Turns out we have a naturally immunity to change!

14th January 2020

I’m often invited to work with managers and leaders, who in some shape or form aren’t making the behavioural changes that their others would like to see. It might be the leader who fails to recognise the unintentional impact when he/she keeps a tight control on work and micromanages, rather than giving team members the time and space to do things in their own way. Or the leader who is working exhaustingly long hours, taking on too much rather than being honest and up front about what they can and cannot do.

In my experience, working with literally hundreds of managers over the years, most people know what they SHOULD do differently. For the most part managers know how to say ‘No’ in the nicest way or they know how to delegate and why it’s a good thing for them and their team. So, I guess the big question is, what stops people from doing the very thing that they know they should do? It turns out that the quick answer to this is that people have a natural ‘immunity to change.’ Neuroscience has shown that we are wired to spot danger and in doing so, our intention is to keep ourselves safe and out of harms way.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education have researched the subject extensively, and in the process uncovered an underlying rationale that helps to explain why human beings find change so difficult and what we can do to overcome those very obstacles. 

They coined the phrase “Immunity to change”, which neatly describes our natural relationship to change. When we micromanage others in a control-freakish way, we are reacting subconsciously to some form of underlying fear. When we say ‘yes’ to unreasonable requests we are again reacting based on subconscious need to make ourselves feel safe and secure. 

It makes perfect sense, and yet this is the very reason we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of reacting and relating that are part of our everyday lives. So here’s a short activity that will help you to get a handle on what is holding you back; 

Start by imagining what it would feel like to do the exact opposite of what you are doing at the moment. If we’re right about this immunity to change thing – you’ll be doing all sorts of things that aren’t what you know deep down, that you should be doing. If, at the prospect of doing the exact opposite you’re feeling anxious, nervous or scared; stick with it. This probably means you’re onto something!

As you imagine doing the exact opposite, make a list of the worries and concerns that come up for you. So, as you imagine having that difficult conversation, what worries run through your mind? It could be things like ‘I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, and look stupid’ or ‘I worry that it will upset our relationship’ or even ‘what if I get it wrong, what will they think?’

By now you’re probably starting to see how this immunity to change thing actually works. If we have an underlying fear of making mistakes; is it little wonder we don’t delegate our work. If we worry about upsetting people, no wonder we struggle to say ‘no’ when we need to.

Looking at your list of worries, what ‘big assumptions’ are secretly holding onto? What themes are emerging here for you? These are the assumptions and beliefs that make personal change so challenging. It’s the equivalent of having a foot on the accelerator, and the handbrake on at the same time – you end up going nowhere.

Generally these ‘secret assumptions’ fall into one of four types;

  • A fear of being wrong – and catastrophising about the impact that errors or mistakes will have 
  • A fear of rejection – and the worry of our actions having a negative impact on our relationships 
  • A fear of emotional discomfort – and the worry of dealing with an emotionally charged situation
  • A fear of failure – associated with the worry around ‘what if this doesn’t work?’ 

You’re probably thinking, that now comes the part where I then have to ‘man/woman up’ and get on with it. Focus, set myself some clear goals and ‘just do it!”

No, absolutely not. This is the time to be kind to yourself, and remember that these fears and assumptions are borne from years of life experience and at some stage they were useful strategies for keeping you safe. So this next part of the process is to; Take no action, do not push to do the very thing that you fear.

The aim of this last step is for you to identify some small, safe, modest actions that you can take to test your underlying assumptions. The key here is SAFE and MODEST. So how might you safely (without triggering your worries) test out your assumptions?

You’re in a different mindset here. You’re in a data gathering phase; testing out your assumptions to see whether they hold true or not. If you’re not delegating for fear of making mistakes; think about some small, low risk, simple task that you could handover to your most trusted team member. If you’re not saying ‘no’ for fear of rejection, you might decide to practice saying ‘no’ in a safer setting. Perhaps saying ‘no’ to a trusted colleague or someone that you feel really comfortable with. 

Remember the intention of this last stage is to test your assumption – what you are trying to prove to yourself is that the world doesn’t collapse in on itself if you make a mistake or say ‘no’. 

So, keep going with this, each time you can up the challenge a little bit. Gathering more and more evidence to prove that this big assumption that you’ve been holding just doesn’t stack up. Given time and with a little self-compassion, you might find that you’re next action is the very one that you’ve been fearing the most!!!

I wish you all the best with this work that you’re doing! Remember to be kind with yourself whilst also ensuring that you finish what you start!

I would love to know how you get on with this and, and if you would like a copy of the full worksheet please comment below.