Career Woman

Overcoming immunities to change: Becoming your best self at work


When we show up as less than our best selves at work, there’s usually some fear holding us back. That’s especially the case when we know there is some important change we want to make — for example to delegate more, to better manage our time, to give more honest feedback– yet despite our sincere commitment to the change, we aren’t able to succeed.

The gap between intentions and outcomes can be closed in those situations by understanding the nature of change. Here are eight things to consider:

  1. Face the facts that change is hard, even when the need for change is essential. Recent studies show that doctors can tell their heart patients they will literally die if they don’t permanently change their ways (concerning diet, smoking, exercise) and still only about one in seven will be able to make the changes.
  2. We don’t distinguish between change goals that are only behavioral and habit-centered, and goals that require changes to our thoughts and feelings.
  3. We have one basic model of change: a clear goal + a careful action plan + monitoring of our behavior towards that goal + willpower = successful change, which we apply regardless of what kind of change we are trying to accomplish. That model is appropriate and will work with behavioral and habit-centered goals, but it is inadequate for more complex goals that implicate our interior world.
  4. We typically blame ourselves when we don’t succeed, believing that we didn’t really care enough, or are weak-willed, didn’t have a good enough plan, aren’t capable or some other interpretation that points to our insufficiencies. That explanation deflates our well-being and demotivates us.
  5. Humans are complex creatures: we have competing commitments and goals. Being unaware of these contradictory goals doesn’t make them any less real. For example, we can sincerely want to get better at being more confident and self-assured, and simultaneously, we can have an unconscious commitment to not appear arrogant; or to appear pushy or self-promoting; or to be seen as an imposter if I don’t stay under the radar. Every time we behave consistently with our goal to be more confident, we risk screwing up relative to our competing goal. The more confident I feel, for example, the more I (unconsciously) worry that others see me arrogant. Our sincere intentions to change have little power compared to our self-protective competing commitments, which keep us stuck in the status quo.
  6. I call this inner contradiction an “immune system” because the mind, like the body, has an immune system – an invisible, ceaseless dynamic that exists to protect us. An immune system is not an illness, disease, weakness, or problem that needs to be fixed or cured. It is an intelligent, beautiful phenomenon that only wants to take care of us.  However, our immune systems – physical or mental – can still get us in trouble, even when they are working on our behalf.  When the immune system is in error, when it sees a danger that is not there, it will go to work “protecting” us from the very awareness we may need in order to thrive.
  7. Fortunately, misguided immune systems can be overcome by first naming the assumptions we hold that keep us intent to protect ourselves. As is, these assumptions are like lens through which we see ourselves, others and the world and we automatically take them to be the truth. In reality, they are untested assumptions and typically false or overly restrictive. For example, I assume people will see me as arrogant. And I may assume their opinion matters more than my desire to feel confident in myself. Once identifying these limiting assumptions, we intentionally test for their (in)accuracy in the real world (not just in our minds). Did the big assumption prove to be true? Not so true? Not at all true? Most of the time, we need three or four tests in order to genuinely know reality.
  8. This approach offers a distinct way to create sustainable change, one that gets at the root cause of our real change challenge (our competing goals). Undoubtedly, the “Just Do It” model of change is easier, and works when there is no underlying fear. When it doesn’t work, try the immunity to change alternative.

Dr. Lisa Lahey is Co-Director of Minds at Work, and faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of several books, including Immunity to Change and most recently, An Everyone Culture.

Dr Lisa Lahey is visiting Sydney for the seventh annual TLC Asia Pacific Conference: ‘The Leading Edge’ on 18 May 2017 where she will be speaking with Bob Anderson, Co-author of Mastering Leadership and Founder and Chairman of The Leadership Circle. Together, two of the world’s leading minds on development and leadership will discuss cutting edge research and trends in leadership.

This is a complimentary public event that requires registration to attend. To register for the event and for more details, please click here.

About Lisa Lahey

Lisa Lahey is Co-director of Minds At Work, a coaching and consulting firm serving businesses and institutions around the world, and on the faculty of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. An expert in adult development and an experienced executive coach and educator, Lisa works with leaders and leadership teams in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. The recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, Lisa’s thirty years of research and writing on adult development have influenced the practice of coaching, psychotherapy, management, and leadership. Her seminal books, How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work (Wiley, 2001), and Immunity to Change (Harvard Business Press, 2009) have been published in over a dozen languages. Her latest book, An Everyone Culture (Harvard Business Press, 2016) was recently named “Best Management and Workplace Culture Book of 2016” by 800-CEO-READ. Lisa has been on the faculty of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Conference, and had her work featured in The Atlantic, MSNBC News, Harvard Business Review, The New York Times Sunday Business Section, Oprah Magazine and Fast Company. A passionate pianist and nature lover, Lisa has two sons and a daughter-in-law and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband.

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