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What are you assuming that is preventing you from moving forward?

Coaches often work in complex areas of personal development. If these areas were simple to understand and easy to resolve, the person would not need a coach. They would have done it themselves.

The coaching often involves holding a mirror up and showing the person something they have avoided up to now.

To consider an alternative view, you must be willing to consider an alternative version of yourself.

This gets me to the question,

What is the real issue here?

This is a great question that swiftly cuts through the fluff and noise.

It is particularly powerful to ask when people consistently don't follow through with actioning the agreed follow-ups, whether those to-dos arise from a coaching session or a leader-team member relationship.

If you keep ending up back in the same place. Then it is time to try something new.

The subsequent conversations this question generates often highlight that something else is going on beneath the surface. And so, there is a need to uncover people's unconscious assumptions that are not serving them or their teams well.

Unconscious Assumptions

Why do so many other people find it challenging to establish new and enduring habits, thereby creating change? Especially when those very people identify what they need to do to achieve their goal and yet often do other things that prevent them from completing it.

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 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 internal conflicts.

Their plans become the work equivalents of New Year's resolutions.

What is Immunity to Change?

When people are at 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.

Immunity To Change (ITC) in the workplace

As previously mentioned, it is common in the workplace to struggle to make sustainable change. Here is an example from a past client of mine.

Unwilling to say no.

My client couldn't say no to people, even though she was swamped throughout the day with too many demands on her limited time. She struggled to separate the person from the decision.

Using the ITC framework, we successfully uncovered the one big assumption my client 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. By denying the request, she would be denying the person. Her competing commitment was not to make people unhappy with her.

Exposing the assumption and competing commitment provided the self-awareness to see that she was trading short-term popularity for long-term respect.

Together we identified several small behavioural changes that reversed the situation. Long-term respect emphasised over short-term popularity, with the inevitable positive impact that reduces the competing demands on her time and attention.

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

🏋️ Challenge: Overcome your Immunity To Change

Before bringing about the sustainable change and new habits you want, you must be aware of the possible reasons not to.

First, identify your improvement goal. This goal needs to matter and make a difference in how you work. Other people should agree this would have a beneficial impact (if you were to ask them). And on a scale of 1 (low importance) to 10 (very important), it needs to score at least an 8. This is your column 1.

Next, what are your behaviours that work against achieving your goal? These are all the things you do or don't do that hinder your improvement goal. Write them down, don't worry about the why at this point. This is column 2.

Third, it is time to consider the worst thing if you stopped doing the actions you described in column 2 and did the opposite instead. Your column 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.

Your competing commitments are the list opposite the column 2 items which states, "I am, in fact, committed to doing the opposite of XYZ."

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.

In step four, you need to brainstorm all the possible assumptions that a person with column 3 commitments might hold. Which one resonates the most strongly with you?

Now it is time to test the big assumptions that resonate the most. Pick one or two, as your following action is to test your assumptions and establish whether they are true or not. One way to test your assumption is to conduct 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 helps 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, examining the truth of your core assumptions or beliefs and challenging their hold over you is possible. You will gain a deeper understanding of your behaviour and, eventually, change it in a tangible and enduring way.

I use this framework when experiencing a significant block or with an obstacle that keeps getting in my way. So if you need inspiration or help with this month's challenge, I share a personal example in this article from the 2021 blog.


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