Goal-Setting Tips: Overcoming Your Immunity to Change

Blog post by Leslie Helmuth, Harvard Extension blog editor

We’re all a bit resistant to change. Eight days into January, and how many of us have already broken a New Year’s resolution? (I haven’t, but then this year I didn’t bother setting one.) It’s a cliché, yes: but change is hard.

Photo of Change Just Ahead sign - immunity to change blog post imageJust maybe, though, the problem isn’t inertia or lack of willpower. According to Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, when we fail at a goal we’ve set for ourselves, it’s likely that a sort-of emotional immune system is covertly at work, defending us from perceived threats.

To arrive at lasting change, Kegan (who teaches Adult Development) and Lahey say you must dig deep to identify what may be in opposition to your goal. These hidden competing commitments are rooted in our individual worldviews—our big assumptions about how things operate. And change results from altering the way we think.

In their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Kegan and Lahey lay out a process for overcoming obstacles. It’s a four-column immunity map that helps you understand what feelings are at play and how you are sabotaging your efforts.

Mapping your immunity to change

Step 1: list your improvement goal.

In column one, list a goal that would have a significant impact on your life. Perhaps it’s spending less and saving more for retirement, becoming a better listener, or finally switching to a new career. At the bottom of the column, list some actions that would help you achieve your goal.

Step 2: identify behaviors that keep you from your goal.

For column two, consider what you are doing (or not doing) that’s stalling your efforts.

Let’s focus on the example of changing careers. Say we have an accountant who really wants to become a psychologist. But she works many evenings and weekends at her current job, and keeps forestalling the GRE and putting off graduate school applications.

It might seem like enough to recognize and focus on changing these behaviors. But success comes from shifting your mindset. And the next two steps help you work toward that shift.

Step 3: discover your competing commitments.

Here’s where the real self-exploration comes in. Look at the behaviors you listed in column two and ask yourself how you’d feel if you did the opposite.

Our career changer might worry that if she works less she’ll be perceived as a slacker. What if her GRE scores aren’t high enough for the top programs? If she completes the applications, she might actually get into a program and have to give up her stable lifestyle.

It’s easy to see the concept of the emotional immune system at work here, warding off feelings of shame, disappointment, and fear.

Given these feelings, we might see her competing commitments as a wish to be respected professionally, to perform at the highest level, and to have security and stability.

For the exercise, the fears are listed in a worry box at the top of this column. And the competing commitments follow.

Step 4: identify your big assumptions.

So how can you move forward given what you’ve learned? Figure out what internalized truths are at the root of your competing commitments. Try framing your competing commitments in “if ____, then ____” statements.

For our accountant, one such statement might be “if I don’t perform at the highest level, I will be seen as a failure.”

List your big assumptions in column four.

Download an immunity map worksheet

Download the immunity map worksheet we created to map out your goals, challenges, competing commitments, and big assumptions.  

Making use of what you’ve learned

These columns form your immunity map, helping you see why you struggle to make changes. A solution must take your emotions into account.

You might test the assumption that presents the most significant obstacle in your life. Think of a low-risk scenario. Our career-changer might take a weekend off and see how her manager and colleagues respond. Is she really seen as less committed? Does slightly lowering the expectations for herself result in failure?

Given time to challenge a particular assumption, you may find your beliefs shifting in a way that frees you to pursue your goals with success.

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S. Henderson replied:
I like how the author talks about shifting your mindset. This is crucial to any change process. When committing to change, you must develop a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset.
Donna Higgins replied:
Change is difficult for most people. You have to really search deep and self-reflect on your inadequacies. This is why change is so difficult. You have to admit your flaws and then do something about it. However, once you let go of the idea that no one person is perfect. You can freely self-reflect and be open to change. You have to accept that sometimes you are inept, but if you make a plan to perfect yourself, you will ultimately improve and will be successful in the end.
MaCall replied:
I agree that real change can only exists once you have internally done the work to see what gets in your own way.
Dan L. replied:
I like how the author doesn't even begin to touch upon ways to improve our change ourselves with warm and fuzzy anecdotes or theories. This exercise is meant for us to reflect upon our own fears, failures, and patterns, because if we don't acknowledge the fact that we sometimes set ourselves up for failure, even though we know what will most likely happen, then why bother to challenge ourselves to try new things? We know ourselves better than anyone (some significant others might argue with that), so why not face the music and own our own shortcomings, not just our strengths.
Anonymous replied:
I like the step by step guidelines this article offers to keep me on track. Like a New Year's resolution I need accountability. The broad idea of changing a behavior is easier to conquer with step by step guidelines.
K. Rogers replied:
I like the recognition of competing commitments. They are real and can often make us shy away from change for fear of failure.
Amanda replied:
I like the strategy of linking "worries" with the corresponding "commitments." I think that it helps us to understand how our fears are inhibiting us from achieving our goals. When we link it this way, it allows us to see a correlation between a fear or worry, and the harmful behavior it is triggering us to perform. By understanding that these behaviors exist, it will allow us to better understand why certain goals are not being met. It also forces us to attribute our failures in a dispositional manner, rather than continuously blaming the situation. I think this would give us a sense of empowerment; we can work to change our own behaviors which may stand in the way of our goals once we admit they are there.
Anonymous replied:
This read will give you another angle of insight how to shift your own internal dialogue. A retired military gent wrote "Unbreakable". His name is Thom Shea. Without given anything away he explores his own path to reshaping his mind for the better. BUT BEWARE! It is not for the faint of heart, weak, or timid of souls. Happy trails!
ulei uzat replied:

I'm glad I found this post. I had this problem for years. I was afraid of change and new things. This mental handicap affected my proffesional life and my family life. I spent a fortune to fix this issue but failed. The solution that worked for me: make peace with yourself and set reachable goals for your life.

Jaafar replied:

The course on edX was supposed to begin the 20th of January. Did I miss something?

leslie replied:

Hi, Jaafar.

I noticed the start date for that course had changed as well. I'm not sure why. The Extension School doesn't administer the edX courses. You may want to contact edX with any questions. Good luck!

Leslie