Immunity to Change

From Story Act 2, 2017

Professor Judith McLean looks at our immunity to change.

What if you were given the ultimatum: change your lifestyle, change your beliefs otherwise bad things will happen. Would you be one of the one in nine people who could change, let’s say – lose weight, give up smoking, desist from harmful behaviours – or would you be like the other eight – full of good intentions, but never quite achieving your longed for goals.

Turns out identifying the need for change, let alone making necessary changes, is a much more complicated affair than first thought. And the secret of success is quite counter-intuitive. Don’t despair if this sounds heady, Harvard leadership Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey believe that it’s the way we’ve traditionally approached change that gets in the way of our success. They claim failure is in large part due to our own inappropriate operating system, causing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our ability to understand internal resistances.

In their 2009 book Immunity to Change Kegan and Laskow Lahey explain how unacknowledged resistances and fears work to ensure we can’t succeed. The thesis is that we hold what they call ‘big assumptions’ about ourselves that are largely unconscious. They argue we create an overarching or dominant narrative that overwhelms us and our way of thinking, hindering our ability to look at an alternative way of being. To get beneath the ‘big assumption’ we need to dismantle our understanding (the narrative we create) of a process or thing.

Let me explain…

A usual approach goes something like this. I decide I want to change (desire) and begin (plan) using ‘will or won’t power’ (method). According to the authors this is where things go awry. Let’s consider a scenario, say an improvement goal to improve my diet. The immunity to change model asks us to look closely at what we are currently doing and not doing. An example might be eating a diet high in sugar and not doing enough exercise. After an exhaustive list of what’s interfering with achieving the nominated goal, the authors direct us to consider doing the opposite and monitoring what fears come up. In this example, how we’d feel if we gave up sugar and exercised regularly. And, here’s where the insight has a chance to emerge.

It’s by being intensely curious about naming the fears that surface if we do the opposite– stop eating sugar and exercising – that we come to understand why we can’t change.

What we’re protecting ipso facto works steadfastly to ensure we’re not achieving our goals.

So counter-intuitively by surfacing and naming our fears we discover why it doesn’t make sense to change. ‘If I give up sugar, I’ll be depriving myself of the thing that brings me pleasure and in my busy life I need a reward or if I exercise, I’ll look foolish and people might reject me’. Here lies the immunity, the protection. I remain committed to not giving up sugar because I don’t like feeling deprived, I’m committed to not exercising because I don’t want to look stupid…

Our fears and resistances are there to protect us and, built up over a lifetime, they work out of full consciousness. Interestingly, it’s not until we surface these assumptions in action and stay alert to them that we can begin to change.

Long before Kegan and Laskow Lahey, Shakespeare had lots to say about what happens when we can’t surface our fears. Think about his great tragedies. In every situation it’s the tragic heroes’ hubris that makes their downfall so heartbreaking. Despite illustrious careers, his heroes lack an ability to look at what’s really driving them. It’s their inability to see things as they really are that ultimately brings them undone. As audiences we want to shout out, warn them ‘Pay attention, you’re in danger, don’t do that, change what you’re doing before it’s too late’.

Their tragic downfall happens because of their refusal to understand what compels them to act. Think about Romeo’s impulsivity, Hamlet’s indecisiveness and procrastination, Lear’s egotism and inability to see his daughter’s truthfully, Macbeth’s unbridled ambition and blindness to his wife’s madness, and spectacularly Othello’s blind jealousy which ends Desdemona’s life. Despite their enormous stature Shakespeare doesn’t allow any of them to understand what’s driving their irrationality or provide them the means to change.

Certainly a resistance to change and an ability to develop as human beings isn’t just the subject matter of tragedies. A failure to look at what sits underneath make-believe characters’ fears is the stuff of the famous musical The Wizard of Oz. Audiences relate to a Scarecrow’s need for a brain, a Tin Man in search of a heart and a Cowardly Lion looking for courage. Yet, many have speculated that writer L. Frank Baum had much more in mind when he wrote the book at the beginning of the 20th century. If read as a political parable, it focuses on the need for the United States to come together and make significant changes after the 1893 Great Depression.

Using the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion as allegorical devices, it’s suggested Baum wanted audiences to see the Scarecrow as representing American farmers and their 19th century troubles, urging them to think for themselves, hence acquiring a brain. The Tin Man representing the industrial steel industries need to look after their workers, in essence to find a heart, and the Lion as a metaphor for William Jennings Bryan, encouraging him to find his courage as the Democrat Presidential candidate for the 1896 election to speak out for American families and the country’s future posterity.

This exchange between Baum’s Scarecrow and Tin Man illustrates the certainty with which each reinforces their own (or their allegorical sectors of American society) long held narratives about human nature and unwillingness to investigate the fears that underpin them:

All the same, said the Scarecrow, I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.” “I shall take the heart,” returned the Tin Woodman, “for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.

Whether it’s big ‘C change leading a country, or an organisation or little ‘c change, leading ourselves and our families, there is one certainty – change is never easy. What Kegan and Laskow Lahey’s model and encounters with art offer are meetings with the unknowable.

Attacking our resistance to change by dismantling our protections, we’re able to telescope our big assumptions testing their validity and grip on our lives. In art it’s the flawed and dysfunctional characters acting as archetypes that we use as litmus indicators measuring our own lives in relation to others. As Kegan and Laskow Lahey suggest: Neither change in mindset nor change in behaviour alone leads to transformation, but each must be employed to bring about the other.


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Professor Judith McLean

Professor Judith McLean is the Chair in Arts Education, a joint appointment between Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) where she holds the role of Scholar in Residence. Judith’s career is distinguished by her breadth and diversity of experience as an arts educator, artist and cultural leader across Australia. She is currently a Director on the Board of Tourism and Events Queensland, and leads QUT’s executive programs using arts-based practices in the corporate and government sectors.