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How to create enduring positive change and overcome your immunity to change

During a recent trip to the dental hygienist, I caught myself saying the same thing that I say at the start of each visit. "No," I reply in response to whether I am experiencing any issues with my teeth, "but I know I should floss more. I floss two to three times a week, and I know it should be more, but I can't seem to establish a daily habit." The friendly hygienist gives me their supportive smile and agrees that I need to do better. They then scrape and seemingly hack at my gums, and the plaque build-up, resulting in bloody mouthfuls of water being spat down the tiny sink by the side of the dentist chair.

Returning from my last visit, I started to reflect and wonder why cleaning in between my teeth isn't a daily habit like twice a day brushing of teeth is. So why do I, like many other people, find it challenging to establish new and enduring habits, thereby creating change, albeit small change? I mean, I know what it is that I should do? There isn't any argument that this simple daily act will improve the health of my teeth and gums, yet I haven't managed to do it yet.

Unconscious Assumptions

This situation is also common at our places of work. For example, when hard at work, we often struggle to make a sustainable change regarding our behaviours, commitments, and priorities. Noble aims often result in little change and certainly nothing that endures. This status quo isn't because of a lack of intent or will to change, but because we ignore the powerful inclinations not to change that exist in all of us.

According to psychologist Robert Kegan and Harvard professor Lisa Laskow Lahey:

"There's an underlying issue - we often have to change ourselves in order to implement changes in how we work successfully."

Their powerful framework described in their books How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work and Immunity to Change highlights that even brilliant, highly capable people may fail to change because of their internal conflicts. Their plans become the work equivalents of New Year's resolutions.

What is Immunity to Change?

When people come to work or go about their everyday lives, they bring their personal history, emotions, and views about the world around them. Some of these assumptions are so fundamental that people can find it hard to separate them from facts. Per Kegan and Laskow Lahey, these assumptions create a set of competing commitments that conflict with and work against a genuine desire to change. This is why when we want to change, we have an equally strong internal desire not to do so, of which we may be completely unaware.

This is our Immunity to Change at work. Immunity to Change is not the same as disliking or resisting change. Instead, it is the existence of an internal conflict between our unconscious thoughts and desires and the need for change.

Before bringing about the sustainable change and new habits you want, it is essential to be aware of the possible reasons not to. As an initial step, to help you raise your awareness, ask yourself the following three questions:

Question 1: What actions might I be taking that prevent me from achieving this goal?

Question 2: What potentially competing commitments do I have that will hamper my efforts?

Question 3: What limiting assumptions or beliefs do I have that might get in the way?

These initial questions will hopefully help get your reflective juices flowing. I will explain in more detail the steps for overcoming your immunity to change later in the article. But first, let me give you real-life examples of where I have used this tool to help my coaching clients.

Immunity to change in the workplace

As previously mentioned, it is common in the workplace to struggle to make sustainable change. The following are two examples of where I have helped clients. Together, we identified small, low-risk experiments to challenge their limiting assumptions and foster new behaviours and habits.

1 - Not speaking up in meetings.

Not speaking up in meetings is a consistent theme for aspiring leaders, especially if the others around the room are more seasoned and experienced. Jenny, a Chief Operating Officer whom I coached, was routinely silent during meetings when she was the most junior in the room, even though she had been given a seat at the table by the meeting host. Through using the ITC framework, we discovered the limiting assumptions that Jenny operated as though they were true:

She assumed:

  • That everyone else was more senior and experienced than her, so they would have already considered her ideas and either dismissed or actioned them.

  • She might be wrong. And if she made the slightest of errors in public, she would end up looking stupid in front of senior people and jeopardise her career.

Once we had exposed these assumptions, it became clear that Jenny's immunity to change while working against her goals was consistent with her competing commitments of not being wrong. The next stage involved devising small, low-risk experiments for her to speak up, for example:

  • Sitting at the table rather than at the edge of the crowded room.

  • Contributing one agenda item per meeting.

  • Contributing to the discussion on at least one topic outside her area of expertise.

This was so successful that Jenny's manager let me know that the meetings were transformed by her proactive involvement, with new ideas generated, which the more seasoned participants valued.

2 - Unwilling to say no

Another client, Sam, couldn't say no to people, even though she was swamped throughout the day with many demands placed on her limited time. Sam struggled to separate the person from the decision. Using the ITC framework, we successfully uncovered the one big assumption she was making and operating as though it was true. She assumed that by saying no to people's requests for her time and attention, she would be saying no to the person, and by denying the request, she would be denying the person. Sam's competing commitment was not to make people unhappy with her.

Exposing the assumption and competing commitment provided the self-awareness that Sam required to see that she was trading short-term popularity for long-term respect. Therefore we identified several subtle behavioural changes that reversed the situation. Long-term respect emphasised over short-term popularity, with the inevitable positive impact on Sam's schedule and competing demands on her time and attention.

My personal immunity to change

I also use the framework when experiencing a major block or obstacle that keeps getting in my way. It is a powerful tool for examining and reflecting on self-limiting beliefs and those big assumptions we are making, and crucially acting as though the assumptions are true.

There are five steps for overcoming an immunity to change. Let's use a personal example of mine on a topic close to my heart - that of writing publicly on leadership, coaching and productivity. I will walk you through the five steps which are designed to answer the question.

"If you know you need to change something, and you're fully committing to changing it, why are you not doing it?"

Step 1: Commit to an Improvement Goal.

First, identify your goal. What do you want to do differently? What actions do you need to take to achieve that goal?

Step 2: Identify your behaviours that work against the goal from step 1.

Next, describe clearly and honestly what you are currently doing that is preventing the change from happening - your behaviours that work against your goal. Write down the behaviours, not why you do them. Ask others what you do/don't do to expand the list.

Step 3: Expose your hidden competing commitments.

It is now time to consider the worst thing that could happen if you stopped doing the actions that you described in step 2 and did the opposite instead. The worry box in step 3 needs to include your biggest worries, discomforts, or fears when you think about doing the opposite of what you have written in step 2.

"If I do the opposite of the step 2 thing, what would be the worst thing about that for me?"

Then the competing commitments are the list opposite the step 2 items which states, "I am in fact committed, for example, not feeling unsafe or humiliated."

This is always what you feel. It is self-protection like an immune system, powerful and tends to keep things pretty much as they are.

Step 1 is the foot on the gas, but step 3 is the foot on the brake - energy is used to do two opposite things simultaneously.

Step 4: List your big assumptions that you operate as though they are true.

In step 4, we brainstorm all the possible assumptions that a person with step 3 commitments might hold - which resonate the most strongly with you? The idea here is not simply to solve the issue by understanding what causes it but to clearly identify the assumptions that underpin your competing commitments.

Step 5: Test your big assumptions.

When you have big assumptions that resonate strongly, pick one or two as your next action should be to test your assumptions and establish whether they are true or not. How you go about this will depend on the nature of the assumption and your situational context. One way to test your assumption is to carry out small, low-risk experiments to gather feedback that will give you the information that confirms or denies the assumption as being valid.

Working through the ITC framework should help to illuminate the fundamental causes of apparently self-defeating behaviour, drilling down to the core of your beliefs. Completing the exercise can be very revealing and emotional because such behaviours often come down to self-preservation and the desire to maintain the status quo.

Once this is understood, it's possible to examine the truth of your core assumptions or beliefs and challenge their hold over you. You will gain a deeper understanding of your behaviour and, eventually, change it in a tangible and enduring way. It also works on apparently trivial things such as daily flossing to clean in between your teeth. 😊


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