, and even more so after the presentation. In conjunction with his partner Lisa Laskow Lahey, Kegan’s presentation introduced the results of over 20 years of research that he and Lahey had conducted on the topic of change and why it is so difficult for people to make. Interested in pursuing the topic further after the seminar, I made it a point of purchasing the book the pair completed in 2009 entitled “Immunity to Change”. Schedules and time commitments being what they are, I finally was able to begin reading the book earlier this month. While, I still have about three chapters to complete, I remain as much a fan of their work as I became last October.

While I would not be doing a 300 plus page book justice in one short posting, there are several premises that stay with me. Any big major change or improvement goal one is looking to make has at the same time equally strong commitments which are pulling against them from making that change or improvement. Those strong commitments are supporting values and beliefs which are very important to the individual and which have protected their value system for a long time. Kegan and Lahey use the analogy of one driving a car and having their foot both on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time when trying to make a change.

Another premise is that truly effective change is adaptive and not technical. The best example of this is when someone is looking to lose weight. If someone takes a technical approach to losing weight, they immediately change their diet, stop eating foods that are not part of that diet, and have no problem in following the diet as they go forward. For some people that approach works fine. However, for a large majority that approach does not work effectively. They not only start eating the foods they were not suppose to but eat so much of them they gain back all the weight they lost and then some. When a dieter takes an “adaptive” approach, they begin by looking at the whole picture of losing weight. They choose first to eliminate or modify their intake of a certain food. Seeing some success, they then find it easier to eliminate or modify another food that they want to change in their diet. They then may look to add the early steps of an exercise routine. The overall approach is one of a process as opposed to one of looking to do an approach instantaneously and looking to continue to make it happen. Since the premise of immunity to change is that there are other factors in play as to why the individual is eating the way they are, that unless those factors are also exposed, there will not be progress in making the change desired.

This past week, I read in a chapter in the book which really resonates with me which Kegan and Lahey have found in their research that shows even those who have followed their methods are more successful when the following key components are part of the commitment to change. They define them as the gut, the head and heart and the hand. People really committed to making a change or achieving a goal that has alluded them feel distress inside (in their gut) about accomplishing something that is important to them. When the feelings are that a change is important to do, or extremely important there is likely still the chance that the commitment to move forward will not be there. Other competing priorities get in the way, and so the item which an individual thought was important, gets put on hold for an additional period of time. Until that item reaches an absolutely necessary status in one’s life, is when it begins to get the focus it deserves.

That in turn moves the person to experiencing the change or goal in their head and heart. They begin to think about both the benefits of adapting their life to a new way of doing things, and at the same time honoring any past beliefs that have held them back from making such a change. Additionally, they also begin to examine their feelings of the cost not to make the change or pursue the path they want to be part of their life. The head and heart feelings only come into place when a person approaches their change challenge as something as which they will alter in terms of they’re behavior and adapt. To charge directly, without thinking through the consequences of not taking action (the technical approach) is a recipe for a change which truly does not take place because it does not receive the commitment it fully deserves.

Once one has thought through and emotionally experienced the possibilities of change, comes the need to take action (the hand part of the commitment). It does not mean that all aspects of the desired change are completed. However, an initial first step or two is taken. Results are analyzed. When it is seen that trying something a new way does not lead to the potential problem that the one making the change anticipated happening, (or what Kegan and Lahey define as “The Big Assumption”), they’re then inspired to taking additional steps in making their changeover complete. There is both a balance in honoring their values that held them back from making the change in the past, and a respect for their new way of doing things that they felt was so important to add to their life.

Again, while trying to convey all that I have gained in insights from being exposed to this work, (and continue to learn as I finish the book and reflect on its messages), it certainly contains concepts I know I will be referring to in future columns and as I work with my clients. If the topic of change is something which fascinates you and on which you would want to gain a greater understanding, (particularly on the ability to make changes in ones adult years after 40 years of age), I highly recommend your considering picking up a copy of “Immunity to Change” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. I am sure you will be glad you did.

Author's Bio: 

Tony Calabrese of Absolute Transitions provides suggestions, approaches and information on how you may want to approach those “midlife transition issues”, which appear to come along relatively frequently, particularly between the ages of 45 to 60 years old.