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10 September 2011

What to do when change won’t stick

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Have you ever had the experience of wanting to make a change—really really wanting too—and somehow never managing it? I think this experience is so common that it’s almost a part of what makes us human beings. Often clients come to me with a core issue that they have been working to change for years. For example, Janice was terrible at providing good feedback to her people, and she knew that she was leaving performance problems to fester and spread as bad behaviour increased and morale declined. She had taken workshops on giving feedback, had vowed again and again to change—and still she rarely engaged in the difficult conversations she needed to have. To figure out what she could do about this frustrating issue, we used a process many of my clients have found transformational.

Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have come up with an ingenious way to uncover what they call your “Immunity to Change” (and you can read more about this exercise in the book they wrote with that title, or their previous book: How the way we talk can change the way we work). Here’s a quick introduction to it, but it’s really worth buying a book (or two) which will walk you through in more detail.

  1. First come you up with a complaint you have about things getting in the way of greater success at work (or home), or something you wish were different. Then you ask yourself a question: What is the commitment which lies underneath this complaint? You find that you don’t just want to complain about a thing but actually have a powerful (and empowering) commitment to having it change.
  2. While there might be billions of reasons outside your control that prevent your commitment from being fully realized, the second step is to explore the ways you get in your own way.  You make a thoughtful list of the actual behaviors you’re engaging in that are keeping your commitment from being fully realized.  What are the unhelpful things you’re doing? What are the more-helpful things you’re neglecting to do?  You make a list of those apparently-naughty behaviors you’re engaging in which get in the way of the commitment’s realization.
  3. The next step gets tricky, but who said that uncovering your own immunity to change would be easy? You look over that list of “naughty behaviors” you’ve just made, not to fix or solve them, but to learn from them. You ask yourself, “What self-protective commitment might I be seen to have by those looking at this list of behavior?” A commitment to always being in control? To always being right? To being seen to be competent at everything?  This “competing commitment” should be one you’re not proud of—and that you probably don’t know you have. Instead, it should arise from looking at the behavior you know you’re doing.
  4. Then you can ask yourself, “What bad thing do I assume would happen if I did other than hold that commitment? This is called a Big Assumption because it should have a non-rational kind of fear attached to it. Do you assume that if you were to lose control, the whole place would crumble? That if you weren’t seen to know everything that you’d lose all credibility and no one would ever listen to you?  Once you’ve got your Big Assumption on the table, you can look at it, notice how it affects your life, and begin to design small tests of whether this particular assumption holds as the truth in every aspect of your life or whether it can stand to be modified, altered, and in some way made smaller than the big assumption it once was. As it becomes smaller over time, it is a less effective immunity to change, and you begin to control it rather than having it control you.

Janice discovered that while she had a commitment to giving difficult feedback, she was avoiding these conversations like the plague. As she explored the fear, she discovered that she had a competing commitment to being liked by everyone all the time. Her Big Assumption was big: She assumed that if she were not liked by everyone all the time, she would lose her positive relationships with her staff and colleagues, and that no one would like her—and that losing their positive regard would cost her their respect, her job, all that she valued. That was a Big Assumption indeed! As Janice worked to understand and unpack her big assumption, it became a smaller and smaller assumption, until she found that she could engage in careful feedback with her direct reports and actually build and deepen her relationship with them—as well as improve their performance.

Action Plan

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