Last updated on March 9, 2023
Let’s face it. Change can be hard.
Think of a time in your life that you really wanted to make a change–maybe you wanted to follow an exercise plan consistently for once and for all. You don’t need to be convinced of the health benefits of exercise; you fully accept the risks of a sedentary lifestyle. So you decided to start Monday with the “perfect program” that would help you succeed.
The problem is, your enthusiasm began to wane around Thursday, and by Friday afternoon, you were beating yourself up just a little, and wondering if this was a hopeless cause.
Table of Contents
The Immunity to Change Model
Psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey wrote an incredibly powerful book, “Immunity to Change.” Through years of research, they distilled down a simple and effective way to understand why we continually fail to make the changes we so desperately want to make.
Immunity to Change Summary
The Immunity to Change model or framework is a unique way of uncovering and addressing the underlying thoughts that are preventing change. Rather than addressing problem behaviors directly, Kegan and Lahey recommend identifying the “competing commitments” and “big assumptions” that are at the root of your behaviors.
A Powerful Coaching Tool
I recently used this framework with one of my coaching clients, let’s call her Beatrice. Beatrice had a change that she wanted to make that was important to her. She wanted to modify her diet to eat more healthy foods and ideally, to lose ten pounds.
In the past, Beatrice approached change as many of us do–motivated by negative emotions. In fact, the shame and guilt she was feeling did the opposite of motivating lasting change.
But by using the Immunity to Change Framework, we were able to uncover not only Beatrice’s current behaviors that were keeping her from reaching her goal, but a powerful way to explore the hidden thoughts and motivations that were keeping her stuck. She gained unique insight by listing all of her worries that came to life when she thought about changing her behaviors. Listing these worries, and exploring them without judgment, uncovered her “competing commitments.” More on that later.
4 Simple Steps
You can use the Immunity to Change model for yourself, or you can use it to help your coaching clients make meaningful, lasting change. In this article, I’ve outlined the steps, as well as included Immunity to Change worksheets as PDFs you can download and use.
Here are the 4 steps:
- Identify a goal
- List all the behaviors that keep you from your goal
- List your competing commitments
- List your big assumptions
1. Identify a Goal
First, identify the goal, commitment, or change you want to make in your life. Write this down in column 1.
This has to be something that really, really matters to you. Otherwise it likely won’t hold your attention long enough for you to do the work. What is something that you want that excites you, or even scares you a little? Your goal should meet the following guidelines.
- It’s important to you
- It’s about you (you are the one who will have to make the change, not someone else)
- It’s stated positively (it’s something you want to do or be, rather than stop doing or being)
Here are two examples from my own life I’ll use to demonstrate using the Immunity to Change model.
Professional goal: In my professional life as a former Chief Nursing Officer, I had the opportunity to lead a team of exceptionally skilled and talented directors. They were smart, experienced, and capable. My goal (column 1), supported by beautifully & thoughtfully expressed 360 evaluations from my team, was to be more direct in expressing both my expectations and constructive feedback; in other words, to be “tougher” on them.
Personal goal: In my personal life, being a good Mom has been and always will be the most important thing in the world. Raising my daughter to be strong, self-sufficient, capable, and independent is my big goal (column 1). How I do that has needed to change over the years, as she has gotten older and more independent.
2. List All the Behaviors that Keep You from Your Goal
Once you’ve identified your goal, the next step is to identify the behaviors that are keeping you from your goal. This includes everything you are doing and not doing instead. Write these down in column 2.
Be bold here; Kegan and Lahey call this a “fearless inventory” for a reason.
For my professional goal:
- I would often soften the message when sharing my expectations or feedback with my team
- I would usually enthusiastically though slightly tentatively agree with or support an initial proposal from one of them, only to feel the need to ask for more details later
- I would sometimes fail to advise them when they could have handled interpersonal interactions more effectively, for fear of being critical (and the meaning I assigned to this)
- Though I effusively and sincerely shared all of the positive feedback for their terrific work, I sometimes chose not to share constructive feedback for the discomfort this caused me (fearing they would feel disappointed)
For my personal goal:
- I would text every day (maybe multiple times)
- I would ask more than once if she’s sure she doesn’t need my help
- I would rush in with solutions when she was reaching out just to share or vent. *sigh*
- I would not actively listen to what she’s really telling me, not recognizing that I was sending her a not-so-subtle message that her point of view doesn’t matter, by listening in order to respond
- I would come in to “rescue” her when something went wrong, in an attempt to shield her from any pain
3. List Your Competing Commitments
Once you’ve filled out column 2, your natural instinct may be to start thinking of ways to eliminate those behaviors. Instead, the next step is to identify your worries, which will help uncover your “competing commitments.”
