Haven’t we been through this before? - Lessons for managing change and overcoming stubborn obstacles
Did you make a resolution this year?
If so, how are you doing with your goals for 2018, now that we’re a couple months in?
If you’re anything like me, then you’re probably struggling.
Maybe you’ve even been at this for several years now, without success… does that sound familiar?
Or maybe you’ve actually given up on making resolutions, because they never seem to stick… ringing any bells?
Wherever you are on this continuum, it’s clear that New Year’s Resolutions are a special form of stubborn goals that we all encounter. Every year, everywhere, people struggle with the specter of our failed commitments.
My recurring New Year’s resolution is to exercise more. And I’ve tried a lot: gym memberships (I stopped going after a couple of weeks, but continued to pay!), apps (I downloaded and subscribed to them, but stopped using them after a couple of times) and new sports gear, particularly shoes (I now have three pairs in my closet and still don’t use them).
And I’m certainly not alone. Take a look at this:
"If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that's been studied over and over again. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can't."
Dr. Edward Miller
CEO of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center
My dad is one of these patients. He had three bypasses six years ago. When I visited him in rehab, the first thing we did to celebrate his recovery was to eat Schnitzel and fries…
Why is it easier for us to let someone crack open our chest to perform coronary surgery than to change our daily eating habits?
Resistance to change is everywhere.
- In our private lives, we wrestle with so many challenges: maintaining a healthy work/life balance, sticking to a diet, navigating an addiction to social media.
- In our professional lives, we wrestle with many more: setting priorities, delegating, and procrastination.
- Organizations resist change, too. They say they want to be more inclusive, diverse, or collaborative, but they often find it hard to implement these goals.
Over and over again, all of us walking through the same revolving door every year, only to exit the same way we went in.
Well, here’s one explanation.
You (and me, and just about everyone we know) are actually immune to change.
We want to believe that this time will be different, despite all past evidence to the contrary. If only we were more disciplined, driven, focused, and committed, we could achieve our goal.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?
But just Google the word ‘willpower’ and see how many articles come back that debunk that myth!
Willpower alone just isn’t the answer.
It’s a finite resource that runs out every day and needs to be replenished with rest and relaxation. And even at full strength, there are just some mountains that aren’t going to move now matter how much willpower you have.
And yet… each of us probably knows at least one person who has successfully managed to change some aspect of their life; someone who has accomplished something that, to us, has always seemed too difficult, maybe even impossible, to overcome.
Change is possible.
So what’s going on here?
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have been studying this question at Harvard for years, and they have come up with name for these stubborn, willpower-resistant problems: Immunity to Change.
An ‘immunity’ to change is present whenever willpower doesn’t suffice to fix a problem or reach a goal. Overcoming that immunity requires reorganizing our interior landscape to generate new options for living. It demands we fundamentally shift how we think about ourselves and the world.
To work through this ‘immunity,’ first we have to understand where it comes from. You see, our resistance to change actually serves a useful, adaptive purpose rooted in evolutionary biology. Imagine life 100,000 years ago. You and your tribe have found a safe space to live, where food is abundant and the climate is temperate. You have everything you need to survive… not necessarily everything you need to be happy, mind you, just survival.
So why would you go marching off to climb that huge, ice-capped mountain on the distant horizon? While, as Sir Edmund Hillary said, “Because it’s there.” As a species, we are often intrigued by challenge. By the unknown. We love to explore.
But those explorations come with a much greater risk. The odds of surviving up on that mountain are much lower than they are down on the savannah, with food, shelter, fire, and companionship.
You have to really want the adventure to make the effort. I mean really want it.
Either that, or you have no choice.
The food is gone. The water is all dried up. Time to move on.
This is where resistance to change comes in. It is a protective mechanism honed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It serves as a counter-balancing force to our innate curiosity, reducing the odds that we wander off into the wilderness and wind up dead.
Most of us will only go if we have to.
Now, fast forward to modern society, and look how many of us find ourselves in the optimal conditions for survival! All the food we could ever eat is at hand. We can create the perfect, temperature-controlled climate with a few clicks on a thermostat. We need only pick up the phone or sign online to talk to friends, family, and even strangers from all over the world. We don’t even have to step outside!
Can you start to imagine how this protective mechanism, this ‘immunity’ is inadvertently stopping us from making the changes we so very much desire? Even the suggestion of change can be enough to set off our unconscious, deep-seated resistance, leaving our change efforts doomed from the outset.
So what can we do?
Instead of asking yourself how you can improve (and triggering your ‘immune’ system), it is often more productive to probe the logic behind NOT making progress. This is difficult, because it can seem counter-intuitive. But for each of us, there are reasons why we are actually sabotaging our own goals.
