Why You Won’t Change

Have you ever wondered, why despite making best efforts, sometimes we don’t make changes for the good.  We may know what to do and why we should do it, but somehow we don’t seem to be able to make the desired change.

There is a psychological phenomenon called "hidden competing commitments" that explains why we are sometimes resistant to change.  Understanding how it works will help you overcome your resistance to change, and importantly help you deal with change-resistant employees.

First let's look at a few cold facts:

When a heart doctor tells seriously at risk patients that they will likely die unless they make changes such as losing weight, exercising more or stop smoking, only one in seven will make the necessary changes.

That's right, only one in seven!

When a doctor tells patients that they must take a 'maintenance' drug daily for the rest of their life or risk a stroke, they immediately say "Yes, I'll take it".  But various studies show that a year later 53 to 57% of people have stopped taking the drug!

Now I'm sure these patients want to live, but why is it that the majority of them don't change their behaviour?

And why is it in business that we or our staff often intellectually understand the need to change something - whether it is for example to stop micro-managing, contribute your views more, be a team player, delegate more, be more collaborative, etc - but our efforts to change falter?

In essence the reason is simple, explained using an example given by Robert Kegan (*):

"There are fourteen frogs sitting on a log, three decide to jump in the water, how many frogs are left sitting on the log?
Best answer: Fourteen, because there is a big difference between deciding to and actually doing it."

So you may be thinking: "What causes resistance to change, and how can we overcome resistance to change?"  
Sigmund Freud suggested a concept called "secondary gain".

Secondary gain is in effect our hidden reason for holding onto an undesirable position.  The secondary gain is typically at the unconscious level and so is outside our awareness.  We regard the perceived loss of this hidden reason as greater than the gain that we will achieve by making the changes.

If you are to make lasting changes you first need to bring into your awareness and understand your secondary gain for holding onto the behaviour you want to change.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (*), both developmental psychologists, have progressed Freud's thinking and devised an approach to help overcome our resistance to change.

From their 20-years of research they believe that in change situations there are frequently forces that prevent us from making the change.  They term these forces "competing commitments."

They say competing commitments are deeply held unconscious personal beliefs that act against our conscious desires.  These competing commitments typically result in our failure to make the desired changes.

Competing commitments are a form of self-protection against a deeply held belief about ourselves and our environment, and should not be thought of as weakness.

This deeply held belief leads to something they term a 'big assumption.  This is essentially our biggest fear of making the change.  And it is this 'big assumption' we make about our world that is the root cause of our 'immunity to change'.

Our experience working with executives supports Kegan and Lahey's research findings. Adopting a proven process to surface a client's 'big assumption' makes it possible to challenge the assumption.  Then by following simple stepwise actions clients can overcome their immunity to change and embed their new desired behaviour.

Interestingly teams, even executive teams, can have a 'collective competing commitment' that can prevent them working effectively.

 (*): Kegan, R. and Lasow Lahey, L. (2009), Immunity to Change, Harvard Business Press 

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