Immunity to Change

Overcoming Unconscious Assumptions

Work through your unconscious assumptions using this interactive worksheet.

Change can be difficult, even when we know it's for the right reasons. Some people openly resist it, others embrace it. And some commit fully to the change, but then inexplicably... do nothing.

When this happens, change leaders are often left scratching their heads, wondering "what went wrong?" Why did seemingly committed people not make the changes that they needed to?

When this happens, it could be down to an "immunity to change." This is much more than resisting or disliking a change, and can often be more difficult to understand and overcome.

In this article, we'll explore what immunity to change is, and how you can help your people to overcome it.

Not everyone will embrace change. See the transcript of this video here.

What Is Immunity to Change?

When people come to work, they bring with them their personal history, emotions, and subjective views about the world. Some of these assumptions are so fundamental that people can find it hard to separate them from facts.

According to psychologist, Robert Kegan and Harvard professor, Lisa Laskow Lahey, these assumptions underpin a set of "competing commitments" that can conflict with a genuine commitment to change [1].

This means that while someone may consciously want to change and even outwardly agree to the change, they have an equally strong internal desire not to do so, of which they may be completely unaware.

Immunity to change is not the same as disliking or resisting change. Instead it is the existence of an internal conflict between your unconscious thoughts and desires, and the need for change.

What Does Immunity to Change Look Like?

It can be difficult to know whether someone has immunity to change, until it's too late. This is because, outwardly, the person or persons concerned openly agree to the change. In reality, however, they may make little or no effort to change and continue to do things the way that they always have.

Let's look at an example: Jill, who manages a marketing department, has been tasked with implementing a new system for sharing information within her team.

She gives her people instructions for the system, but only a few practical details. This isn't because she doesn't agree with the change, it's just that, internally, Jill believes that she'll be thought of as weak or uninformed if she has to ask for or share information. So, she doesn't enforce the use of the new system and carries on as normal.

Jill's team like the idea of a new information-sharing system and the benefits it will bring, but without proper guidance and a lack of leadership, they eventually forget all about it and assume that it wasn't that important anyway. The change fails to happen, and Jill's senior leaders are left questioning why it didn't take place – despite assurances from her that it would.

Five Steps for Overcoming an Immunity to Change

The Immunity to Change process involves five steps which are designed to answer the question, "If you know you need to change something, and you're fully committed to changing it, why are you not doing it?" [2]

Step 1: Commit to a Change Goal

First, identify your change goal clearly – and be specific. What do you want to do differently? What has to change? What will happen if you don't change?

The change goal should not only be desirable, but essential. The stronger the need to make the change, the more likely you are to achieve it.

For example, you may recognize that your workload is too heavy, because you always say "yes" to taking on new work, even when you don't have the time. You've started to become stressed, which is affecting your mental and physical health, and damaging your relationships. In this case, your commitment could be to take on less work, delegate more to others, or be more honest with your colleagues about what you can and can't do.

If you fail to achieve the change, you'll likely experience negative emotions such as shame or self-loathing. It may also undermine other people's trust in you to get work done on time.

Step 2: Describe the Behavior That You Need to Change

Next, describe clearly and honestly what you are currently doing that is preventing the change from happening.

Simply committing to things that you know you should already be doing is like making bad New Year’s resolutions. You know you should make them, but you're highly unlikely to stick to them unless you change your behavior.

Instead, identify the specific actions and behaviors that are preventing you from achieving your change goal. Using the example above, one action might be, "Saying yes to work even when I don’t have time to do it."

Step 3: Uncover Your Hidden Competing Commitments

Next, consider the worst thing that could happen if you stopped doing the actions that you described in Step 2, and did the opposite instead. A strong emotional reaction is likely to be at the heart of this: perhaps it will make you feel uncomfortable or fill you with a sense of dread.

For example, imagine telling your manager that you can't take on a new project because you have too much on. You may be scared that they'll see you as incompetent or that they'll get angry with you.

Of course, this is not what you want to happen. In fact, you likely have a strong internal commitment to preventing this from ever happening. In this case, your hidden competing commitment may be, "I must not have my manager think that I’m incompetent."

You may well have other worries, too. You might think, "People will think less of me." Your hidden competing commitments would therefore be, "I am committed to not offending people" or, "I am committed to having people think well of me."

Step 4: Tease Out Your Big Assumptions

Once you’ve clearly defined your competing commitments, identify the underlying assumptions involved. Ask yourself, "Why would it be so bad if the thing I'm committed to avoiding happened? Why am I so afraid of it happening?"

For example, the big assumptions underlying the commitments mentioned in Step 3 might be, "If my boss's opinion of me is reduced, my career prospects may be damaged."

Some assumptions that you discover may be true – others may not. But it's only by surfacing these deep-rooted fears and feelings, and by being able to examine them objectively, that people can begin to see whether the foundations of their self-defeating behavior have any real truth to them.

As Kegan and Lahey put it, this process allows people to examine their assumptions, rather than looking at the world through their assumptions.

The idea here is not simply to solve the issue by understanding what causes it (although you may have an "A-ha!" moment), but to clearly identify the assumptions that underpin your competing commitments.

Step 5: Test Your Big Assumptions

When you're satisfied that you've got to the real root of the problem, your next action should be to test your assumptions and establish whether they're true or not. How you go about this will depend on the nature of the assumption, and your specific situation.

One way to test your assumption is to use Kegan and Lahey's SMART test:

  • Safe: don't do anything reckless that could be harmful to yourself or your career.
  • Modest: start small to test the water.
  • Actionable: make sure that this is something you will have the opportunity to do.
  • Research-based: your priority here is to gather information, not to effect change.
  • Test your assumption: make sure that the result will give you information that confirms or denies the assumption.


You’ll likely have seen the SMART acronym in goal setting, where it stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This is very different from Kegan and Lahey's SMART test, and the two should not be confused.

If you're unsure about how to create a good test to fit Kegan and Lahey's SMART criteria, talk it over with a trusted friend or colleague to get their input.

Keep a log of opportunities that you might have missed out on because of your assumptions. Note any difficult situations where you weren't able to act on the change that you needed to implement because of them. This should help you to understand more about your underlying assumptions and what you need to do to overcome them and change.

The process should shine a light on the fundamental causes of apparently self-destructive behavior, drilling down to the core of your beliefs. This can often be a very revealing and even emotional exercise. Often such behavior comes down to self-preservation.

Once this is understood, it's possible to examine the truth of your core assumptions or beliefs, and challenge the hold that they have over you. This will help you to gain a deeper understanding of the context of your behavior and, eventually, to change it in a way that is both real and lasting.


To help you or your team to work through the process, use our free, downloadable worksheet. This will help you to clearly define and understand the real reasons behind your or someone else's immunity to change.

Key Points

According to Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, immunity to change is an inability to change because of deep-rooted assumptions and conflicting commitments. These may be so entrenched that they are unconscious.

You can address an immunity to change by following these five steps:

  1. Commit to a change goal.
  2. Describe the behavior you need to change.
  3. Uncover your hidden competing commitments.
  4. Tease out your big assumptions.
  5. Test your assumptions.

This process will help you to better understand the internal barriers you have to the change and what you need to do to overcome them.

Download Interactive Worksheet

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