How to Overcome Resistance to Change

  • Written by Steve Safigan
  • -Friday, January 6, 2012

How to Overcome Resistance to Change

It's difficult to change. This is demonstrated by the number of New Year's resolutions we make and how few of them actually lead to lasting change. If you're like most people, the resolutions are just more evidence that change attempts seem doomed from the start.

Yet most of us see our resolutions as worthy and important. We truly want change in our life, and we are sincere in our commitment to achieving it. People may attribute failure to lack of motivation: "If I just felt like it was important enough, I would do it." Others may attribute it to a lack of commitment: "I didn't really go into this prepared enough. I made a half-hearted decision." Still others may attribute it to a lack of willpower or self-regulation: "I'm so undisciplined and lazy, it's no wonder I failed."

What if I were to tell you that most failures to change were not because of a lack of motivation, commitment, or willpower? Harvard academic psychologist Robert Kegan and research director Lisa Laskow Lahey detail a key reason why people find it so difficult to change. Their book, Immunity to Change, gives a step-by-step plan for creating lasting change in your life.

Technical Challenges and Adaptive Challenges

Underlying Kegan and Lahey's work is a distinction made by leadership author and speaker Ronald Heifetz. According to Heifetz, there are two kinds of change challenges, those he calls technical challenges, and those he calls adaptive challenges. Technical challenges can be overcome by relatively straight forward and well-defined means and do not require the individual to transform their mindset. Learning to fly an aircraft or craft fine furniture are examples of technical challenges. Adaptive challenges require you to transform (adapt) your mindset in order to overcome the challenge. Developing confidence and learning to stop procrastinating are examples of adaptive challenges.

Let's take the example of resolving to lose weight, perhaps the most common of all New Year's resolutions. If the change required is technical, then technical solutions work: You decide to eat less, exercise more, and eat only healthy foods. If the challenge is truly technical, you succeed. More often, however, what initially appears to be a technical challenge is a cover for a deeper, adaptive challenge. Attempting to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge is destined to fail.

What could be the adaptive challenge in this example? Unfortunately, there are many reasons why we eat, and only one of these reasons is because we're hungry. You may eat because you are bored. You may eat because you are lonely. You may eat because you are anxious, fearful, or worried. You may eat because you have a poor self-image. All of these are adaptive problems which require adaptive solutions. Adaptive solutions require a change to the underlying system you have in place that keeps you feeling safe, what Kegan and Lahey call your emotional immune system.

Immunity to Change

You have a well-tuned system of coping mechanisms in place which helps keep you safe and helps you to avoid fear, anxiety, and emotional discomfort. Kegan and Lahey liken this phenomenon to an immune system. Your own emotional immune system is intelligent in the sense that it can identify an outside attack which threatens your sense of safety and mobilize itself to fend it off. It's constantly vigilant, and you can rely on it to accomplish exactly what it's designed to do: to keep you safe.

So how is your own resistance to change like an immune system? Let's break it down. You might first start with a desire to change something about yourself, a worthwhile goal. Let's say that your goal is to have closer relationships with others. You then make a commitment to change certain behaviors to meet your goal. These may include: (1) get out more; (2) act more extraverted and social; and (3) make more efforts to make plans with friends. These are all technical solutions.

According to Kegan and Lahey, when you attempt to change a well-functioning coping system, your emotional immune system springs to action, with its goal to make you feel safe and avoid anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, and other emotional discomfort. You may have trouble identifying your own emotions. You may not report that you feel uncomfortable in the face of change. Instead you may report feeling undisciplined or unmotivated, or you avoid or procrastinate. Yet without an understanding of what feelings you're avoiding, your solution is unlikely to address the real issue of why change does not occur.

Step One: Define Your Commitment

It's important to define a goal that's important to you. Researchers Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, Kirk Warren Brown, and others stress the importance of intrinsic motivation to ultimately attain a goal. Motivation is intrinsic if it comes from your internal goals, desires, and values rather than being imposed on you by others. If the goal is something you feel you "should" do but are not internally motivated to achieve, then you're less likely to succeed. However, if you want the goal, if you feel some urgency about reaching the goal, and if you feel the goal is worthy in and of itself, then success is much more likely. After all, if you are going to be spending a lot of time and effort to create lasting change in your life, it might as well be for something you deeply care about.

Let's not forget about extrinsic motivation as well. Kegan and Lahey also recommend that you review your goal with others close to you. Knowing that the goal is also important to others can be a powerful motivator, especially if you tell others what you are planning to do. They can also act as an accountability system for you, and can give you feedback along the way.

