Immunity To Change

This Is Why Personal Change Is So Difficult


What Is Immunity To Change?

The term "immunity to change" came to prominence in the book: "Immunity to Change. How To Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization", by Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey [2009], in which they  address the issue of why personal change is often so difficult.

Their proposition is that your failure to achieve a personal change goal  isn't a lack of willpower, it is  the result of an "emotional immune system" that helps protect you from the negative impacts of personal change such as disappointment and shame. In summary:


Your failure to achieve a personal change goal isn’t the result of a lack of will-power, it’s your "emotional immune system" trying to protect you.






Immunity To Change & The Hidden Commitment

Immunity to change can be defined as a "hidden commitment", with an underlying root cause, that competes and conflicts with a stated commitment to change.

It these hidden commitments that cause people to not change and to fail to realise their best intentions.

Put simply, it is these hidden commitments that cause us to not keep New Year resolutions, to fail with diets, to not stop smoking etc.






Immunity To Change & The 'Knowing Doing Gap'

Kegan and Lahey refer to a "knowing doing gap", or as Kegan puts it:

"...how to close the gap between our intentions, things we actually want to carry out, and what we are actually able to do".

A dramatic and poignant illustration of the "knowing doing" gap can be seen in research in the US healthcare sector. As Kegan explains:

"If you look at people who are prescribed maintenance medications, people who should take, for example, a statin drug for the rest of their lives to control blood pressure or high cholesterol and stay alive, you would assume 100pc of these people would do so, wouldn’t you?

It turns out that research carried out here in Massachusetts shows that anywhere from between a third to a half of all Americans on maintenance medications, who understand why they’re on them, don’t take them after a year."

Kegan concludes:

"They’re usually around things like 'the incentives weren’t high enough'. Someone tells you you're going to die if you don’t make this change; that’s a pretty high incentive, right?" 







The Roots Of Immunity To Change

Put simplistically, we can understand the origin of these hidden commitments from two perspectives:

1. The hardware - the physical structure of your brain or more accurately brains.

This video clip outlines the evolutionary background to your brains:

Professor William Irvine - Evolutionary Psychology - extract from Stoicism & Framing


These thoughts are non-rational and largely driven by survival instincts and pleasure instincts - sometimes referred to as our "animal nature".

Many of our negative thoughts stem from these regions of the brain - or brains within our brain.

2. The software - the conditioning from our primary caregivers and dominant adult figures in our childhood that creates the thoughts that give rise to our immunity to change.

This is a vast subject and there are many psychological models and interventions used to address and "repair" this conditioning.

For simplicity, if we use Buddhist terminology there are three concepts to frame this:

Samskaras - impressions created in our minds and thoughts by our actions or, more damagingly, the actions of others upon us. If these actions are repeated regularly, they become a habit and are performed largely unconsciously. The stronger these habits become - as with all habits - they exercise increasing power.

Anusaya - latent tendencies which are these deeply ingrained samskara, or habits of response and thought, and which are largely unconscious.

Samsara - the cycle of being caught up in perpetual suffering, death and rebirth. This is often thought of in relation to reincarnation but in fact describes the hell on earth - in this life - that we create and endlessly put ourselves through with our samskara and anusaya - or our "shadow side".

Think of this as a ferris wheel of suffering.

So with this combination of hardware and software in our brains it is a wonder that we ever get anything done!

The resolution of these problems is to bring this resistance/immunity to change into conscious awareness and to frame our proposed personal change objectives in such a way that all areas of our brain can agree.





How To Resolve Your Immunity To Change

The process is very simple - and very powerful for its simplicity - and is based around a four-column exercise.

Here are the 4 columns: Immunity Map Worksheet 


(1) Set A Goal You Want To Achieve

Identify the areas in your life where you want to make a positive change.

Underneath, list the actions that will help you achieve your goal.

Resource: Make sure that your goal is aligned with your core desire and your point of focus.



(2) List & Review Your Obstructive Behaviours 

Make a list of what you are doing and [more importantly] what you are not doing to support that commitment.

Identify and review your actions and behaviours that are stalling your efforts.

Resource: How to become aware of your negative thoughts



(3) Confront Your Competing Commitment

Review the behaviours you listed in column two and ask yourself:

"How would I feel if I did the opposite?".

Examine the fears you face in pursuing your goal for personal change by outlining key concerns in the box at the top of column three.

Then list what you fear will be compromised.

These things are your competing commitments and the real reason for your failure to achieve your goals.

Resource: As your review these behaviours - check your body's reaction to your mind - this will always give a truthful reflection of what you truly feel.



(4) Challenge Your Big Assumptions

At the root of every competing commitment is a powerful assumption.

This assumption contains and expresses an unconscious belief that your hold.

It is powerful because it is stopping you achieve your goal.

It is this belief that you need to overcome in order to achieve your goal for personal change and make it a lasting change.

A good way of uncovering what lies behind these beliefs [the emotional logic] is to state and write down a “if ____, then ____” statement for each



Supporting Resources: 

Changing core negative beliefs

How to change the way you think 

How to change defeatist self talk







Further Resources:

A Four Step Process For Immunity To Change  And Achieving Lasting Change

Immunity Map Worksheet

The Real Reason Why People Won't Change

Exercise Activity Guide

Exercise Activity Guide 2

Immunity to Change Diagnostic Test












Reconsidering The Context Of Personal Change

Adaptive rather than technical challenges

The inherent assumption in most training and work-related attempts at encouraging personal change is that it is skills based, in other words people can be taught to change.

They can be taught, but generally they won't change. They can't change and according to Kegan this is because of their inbuilt and invisible immunity to change. (I prefer to refer to this as resistance.)


Cognitive development

There are many developmental models that attempt to map and model the stages of complexity associated with mental development.

It has been assumed that adults don't change - can't change - beyond early adult-hood, that a level of development is reached and remains static.

Kegan & Lahey challenge this and assert that based on their research, adults are capable of continuing development throughout their lives. They identify three qualitatively different dimensions of mental complexity what they call —the socialised mind, the self-authoring mind, and self-transforming mind, each of which interpret the world in different ways.

To explore this model further and more fully understand the theoretical background, please see the following resources:

  • "Kegan's Constructive Development Theory" By Professor John E Barbuto - video presentation: View Here
  • "Immunity to Change: A Report From the Field" By Jonathan Reams Download PDF Here
  • "Immunity to Change - How to Release the Potential of Individuals and Organizations"
    2 Case Studies - Download PDF Here



A Personal View

I am well aware that there are many models associated with personal change, and specifically  models such as CBT, ACT, CFT, DBT, Schema Therapy etc that are particularly effective when applied by clinical psychologists and other specialist in a therapeutic setting.

I also realise that the immunity to change model may not represent the most current leading edge thinking on this subject, but in my view, as a layperson concerned with practical tools and resources that can be understood and applied in a non-therapeutic context, this is a simple powerful tool for understanding and resolving why we so often find is so hard to achieve our goals for personal change.






Further Resources Related To Organisational Change

Resistance to change - how to deal with it

Dealing with resistance to change

Facilitative leadership

Conflict resolution tips






Free Download: One Page Summary Sheet With Action Points & Resources

Return To: Managing Personal Change

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