The Real Reason Why Change Is Hard

research Oct 10, 2019


By Jess Hopkins 

Change is a tricky topic. We all struggle with it in one way or another—on a personal or professional level. We say we want to change.  We feel motivated to follow through. And yet, invariably, we see little to no progress. What gives?  

Based on years of research, organizational psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow developed the Immunity to Change model as a powerful framework for explaining why so many people struggle to make meaningful changes to their lives. The underlying concept is that each of us has an “emotional immune system” that exists to protect us from fear, anxiety, and emotional discomfort. On the whole, this system is invaluable to our day-to-day safety, but our commitment to the safe and familiar can rear up and get in the way of our change-goals. 

At the heart of the emotional immune system resides our underlying competing commitments—those safety-net beliefs and coping mechanisms that guide our thoughts and actions. Most often, we don’t actually know what these commitments are or how they limit us. They live in our subconscious, working in the background to keep us stable and on track. Many people, despite a sincere internal commitment to change, unwittingly apply proactive energy toward hidden competing commitments.

For example, consider the project leader who is dragging her feet for seemingly no apparent reason, but actually has an unrecognized competing commitment to avoid a much tougher assignment—one she fears will come her way if she delivers too successfully on the current project. Or consider the parent who wants to do less micromanaging, but also refuses to delegate or relinquish control. Although micromanaging doesn’t align with what the parent wants, their behavior is a result of a hidden competing commitment to avoid looking needy or dependent on others. The inconsistencies between our stated goals and our actions reflect neither hypocrisy nor reluctance to change, but rather the paralyzing effects of competing commitments. 

So how can we overcome this “immunity to change?” Here is a powerful 4-step process, based on Kegan and Laskow’s research:

STEP 1: Clarify Your Goal

For this step, it’s important to recognize the difference between a technical goal and an adaptive one. A technical goal requires you to change your skill set. If you wanted to learn to knit a blanket, you can study and practice the necessary technique until you were able to complete the project. An adaptive goal, however, requires deeper shifts in mindset and accompanying behaviors. A common example would be losing weight. Yes, there is a technical aspect to losing weight, but most often there are underlying factors that make this more complex than simply eating differently. 

With this in mind, when wanting to make a change, capture your adaptive goal and the actions you’d need to take to get there. 

STEP 2: What Are You Currently Doing?

Now that you’re clear about your change-goal and what actions you need to take, you’re probably dying to hit the ground running and check those actions off your to-do list. STOP RIGHT THERE! Before you launch into frantic action, step back and do a bit of self-reflection. It’s crucial to get an accurate picture of what’s happening now before trying to initiate major changes. Otherwise it’s impossible to know what you’re really up against! Our goal at this stage is to take a thorough, honest inventory of our current state. Take time to brainstorm all of the actions you take or don’t take that undermine your change-goal. 

NOTE: Don’t beat yourself up, and try not to judge your own behaviors as you recognize them. In the next steps you’ll uncover the reason behind these actions and why they actually make sense in terms of your emotional safety. 

STEP 3: Fears and Competing Commitments

Fears that drive our behavior typically boil down into two types: fear of the things we’re trying to avoid and fear of not getting what we hope to gain. Write down what you’re afraid would happen if you changed each of your Step 2 behaviors. For example, if you listed “spending too much money on coffee drinks” in step 2, what would you be afraid of if you stopped? Perhaps it would be a fear of not having anything to look forward to on your break at work. Or being left out if you have a ritual of going for coffee with your friends on Saturday morning. Once you’ve listed your fears, it’s time to reveal the competing commitments that create them. 

Going with the same example above, when you think “I’m afraid of being left out when my friends go for coffee,” you can turn this around to say, “I am committed to NOT being left out.” The commitments are typically in the form of a negative, something we are committed to NOT experiencing. This means that in order to prevent it from happening, we are protecting ourselves with our obstructive Step 2 behaviors. Once you’ve completed Step 3 for each of your conflicting behaviors, the map makes complete sense in reverse. Based on your commitments in Step 3, of course you would exhibit the behaviors in Step 2. If you’re committed to not being left out, of course you’re going to spend money on fancy coffee every time you go out with your friends!

STEP 4: Your Big Assumptions

Your big assumptions can be best answered in the form of this question:

“What do you assume would happen if the thing you’re trying to prevent in Step 3 came true?” This usually takes the form of “If _____, then _____.” Continuing with the previous example, the assumption might be, “If I don’t follow along and buy coffee, then I will be ostracized and have no friends.” When we’re able to see the connection, it points out a strong tie-in to the emotional belief that’s holding you back. Big assumptions are the ideas that dictate our approach to life and guide our choices, whether consciously or unconsciously. By shining a light on them, we create visibility into the things that hold us back from change. 

Next, hold off that part of the brain that is screaming for massive action. Instead, design one or two SMART experiments: Safe & Modest, Actionable, Research-Based, Test. You will simply act against your Big Assumption in a small way and observe what happens as a result. The goal is to collect data, not to “improve” yourself. For example, “When I go for coffee with my friends I’ll just bring my own water bottle and not order anything.” This plan involves a modest behavior change. It can be done immediately and it’s relatively safe. 


The Immunity to Change model is a simple, powerful tool for learning to see and overcome the beliefs that hold you back. There’s no silver bullet for affecting positive change, but overturning your immunity to change is a foundational first step to your long-term success.

About the Author

Jess Hopkins is a Positive Psychology coach, speaker and trainer, working to maximize workplace well-being and performance. As a twice-certified Life Purpose and Career Coach, with dual Master's degrees in Counseling and Applied Positive Psychology, Jess is committed to affecting positive change within organizations that are driven by passion and purpose. For more information, please visit www.ThrivingWorkforce.com

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