Step Two: What Are You Doing or Not Doing Instead of Sticking to Your Commitment?

Kegan and Lahey recommend uncovering your true feelings, your hidden agenda, by looking at what you're doing to sabotage your own change. Psychologist William Perry claims that the two most important questions to ask about people who are attempting change are these: "What do they really want, and what will they do to keep from getting it?"

Let's return to our example of wanting closer relations with others. Instead of looking at technical solutions, Kegan and Lahey recommend looking at what we're doing instead of what we want to do. A possible list might include (1) I stay at home and isolate; (2) I am reserved and shy in social situations; and (3) I resist any conversation deeper than "cocktail party" conversation. The gap between what you want and what you do is a sure sign that there's a payoff to what you do, something that's protecting you and keeping you away from emotional discomfort.

Step Three: Identify Your Hidden Competing Commitments

So why do we sabotage the very changes we sincerely want to make? Kegan and Lahey identify what they call hidden competing commitments. Something about the change you wish to make threatens the status quo that feels safe and comfortable to you. You have your visible commitment (in this example, to have closer relations with others), but this commitment may be in direct opposition to a hidden commitment you've made to yourself which is designed to protect you. It's like having one foot on the gas and another foot on the brake. Another way to look at this is that you may think you're running your own agenda, when in fact there is an agenda running you. In our example, what could be the hidden competing commitments? It depends on the individual, and how the individual feels balanced, comfortable, and safe. Here are some possibilities: (1) I am committed to other people's approval; (2) I am committed to presenting an image of myself as confident and self-assured; (3) I am committed to not getting hurt in relationships; and (4) I am committed to a sense of invulnerability to others.

Step Four: Identify Your Big Assumptions

Underlying our hidden competing commitments is what Kegan and Lahey describe as one or more big assumptions. Once we uncover our own hidden competing commitments, we can step back and observe what assumptions underlie these agreements. Possible big assumptions in our example include: (1) Other people will reject me if I do not actively seek their approval; (2) If I don't project a confident image of myself then I will be seen as weak; (3) I am not strong enough to risk being hurt again in close relationships; and (4) If I show vulnerability then people will take advantage of me.

The four categories we just reviewed—our visible commitment, what we're doing/not doing instead, our hidden competing commitments, and our big assumptions—are what Kegan and Lahey refer to as our immunity map. It is like an X-ray, showing us the real reasons why we resist the change we want.

Step Five: Implement an Adaptive Change

Note that any technical attempts to change (get out more, act more extraverted and social, have deeper conversations) threatens your immune system. Like your biological immune system, your emotional immune system may reject something that is, in fact, good for you. Doctors suppress our immune system during organ transplants so that the body does not reject the new organ. However, it's not a good idea to simply suppress your own emotional immune system. It's likely to produce deeper, buried emotions that are even thornier to pick out and address. Instead, you can design change solutions that integrate your emotional needs into the solutions themselves.

When you look at your immune system as an intelligent coping system perfectly designed to protect you, you are less likely to view it as "bad." Without your immune system, you are faced with perhaps your worst fear: to be defenseless in the face of what you perceive to be danger.

However, when you take your own immune system into account, you honor it, which is to say that you honor your own resourcefulness. Your immune system is part of you, and it serves a useful purpose. It simply may be standing in the way of what you truly want. You can design a solution that focuses on your underlying adaptive problem instead of the more obvious "surface" problem. Change itself does not cause anxiety and discomfort; instead it is the feeling that we are defenseless in the face of apparent danger. You can draw on your own creativity, courage, and resilience to redefine how you look at the real issue which honors your fear of change and addresses your need for self-protection.

Additional Resources

A short article summarizing Kegan and Lahey's approach is necessarily limited. For a step-by-step guide to how to create your own immunity map, refer to Kegan and Lahey's book-length treatment of this subject in Immunity to Change. Good luck with your change efforts!

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004)
Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. (1999)
A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627 – 668.
Heifetz, R. (2001)
The Real Reason People Won't Change. Harvard Business Review, November 2001. Boston: Harvard Business School.
Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. L. (2009)
Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and your Organization. Boston: Harvard Business School.
Shearon, D. (2010)
Change is Hard, Except When It's Not! Positive Psychology News Daily web site.

An abbreviated version of this article appears on the Positive Psychology News Daily web site (