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Today’s Big Idea: We all have a kind of emotional immune system that may be hidden from our awareness and preventing us from making changes we want to make in our lives. Today we will explore Harvard research that illuminates this habit we all have.

In their book Immunity To Change—renowned Harvard professors and developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey distill 25 years of research about why people often don’t achieve their goals.

They wanted to know what lies at the heart of why leaders and organizations have such a hard time making the changes they know they want.

They begin by exploring a simple, yet shocking statistic.

Doctors who work with high-risk heart patients indicate that only 1 out of 7 is able to make the recommended changes.

Despite a stern warning—change or die—patients still could not change their diet and exercise habits.

So, if the threat of impending death isn’t enough to make people change, what the heck is going on?

Kegan and Lahey discovered a phenomenon at the heart of why people have such a hard time changing— and the steps you can take to break out of it and move forward with making real changes in your life.

Here it is…

We all have a kind of emotional immune system that protects us from the anticipated potential negative effects of change. The job of your emotional immune system is to keep the status quo and protect you from the emotional dangers that might result from you making significant changes in your life.

But the assumptions about life that helped us develop this immune system might not be relevant anymore. 

Key Insight–Changing our behavior is surprisingly difficult because our core beliefs are often the result of deeply ingrained behaviors that arise from childhood emotional survival strategies.

Or, as one of my graduate school professors repeated frequently—What once worked has now become the problem.

Kegan and Lahey help people examine the competing commitments that may be in direct conflict with the goals they set.

It’s like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time.

A case study to illustrate

In the book they give a great example of David—a young and promising CEO—who set the seemingly simple goal of “delegating more.”

Despite trying all kinds of delegation techniques, David had extreme trouble delegating. And he quickly became burned out and exhausted by taking on too much.

When Kegan and Lahey began working with him, they discovered that David came from a long family line of blue collar workers.

At his core, he believed that top leaders were often unnecessary and never did any “real” work.

He was not aware that he ultimately believed that leaders who delegated things were “lazy and selfish, and dumped their responsibilities on the people that worked under them.”

This was his Big Assumption (a term the authors use).

His deepest identity as a leader was “to get his hands dirty” and “work in the trenches or on the front lines” with his team.

He had one foot on the gas (the goal of delegating more) but the other foot on the brake at the same time (he fundamentally believed that delegation made him appear lazy and selfish). Therefore, delegating was in conflict with his core identity and beliefs about himself as a leader.

You can’t build skills that conflict with your core beliefs

The authors also differentiate between technical and adaptive challenges we face.

No amount of teaching delegation skills (technical skills) was going to change David’s behavior.

If David stood any chance of changing this behavior, he would need to reframe and revise some of his core beliefs about himself as a leader (adaptive skill).

Here is a table so that you can see it more clearly:

Old beliefs sabotaging his goal of delegating more New reframed and revised beliefs to help him experiment with new behaviors
  • Real leaders work in the trenches and get their hands dirty a lot
  • Leaders who delegate are lazy and selfish and push their work onto their teams
  • As a leader, you must know how to do every technical skill better than those you supervise
  • I can’t let my team members outshine me
  • A blue-collar worker is a real worker and produces a tangible result for a day’s work
  • It’s impossible to be technically skilled at everything and it’s important to have people on your team with many different skillsets
  • Delegating gives my team members the chance to shine and thrive
  • Delegating allows me to do more of what only I can do
  • Including others in learning my duties is great succession planning and helps ensure things would run well if I was suddenly not able to work
  • David had to define what his “work product” was as a CEO and not a front-line worker so that he could begin to see the importance of his contributions


If David can change his beliefs about delegating, he will recover from burnout and become a much more effective leader.

Turn information into action

I have included the Immunity to Change worksheet link below for you to experiment with this process.

Here are the general steps to take:

  1. Write down your goal.
  2. Identify the actions you have taken toward your goal.
  3. Identify the things you do that work against your goal.
  4. Write down any competing commitments you have.
  5. Identify a Big Assumption (Core Belief) that may be getting in the way.


This should give you an Immunity X-ray by making previously invisible things visible to you. It should give you a clear overview of how you might have your foot on the gas pedal and brake at the same time.

  1. Then you should actively work on reframing and revising some of your Big Assumptions.
  2. The final step is to begin testing your Big Assumptions by actively trying behaviors that work against your big assumptions, knowing that they may feel awkward at first and will be difficult. The idea of experimenting is essential here because it’s easier to say you are experimenting than to put the pressure on yourself to immediately change your behavior and make it permanent right away. All the research shows that big habit change can start very small.
  3. Take one step further and find a coach or mentor to help you keep taking action and get over the immunity hurdle.


Quick note on the application to organizations: Kegan and Lahey also use this work in coaching and consulting with teams. They always start by having individuals in the groups do their own Immunity to Change worksheets, then bring them together to identify themes that may be preventing organizational change.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested resources:

  1. Immunity to Change—Kegan and Lahey
  2. Harvard Website to download immunity map 
  3. You can also check out their website for coaching and consulting:
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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