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True Change Comes From the Gut, Head, Heart and Hand
Last October, I had the pleasure of attending a three-hour seminar given by Robert Kegan of the Adult Learning and Professional Development Department at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Kegan’s title, “Immunity to Change,” captivated me then, and even more so after the presentation. Kegan, along with his partner Lisa Laskow Lahey, presented the results of more than 20 years of research he and Lahey have conducted on the topic of change and why it is so difficult for people to make change. Interested in exploring this topic further after the workshop, I specifically purchased the duo’s 2009 book, Immunity to Change. The schedule and time commitment was such that I was finally able to start reading the book earlier this month. While I still have about three chapters to go, I’m still as much of a fan of their work as I was last October.
While I won’t do a 300+ page book justice in a short post, I have a few premises. Any major change or improvement that people want to make is accompanied by an equally strong commitment that prevents them from making the change or improvement. These strong commitments support values and beliefs that are important to the individual and have long protected their value system. Kegan and Lahey use the analogy of a person driving a car, with their foot on the gas pedal and the brake simultaneously while trying to make a change.
Another premise is that truly effective change is adaptive, not technological. The best example of this is someone trying to lose weight. If someone uses a technical approach to lose weight, they immediately change their diet, stop eating foods that are not part of the diet, and have no problems continuing on. For some people, this method works well. However, for the vast majority of people, this approach does not work effectively. Not only do they start eating foods they shouldn’t be eating, but they overeat, and they regain all the weight they lost, and then gain some back. When dieters take an “adaptive” approach, they start by looking at the big picture of weight loss. They first choose to eliminate or change their intake of a certain food. Seeing some success, they will find it easier to eliminate or change another food they want to change their diet. Then they might consider adding an early step to their exercise routine. The overarching approach is a process, not a process that seeks to immediately adopt an approach and seeks to continue to achieve it. Since immunity to change presupposes that there are other factors at play that explain why individuals eat the way they do now, unless these factors are also exposed, no progress will be made in making the desired changes.
Last week, I read a chapter in the book that really resonated with me, in which Kegan and Lahey found in their research that even those who followed their approach found that if the following key components were part of a commitment to change, will be more successful. They define them as viscera, head, heart and hands. People are genuinely committed to making a change or achieving a goal, which suggests that they feel pain internally (in their gut) about accomplishing something that is important to them. When it feels like change is important, or very important, it’s still possible not to make the commitment to move on. Other competing priorities got in the way, so projects that were personally considered important were put on hold for a while. Before that item reaches the status of absolute necessity in a person’s life, that’s when it starts to get the attention it deserves.
This in turn drives people to experience changes or goals in their minds and hearts. They begin to think about the benefits of adapting their lives to new ways of doing things while respecting any beliefs in the past that have prevented them from making such changes. Additionally, they begin to examine how they feel about the cost of not making changes or pursuing the path they want to be a part of their lives. The sense of head and heart will only be in place when one sees their change challenge as something they will change based on their actions and adaptations. Charging directly without considering the consequences of inaction (the technical approach) is a recipe for change that really won’t happen because it doesn’t get the promises it fully deserves.
Once a person has mulled over and emotionally experienced the possibility of change, action (the hands part of commitment) will need to be taken. This does not mean that all aspects of the required changes have been made. However, an initial first step or two was taken. Analyze the results. When they discover that trying a new approach doesn’t lead to potential problems (or what Kegan and Lahey define as “big assumptions”) that the people making the change expected, they are inspired to take extra steps in getting their switch done . There is a balance between respecting their values that have held them back from making changes in the past and respecting new ways of doing things that they feel are important to their lives.
Again, in trying to convey all the insights I have gained from exposure to this work, (and continue to learn as I finish the book and reflect on its message), it certainly contains columns of concepts that I know I will refer to in the future as well as my When working with clients. If the topic of change fascinates you and you want a deeper understanding of it, (especially the ability to make change in adults after age 40), I strongly recommend that you consider buying a copy of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey “Immunity to Change”. I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.
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