Immunity to Change

In my work I sometimes observe that, even with the greatest of intentions, people are not able to do the change they truly desire. This can be frustrating for the individual, and for leaders who clearly have smart, skilled, deeply committed people around them.


Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have researched and worked extensively and have concluded that people are generally not purposefully resistant to change, but that rather, they can have “competing commitments”. A competing commitment is an unconscious hidden goal that conflicts with their stated commitments, which makes them personally immune to change.  This can hold an individual back, and can unfortunately sabotage the success of any change initiative being espoused and implemented.


Kegan and Lahey have developed a simple 4 step process to facilitate a conversation enabling people to identify their competing commitments to rectify their immunity to change. The most important steps in diagnosing immunity to change are uncovering people’s competing commitments and unearthing their big assumptions.  The four steps are:


Diagnose the competing commitment by facilitating a conversation and asking:

  1. What would you like to see changed so you could be more effective, or so work would be more satisfying? This usually results in a form of complaint.

What commitment does your complaint imply? Complaints usually indicate what people care most about.


  1. What are you doing or not doing, that is keeping your stated commitment from being more fully realised? This is the undermining behaviours that tend to hold us back.


  1. Imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behaviour. Do you feel any discomfort, worry, anxiety or vague fear?

By engaging in this undermining behaviour, what worrisome outcomes are you committed to prevent? The answer is the competing commitment.


  1. Identifying the big assumptions. Our big assumptions are our worldview that we filter through which colours everything we see and do. It is usually developed early on in our life, and can limit and hold us back from actualising our fullest potential.  We tend to hold our big assumptions as fact, and they inform what we see, leading us to attend to some data and avoid or ignore other data.


When we bring our big assumptions into our conscious mind we can begin to question, evaluate and test them, and consider replacing them with assumptions and beliefs that better serve us. We can then begin to practice new, more resourceful behaviours to develop and reinforce a new worldview.


The following table represents a couple of examples of applying the above questions.



State commitment

I am commited to…

What am I doing or not doing, that is keeping my stated commitment from being fully realised? Competing commitments Big Assumptions
…being a team player I don’t collaborate enough; I make unilateral decisions too often; I don’t relay take peoples input into account. I am committed to being the one who gets the credit and to avoiding the frustration or conflict that comes with collaboration. I assume that no one will appreciate me if I am not seen as the source of the success; I assume nothing good will come of my being frustrated or in conflict.
…distributed leadership by enabling people to make decisions I don’t delegate enough; I don’t pass on information to the people I distribute leadership to. I argue against new ideas. I am committed to having things go my way, to being in control and being the one who knows about my area, and to ensuring that the work done is to my high standards. I assume that other people will waste my time and theirs if I don’t step in; I assume others aren’t as smart as me. I assume that I need to argue to show what I know.



At the very least, through this process people can find more effective ways to support their competing commitments without sabotaging other commitments. This results in people achieving even greater accomplishments and results, and feeling happier and more congruent.


I have found this a wonderful process to identify and shift some of those stubborn behaviours that can sabotage and hold us back. Enjoy!  If you would like more information about this process please contact me directly.

Posted in On Change and Innovation