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April 2010


Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in You and Your Organization


by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009)


What are the big take-aways?


This is a life-altering book on resistance to change. The extremely persuasive theory presented by adult development and leadership experts Kegan and Lahey is that there is a “hidden dynamic” in the change process, and it is a strong unconscious desire counter to the wished-for change which causes us to deliberately work to prevent it. Like the body’s immune system which occasionally gets triggered in circumstances that don’t serve us well (such as allergies), sometimes we get in our own way psychologically because we fear the proposed change as much as we want it. If it sounds crazy – and it is crazy-making! – all you have to do is think of a change situation in your own life (an intention to lose weight, perhaps? see pages 42-44) that has stymied you for a long time to realize that some changes (such as “to burn more energy than I consume”) sound simple but are mysteriously complex to effectuate. Kegan and Lahey would say that this is because we all have sophisticated anxiety-management defenses that sometimes actually cause us work against or “protect” ourselves against achieving certain changes that we sincerely want to make. They have developed a formula or “x-ray” technique for helping individuals and teams and organizations bring this hidden dynamic to consciousness so that it can be exposed and overcome.


Why did I like it?


The authors are meticulous researchers and very skilled writers. The clarity of their argument and the comprehensiveness of the examples they provide are astonishing and make the key information surprisingly accessible. The most effective strategy they employ throughout the heart of the book is to use real-life “immunity maps” to help you see how others apply the theory to individual change, team change, and whole organizations’ dynamics. The maps range from those of CEO’s to doctors, public school teachers and administrators, national forest service workers, to higher education departments, etc. The parade of examples not only reinforces the authors’ main point, it also demonstrates to the reader how elegant and do-able the process is; yes, it takes courage to look at your anxieties in the way necessary to overcome your immunity to change, yet lots of regular folks have done it and the benefits they derive from it are enormous, and inspiring.


In what situations would this be useful?


This book will support any leader in making a personal or organizational change, especially with the assistance of a professional. It will support the leader by providing an easy-to-follow process for self-change, team change or organizational change. (If you’re at the very top of your organization, chances are your self-change is the desired organizational change! For more about what I mean by this, see next month’s Leadership Library review of Resonant Leadership.) For leaders with a coaching-type style who wisely make a practice of developing others, this book will help you assist your supervisees to identify their immunities and make their changes.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


In terms of reading material, I think a good leadership workbook could provoke the kind of reflection that would help a leader capitalize on Immunity to Change (there are several effective workbooks out there; my current favorite is Finding Your True North by Bill George, which I will review in the future). This could be time-consuming, however. On page 254 Kegan and Lahey recommend using a learning partner – someone else who’s in a change process – or a coach to work through your “immunity mapping” together. They think that if you actively engage in their process on your own for half an hour a week, “most people notice significant and encouraging changes in about twelve weeks.”


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