Want to Make Change in the New Year?

We’re all old enough by now to know that New Year’s resolutions often don’t work, right? And yet we still want things to be different in the new year. How can we possibly make that happen?

Part of the answer is in understanding why these resolutions so often fail. Years ago I learned how to lead the “Immunity to Change” workshops developed by Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard. Their idea is to help bosses and employees understand why workplace change typically doesn’t happen even when people have the best intentions — why we seem to be immune to change — and how to, well, change that. Think of the boss who pledges to listen more (and still keeps the door shut), the employee who is going to speak up more in meetings (and remains mostly silent), the manager who is going to start demanding more of her supervisees (and gives them even more rope). Their process can be applied to personal change as well.

One part of the workshop has to do with New Year’s resolutions. People laugh and raise their hands when the facilitator asks if they have made resolutions and failed to follow up on them, or maybe even failed to remember what they were … by February. We can all relate.

The reason we don’t follow through, however, is not because we’re basically lazy, unmotivated, or lacking “buy in,” Kegan and Lahey say. Most of the time we really, really want to change.

But the New Year’s resolution simply doesn’t respect the complexity of change, according to these experts in adult development and psychology. It assumes that if we bend our will in the correct direction, we’ll start jogging every day, teaching origami to our children, juggling with knives.

However for every commitment we make to change a behavior, we have a competing, underlying, and perhaps invisible commitment to keep behaving the same, Kegan and Lahey say. This competing commitment is incredibly powerful. It helps us protect ourselves from threats to our well-being, and perhaps even to our jobs or livelihood. It gives us immunity to change.

The Kegan/Lahey solution is to help us unearth that competing commitment, examine the fears that surround it, and determine whether the fears are well founded or not. Only then can we dip our toes — or plunge — into doing things differently.

Thus perhaps the boss who intends to listen more is afraid that, if he does, he will waste valuable time (he’s behind already) or won’t be able to do anything about what he’s told, demonstrating that he is ineffective. The employee who intends to speak up in meetings is afraid that if she comments, she will make it clear that she really has nothing useful to contribute. The manager who is going to demand more of her employees might lose their loyalty and have even worse outcomes if they turn on her.

When I facilitate the workshop, I talk about when I was self-employed as a communications consultant in the 2000s. By mid-decade, I knew I needed to start “selling” myself more positively and assertively to stay in business. I fully intended to make that change. But my competing commitment was to protect myself from rejection, criticism, and failure. And if I really drilled down, I could recognize that I feared that rejection would cause me to overreact in a negative way, further sealing my doom. What if I cried, or yelled, or told people off, or couldn’t do what I was asked (and all these reactions had happened in my life at one time or another)? Moreover, what if I really didn’t known how to be a communications consultant and exposed it? I would have no livelihood left. Thus I continued in my old behaviors, waiting to be “picked” rather than seeking out clients, making self-deprecating remarks about my abilities to lower expectations, busying myself with almost anything other than developing my business.

What Kegan and Lahey suggest is starting with observations, and later small experiments, to see if these fears are borne out … and to experiment further to see how safe it is to actually change. In my case, did promoting myself actually lead to rejection and criticism? And if/when it did, did I overreact? Had I actually lost work this way in the past? Was it possible I had just never learned how to respond productively to criticism?

I ultimately did get positive results from unearthing my immunity to change and exploring my fears, although it was in the service of leaving self-employment to go back to graduate school to become a therapist. The process helped me understand better what I was willing to take risks to do.

But the change doesn’t have to be that big, and I still use the tool today when I find myself stuck in behaviors that I can’t seem to budge. Research shows it does work. The boss who doesn’t listen begins leaving his door open an hour a day and paying attention to what happens when he listens for two minutes. Eventually he’s able to develop enough listening skills that he actually finds them useful. The employee who won’t speak up in meetings tries it once and realizes she has allies who may support her comments in the future on more controversial matters. The manager who doesn’t demand enough of employees asks for help with developing a fair way of evaluating their progress and their own immunity to change. And all this applies to personal change as well.

So, if you’d like to read more about their process, here’s a summary: https://experiencelife.com/article/how-to-overcome-immunity-to-change/

You can also order their book on Amazon, or read this Harvard Business Review from more than a decade ago that was my first introduction to them (thanks to the organizational consultant Libby Alexander of Louisville): https://hbr.org/2001/11/the-real-reason-people-wont-change

Also, Kegan and Lahey now offer the course periodically and you can audit it for free! See this link for the last offering: https://www.edx.org/course/unlocking-immunity-change-new-approach-harvardx-gse1-1x#.VKQqfOPF-So

And happy change — or not — in 2015!


2 thoughts on “Want to Make Change in the New Year?

  1. A timely post. I have had some luck with New Year’s resolutions in the past, but then again, there are many I have not followed through on. I like the idea of considering competing priorities. For me, I usually attribute failure to follow through to lack of time. Need to think through that one some more.


  2. Patty, you made me think I should have been less absolute about NY resolutions never working, because I’m sure as you say they sometimes help lead to change! If you decide to try it, the “Immunity to Change” template takes people through an exercise to figure out the competing commitment(s) — as the developers say, it’s not something we’re proud of or necessarily want to acknowledge or talk about ;-).


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