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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 taught by Robert Kegan, of the Department of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Kegan’s topic titled “Immunity to Change,” captivated me at the time, and even more after the presentation. In collaboration with his partner Lisa Laskow Lahey, Kegan’s presentation presented the results of more than 20 years of research he and Lahey had conducted on the subject of change and why it is so difficult for people to make it happen. Interested in learning more about the topic after the seminar, I decided to purchase the book the couple completed in 2009 called “Immunity to Change.” Schedules and time commitments being what they are, I was finally able to start reading the book earlier this month. While I still have about three chapters to complete, I remain as much a fan of their work as I became last October.
While I wouldn’t do a 300+ page book justice in a short post, there are several premises that stay with me. Any big change or improvement goal that one is trying to accomplish at the same time has equally strong commitments that are holding them back from making that change or improvement. These strong commitments uphold values and beliefs that are very important to the individual and have protected their value system for a long time. Kegan and Lahey use the analogy of a guy driving a car and having his foot on both the gas pedal and the brake at the same time when he’s trying to make a change.
Another premise is that truly effective change is adaptive and not technical. The best example of this is when someone is trying to lose weight. If someone takes a technical approach to losing weight, they immediately change their diet, stop eating foods that are not part of that diet, and have no problem sticking to the diet as they go along. For some people this approach works well. However, for the vast majority this approach does not work effectively. Not only do they start eating the foods they shouldn’t have, but they eat so much of them that they gain back all the weight they lost and then some. When a dieter takes an “adaptive” approach, he begins by looking at the whole weight loss picture. They choose first to eliminate or change their intake of a certain food. Seeing some success, they then find it easier to eliminate or change another food they want to change in their diet. They may then be looking to add the first few steps to an exercise routine. The general approach is one of a process as opposed to trying to make an approach instantaneously and trying to keep making it happen. Since the premise of immunity to change is that there are other factors at play as to why the individual is eating the way they are, that unless these factors are also exposed, there will be no progress in bringing about the change desired.
Last week, I read in a book chapter that really resonates with me that Kegan and Lahey have found in their research that shows that even those who have followed their methods are more successful when the following key components are part of the commitment to change . They define them as the intestines, the head and the heart and the hand. People who are truly committed to making a change or achieving a goal that has alluded to them feel heartache inside (in their gut) from accomplishing something that is important to them. When feelings are that a change is important to make, or extremely important, there is likely still the possibility that the commitment to move forward is not there. Other competing priorities get in the way, and so the item that an individual thought was important, is put on hold for an additional amount of time. Until that element achieves an absolutely necessary status in one’s life, that’s when it starts to get the attention it deserves.
This in turn prompts the person to experience the change or goal in their head and heart. They begin to think both about the benefits of adjusting their lives to a new way of doing things and about honoring the past beliefs that held them back from making such a change. Additionally, they also begin to examine their feelings about the cost of not making the change or pursuing the path they want to be a part of their life. Head and heart feelings only come into play when a person approaches the challenge of change as something that will change in terms of behavior and adaptation. Charging directly, without thinking about the consequences of not acting (the technical approach) is a recipe for a change that doesn’t actually happen because it doesn’t receive the commitment it fully deserves.
Once one has thought about and emotionally experienced the possibilities for change, comes the need for action (the hand part of the commitment). It does not mean that all aspects of the desired change are completed. However, a first step or two is taken. The results are analyzed. When trying something in a new way is seen to not lead to the potential problem the change maker anticipated (or what Kegan and Lahey refer to as “The Big Assumption”), they are then inspired to take further steps in completing their switch. There is both a balance of honoring their values that have held them back from making the change in the past, and a respect for their new way of doing things that they felt was so important to add to their lives.
Again, while I try to convey all that I have gained in terms of insights from being exposed to this work (and continue to learn as I finish the book and reflect on its messages), it certainly contains concepts that I know I will refer to in future columns and while working with my clients. If the topic of change is something that fascinates you and that you would like to gain a greater understanding of, (particularly the ability to make change in your adult years after 40), I highly recommend that you consider taking one. a copy of “Immunity to Change” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.
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