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The Leader's Journey

A Brief Introduction to Immunity to Change

Published 12 months ago • 5 min read

In a recent episode of The Leader's Journey Podcast titled Disrupting Our Autopilot: The Only Way Things Change, Jim and Trisha discuss how difficult it can be to experience real change, why it can be so difficult, and what we can do to make real progress. During their conversation, Jim and Trisha referenced the book Immunity to Change by Dr. Lisa Lahey and Dr. Robert Kegan a handful of times so I decided to explore some of the key ideas presented in that work in this issue of the newsletter.

Change is Hard

We know that some people embrace change and others actively resist it. But regardless of where you land on that spectrum, I don't know many people who'd claim that change is easy.

Take a peek in a gym on January 7th and you'll see a lot of well-meaning motivated people trying to change their behavior to improve their health and fitness who are most likely going to fall off the wagon before March 1st.

Unfortunately, our inability to make change stick isn't reserved for our New Year's Resolutions and vanity goals. In fact, a study involving high-risk cardiac patients who were told by their doctors that they were likely to die if they didn't make specific changes around their health (e.g. diet, exercise, quitting smoking, etc.), indicated that only one in seven patients actually made the necessary changes.

This is what Dr. Robert Kegan said about that study in a presentation from 2012:

“If we cannot make the changes that we would want to make to literally keep ourselves alive, then what does this say about all the other changes which we may even urgently feel, which are not life and death matters? What it says to me is that we are in deep need of some new ways of thinking about what gets in the way between our genuine intentions and what we're actually able to bring about.”

Immunity to Change comes out of decades of work from Dr. Lahey and Dr. Kegan trying to identify and distill just that, a new way of thinking about what gets in the way between our genuine intentions and what we're actually able to bring about.

Adaptive challenges aren't solved with technical solutions

One of the initial obstacles we face in this process is our inability to properly identify and understand the problems we are trying to solve. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky assert that "The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems"

Technical problems have a known solution. Someone has the expertise and the problem can be solved by applying that expertise. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, have no known solution yet and they typically require internal changes to aspects of ourselves like beliefs, priorities, or habits.

And throughout our lives we are presented with lots of different situations but too often we approach any problem as though it is a technical one. We default to looking for what needs to be done, creating an action plan, and getting busy. But if we ignore the adaptive dimension, what needs to happen on the inside, we have little to no shot the change will stick. No matter how hard you work or well-intentioned you are.

Dr. Lahey sees this default showing up in the study mentioned previously,

“When we think back to those statistics about only one out of seven people can make the change, seriously at-risk heart patients, my understanding is that that is because the way they are formulating the problem, it's all technical. Just go at the change at a behavioral level and they have failed to consider what is the adaptive dimension.”

This is where the Immunity to Change process comes in. Dr. Lahey and Dr. Kaegan created it to help people see the adaptive dimension around any change challenge face, our immunity to change. They also present a seven-step path we can engage to overcome our immunity over time.

Learning to See and Overcome Your Immunity to Change

At a high level, immunity to change is our inability to change because of deeply rooted big assumptions and conflicting commitments. These assumptions and conflicting commitments are so deeply ingrained in us that they are predominantly unconscious and filter or even distort much of how we see and experience our lives.

It's important to remember, immunity to change is different than not wanting or being resistant to change. Instead, it is the presence of an internal conflict between your unconscious commitments and assumptions, and your desire to or need for change.

Kegan and Lahey refer to these unconscious commitments and assumptions as an "immune system" because, like our biological immune system, its primary purpose is to protect us from potential danger, but it can also identify threats incorrectly. Sometimes our immune system misreads the situation so severely that it attacks or rejects the very things we need to survive (e.g., organ transplants, autoimmune disease).

Lahey says this about the analogy, "that's the invitation to imagine that psychologically, that's what's going on for each one of us when we have a stretch goal, which is that our immune system is misreading as the enemy, something to keep us safe, in order to keep us safe."

But their work is not a defeatist deterministic manifesto about our unconscious sabotaging our best intentions. Kegan and Lahey share a process to overcome our immunity to change.

The first part of the process is about learning to see your immune system. The second part of the process provides a path we can engage to overcome our immunity.

The process can be broken up into 5 steps:

  1. Commit to an improvement goal
  2. List the behaviors you do (or don't do) that work against that goal
  3. Uncover your hidden competing commitments
  4. Identify your big assumptions
  5. Test your big assumptions

The primary tool you'll use throughout this process is called an Immunity Map. This map is broken up into four columns and each column is designed so that you can respond to and record your response to a specific question.


You will know you’re ready to move on to step 5 and begin testing your big assumptions when:

  • Your map feels powerful to you
  • You can explain your immune system
  • You believe that your immune system is hold you back from something important
  • You understand that testing big assumptions is a level for sustainable change
  • You have at least one testable big assumption
  • You have a draft of a test of your big assumption

As you progress through the process you will move from unconsciously "immune" to consciously "immune" to consciously "released" to unconsciously "released" ultimately growing your capacity to see and overcome your immunity.

Moving from unconsciously immune to consciously immune doesn't take long, in theory, you could do it in an hour. But don't let that fool you, this process isn't some quick fix. Moving from consciously immune to consciously released is most likely going to take 12 months or more. Lahey says it takes time because "what's in your column three has been there for usually decades and it takes time to actually rewire your brain so that you are not in that emergency self-protective mode."

The Immunity to Change process can be a powerful tool for helping you disrupt the autopilots that are keeping you from making the changes you know you need to make. By following the five steps outlined by Dr. Lahey and Dr. Kaegan, you can gain insight into how deeply rooted your big assumptions are, identify conflicting commitments that may be holding you back, test your big assumptions in order to assess how true and helpful they are today, and ultimately increase your capacity to overcome your immunity to change.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you read Lahey and Kaegan's book Immunity to Change, it covers so much more and goes much deeper than what I've touched on in this post. You can also get a great walkthrough of the diagnostic process from Dr. Lisa Lahey in this talk she gave back in 2017.

And like always, if you'd like help with any or all of the steps in this process, either for yourself or your whole team, we'd love to talk with you about how we can help.

Thank you for reading!

Tim McGee

The Leader's Journey

As a team of lifelong learners, we frequently share resources with each other. This newsletter is a space for us to share some of what we are learning, thinking about, and being encouraged by with you.

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