Your competing commitments are the thoughts and beliefs you have that are causing the behaviors in column 2. These may be unconscious and hidden, or plainly obvious. Write these down in column 3. You might start by listing your worries.
Here’s one way to identify your competing commitments. Imagine yourself doing the opposite of the behaviors you listed in column 2. What worries or fears come up? These are your worries that fuel your competing commitments. These are the “problems” you need to solve or address, rather than your behaviors in column 2.
My competing commitments were, to name just a few:
For my professional goal:
- To be liked
- To be supportive, and for my team to feel that their boss believes in them
- To avoid conflict
- To avoid disagreement
- To not be “bossy”, though I recognized the irony, given I was actually their boss!
For my personal goal:
- To be needed
- To be the solver
- To be her #1 go-to
- To be her emotional rock
- To be the person who “knows her best”
Ouch. See how getting these out of your head and written down makes a difference? It was hard not to begin beating myself up for having these unconscious commitments.
But you know what? I’m human. And the good news? Now I’m working toward my goal with eyes wide open. Let’s keep going.
4. List Your Big Assumptions
For me, this is the “waking up” part. Kegan and Lahey describe column 4 as our “big assumptions.” We behave like they are absolutely, irrefutably true. In fact, we usually don’t even stop to notice or question them.
Ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about myself, others, and the world that explain why I’m holding onto these competing commitments?” Write these down in column 4.
I’ll continue with my personal examples to bring us home. My big assumptions had been:
For my professional goal:
- If I share negative feedback, my team will feel that I don’t care about them
- Conflict is bad
- Being a boss is being bossy, and that is the same as being b****y
- Being bossy is immodest, and that’s one of the worst qualities in the world
For my personal goal:
- If I don’t check in every day (multiple times), my daughter will question if I care about her
- I won’t be there when she needs me most and then something bad will happen
- If she doesn’t need me, then I won’t have much of a place in her life
- If I allow a little bit of space, our unique and special bond will fade, a gap will grow, and she’ll slip away and I’ll lose her forever
Woah. But the amazing part? Writing my thoughts down and examining them allows me some objectivity. I can realize that these thoughts are not me. They are thoughts. Sure, I’ve practiced them for years and I’ve become really good at thinking them. But now I can go to work questioning their truth and validity.
In my personal example, after realizing this, and after deliberately creating a little bit of distance to which my daughter and I both agreed, I feel closer to her than ever. I feel lighter and more positive about our relationship. I am confident in the depth of our bond. More importantly, I have such complete confidence in her strength and ability to thrive as the incredible human that she is. I know that every experience she has will be a chance to learn, and that each lesson she learns will only make her stronger and smarter and will expand her huge heart.
Now that you (or your client) have created an “Immunity Map,” it’s time to put your discoveries to work for you, rather than letting your unexamined thoughts work against you.
Test Your Big Assumptions
Remember that we live and act as though our big assumptions are unquestionably true, and we often don’t even realize we have them. This framework shows us that these are assumptions that we’ve made in an attempt to protect ourselves and the status quo. These are thoughts that we’ve believed so consistently that they’ve become deeply ingrained belief systems.
If you’re working with coaching clients, encourage them to start small. Take one big assumption, and test it, even in a small way. Challenge them to play the “what if?” game. Using my example with my daughter, “what if I don’t text her every single day?” Guess what? I tried it. And she thanked me for it. 🙂
When a client comes to you with an issue on which they’d like your help, consider using these concepts as you work together. As always, your responsibility as a coach is to begin from a place that is “clean”–where you hold no judgment, love your client exactly as they are, and are not invested in a solution or an outcome.
I recommend having your client use a paper worksheet or tool. Most know that nothing is more powerful than writing our thoughts down in order to create a bit of space for dispassionate examination. The first two steps often feel quite easy and even joyful; your client is likely in a headspace where (s)he embraces the change, by definition.
The heavier lifting comes in columns 3 and 4, but as my instructor, Brooke Castillo says, “discomfort is the price of growth.”
Immunity to Change Templates
Print out an Immunity to Change Map worksheet, or you can just write the column headers down on a piece of paper. The Immunity to Change model, maps, worksheets, etc. are all copyright of Lisa Lahey, Robert Kegan, and Minds At Work.
Immunity to Change Map Blank (PDF Worksheet Download)
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Liga is a Certified Life Coach, a nurse by training, and a successful VP in a health system spanning seven states. She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Washington respectively, and her coach training from The Life Coach School. She is a mom, a wife, an athlete, and a lifelong learner.