Here’s what that looks like for me, and my perpetual inability to exercise, even though I know I should:
What am I doing instead of exercising? I usually meet friends, sleep a little longer in the morning or watch shows on Netflix. Particularly when I am exhausted after a long workday, I want to exercise, but instead I often just hang out on the couch.
Got it? This is what I’m doing instead of exercising. These are the behaviors and choices are sabotaging my desire to be healthier.
The next step is to imagine doing the exact opposite of these sabotaging behaviors. Not meeting friends, not going on dinners, sleeping less, not hanging out after a long day? Doing so can begin to uncover the hidden worries driving these choices; the fear, discomfort, or sense of loss that surfaces.
If I didn’t do these things … I would feel exhausted, stressed out, overworked, sleep-deprived. I would not be able to rest and relax, endangering my capacity to do my job well.
When we do this exercise in our workshops, we uncover a range of very profound insights: Older men who wanted to change their eating habits figure out that they fear the feeling and recognition of being old and sick for doing so. Managers who want to delegate more fear that they would be seen as lazy. Salespeople who want to increase cold calls are afraid to fail, feel embarrassed, or get fired. Directors who want to collaborate more with other divisions fear that people will find out how little they actually know.
So what do we make of these worries?
First of all take them seriously!
We are committed to protecting ourselves from our worries.
Worries are pretty common and they often come with a feeling of shame. We try to keep our “worry box” closed with the worries securely stored inside. We do everything we can to keep the worries from surfacing.
In other words: We are not only committed to achieving our improvement goal. We are also committed to a second, more hidden agenda that protects us from our worries.
This too, is an aspect of our ancient, evolved protective system. If we spent all day constantly and consciously worrying about the saber-toothed tiger lurking at the edge of our territory, we’d go mad. Our worry sinks down to the unconscious level, protecting us without constantly threatening us, ready to activate whenever we put ourselves in a position that puts us at risk.
But this protective mechanism isn’t refined enough to distinguish the worry and threat of an apex predator versus the worry and threat of being embarrassed. They carry equal weight in our psychological immune system.
Fast-forward again to modern day, and what we end up with is a goal we are actively pursuing (exercising more) that is overcome by a stronger behavior fueled by a hidden competing goal (not overworking or burning out, getting enough sleep, not endangering my professional goals)
No matter how much willpower we put into our improvement goal, our hidden commitment will work against it. Everyone who has tried losing weight over a certain amount of time knows the yo-yo effect.
“It’s like having one foot on the gas and one foot on the break”
(Kegan/Lahey 2009, 38-39).
We don’t need to work on our willpower. We need to work on our assumptions.
In order to tackle this immune system that works against our desired behavioral changes, we need to understand the assumptions behind the system.
My biggest assumption is that exercise is exhausting, it will not help me relax, but it is just another tiring task on my to-do list. I would have to sacrifice activities I use to calm down like sleep, hanging out with friends or by myself, movies etc. I might risk overworking, burning out and become less productive.
Making change happen does not mean pushing the gas pedal with more force. Change will only happen when you begin to lift the foot from the break. This is where the actual work begins.
It will take some time to re-wire these assumptions.
The approach we recommend to our clients is to run small and safe experiments.
My first experiment: I reserved some time on Monday at 7 pm to exercise for 30 minutes.
Afterwards, I asked myself: How stressed out and exhausted do I actually feel?
In other words, I used one session of exercise to test my assumptions.
Surprise: It didn’t feel that bad – I actually felt energized! (As trivial this might sound, it was actually a surprise for me!)
I did a couple of these tests – and most of my times my initial assumptions (that I would be stressed and exhausted) were not confirmed. Step by step I raised the bar until I even tried to exercise after an exhausting workday at a client (making sure I still had enough sleep and didn’t cut the dinner with my friends) – and it actually felt nice! I was enjoying myself. The exact opposite of stress and exhaustion.
My work, then, was to figure out how much exercise energizes me before my immunity kicked in at the appropriate level and protected me from overdoing it.
This mindset of experimentation and data collection helps our clients, because it is a safe and sustainable approach to change. Instead of trying to change your life in one fell swoop, which will only trigger a huge unconscious worry and lead you to totally avoid the goal, you can adapt at a pace your immune system can handle by testing you assumptions carefully with small, incremental steps.
Our New Year’s Resolutions are just the most obvious representation of the stubborn change we all aspire to make in our lives. Lack of motivation or willpower is hardly ever the true problem; merely the tip of the iceberg. To get below the water, down to the worries and the assumptions behind your resistance, you must always remember: we don’t resist change. We resist loss. We protect our subconscious worries in our worry box, ensuring we never “lose out,” even when we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
This is where the real work begins.
Are you Curious about Overcoming your own immunity to Change?
Sign up here for our next workshop in Washington, DC.
Kegan/Lahey: Immunity to Change. Harvard Business School Publishing Coorporation: 2009
Shea/Solomon: Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work. Wharton Digital Press 2013.