What’s holding you back from making positive changes?

Organisations need to constantly change and adapt in order to stay competitive these days. But leaders faced with the task of ensuring employees change and adapt to move forward face some difficult challenges. By nature, people are resistant to change. It’s a survival instinct, a defence mechanism; if we avoid sudden change, we minimise the risk of danger. Leaders today, or anyone in a position of managing others, can benefit by having a deeper understanding of the psychology behind why we are immune to change and what we can do to approach change.

In their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organisation, authors Kegan and Lahey explain that our resistance to change is in fact an an immune system of sorts; our “immunity to change” serves a positive purpose; to protect us from the psychological trauma and possible danger that sudden change can create. But this immunity to negative changes can also inadvertently stop us from making positive changes in our lives. Faced with the mere thought of making significant changes to our lifestyle, work, whatever it may be, anxieties and defences can be triggered, and despite our best intentions, we end up sabotaging our efforts before we’ve even started making any changes.

The good news is there’s a methodology for combatting this resistance to change. Kegan and Lahey argue that change is usually rooted in unexamined beliefs. Someone who wants to successfully make changes, needs to first dig deep to identify those limiting beliefs and re-instate a more conscious and constructive set of beliefs, before change can take place. The foundation of their methodology is a four-column Immunity Map which guides you through a process of self-examination, to identify and adjust the mindset and assumptions that may be holding you back in life.

Try this Exercise – make your own immunity map

There’s no better way to understand a new concept and methodology than to try it out yourself. Think of something you want to change in your work and map it out below. Perhaps you have a tendency to over control and struggle with delegating work effectively to others. On a piece of paper draw four columns and outline as follows;

Column No.1: Improvement Goal 

Choose a goal that would make a big difference, one you truly want to achieve. Ask yourself “What is the single most powerful change I could I make to improve my work performance?” Write down what concrete behaviours are necessary to achieve this goal. Frame them as positive statements (for example, “delegate more” vs. “stop doing all the work myself”).

Column No. 2: Behaviours That Go Against My Goal 

This is where you list the behaviours that prevent you from achieving your self-improvement goal. Ask yourself “What’s the thing I do, or don’t do, that most gets in the way of my goal?” In this column, make a note of the things you do instead of the behaviours that could create positive change. You don’t need to explain or understand your obstructionist behaviours, just notice them and write them down. Define your actions, not your feelings. Don’t fall into the trap of stopping at this column thinking, “I’ll just stop these behaviours and then I can get to my goal”, remember simply changing the behaviour won’t get at the root of the problem; it won’t change your mindset and address your subconscious fears. The work in the next two columns will address a deeper mindset change.

Column No. 3: Hidden Competing Commitments 

When we don’t do something, we believe would benefit us, it’s because we have “competing commitments” holding us back. These are typically rooted in the fears that arise when you read through column No. 2 and ask yourself “If I imagine myself trying to do the opposite of this, what is the most uncomfortable or worrisome feeling that comes up for me? What makes not doing column 2 feel so scary?” Your fears go into a “worry box” at the top of this column. They can point you to your competing commitments, which you list below the worry box. When you write down your hidden commitments, you are now able to see across the three columns how you have one foot on the gas pedal (column 1) and one foot on the brake pedal (column 3). This is the immune system “protecting” you from feared, negative outcomes.

Column No. 4: Big Assumptions 

The competing commitments listed in column No. 3 are typically the result of some “big assumptions.” These are ideas we hold to be true even though we have no way of knowing for sure unless we actually challenge them. Big assumptions, says Lahey, “are the beliefs and internalized truths we hold about how the world works, how we work, and how people respond to us. They are assumptions that make each hidden commitment feel necessary.” Look for assumptions that anchor and inform your specific hidden commitments. Notice how your assumptions lead to the very behaviours that undermine, rather than support, your goal.

What next? Design a test of your assumptions

Which assumption is the one stopping you from making the positive changes necessary to meet your goal? Once you pick the big assumption holding you back, you can test it. The idea is to challenge your assumptions/ beliefs, not to prove them wrong, but to gather the right information to gauge just how accurate your assumptions are. Kegan and Lahey suggest the following parameters around testing your assumption/ limiting belief:

  1. Be safe – experimentation is key; don’t be too risk adverse when it comes to testing your limiting beliefs, but don’t get yourself fired either
  2. Be modest; start with a small test and work your way up
  3. Make it actionable – don’t be tempted to think through your assumption, test it out by making it actionable
  4. Research-based Take your time to gather information about your assumption
  5. Make it an effective test of your assumption to ensure it’s targeted toward getting insight into the accuracy of your beliefs and how they do or don’t serve you

Your experiment will allow you to better understand how accurate your assumption really is, and whether the behaviours you’ve been engaging in to protect yourself from your imagined worst-case scenarios are actually helpful or counter-productive. Thinking of the example of needing to delegate more, the test here could involve simply giving a task that you usually do yourself to a subordinate to complete and then assessing the success of this and whether your worst fears about delegating actually eventuated. As you continue to test a limiting assumption and begin the process of change, your assumption will start to morph. As Lahey states “It won’t have so much control over you. You’ll start understanding where it’s valid and where it isn’t valid at all.”  

Making changes isn’t as cut and dry as just changing your behaviours, often we need to create a shift in mindset before we can effectively change our ways. Why not encourage people in your team to complete this exercise too and see how effective it is in changing behaviours over time? 

Could you and your leadership team do with one of my tailored workshops? I’d love to share my experience and fool-proof leadership techniques with you. Don’t hesitate. Get in touch today.

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