Immunity to Change

Kegan described the problem as having “one foot on the gas, and one on the brake.” You don’t get too far too fast that way. So, if someone wants to overcome this immunity to change, they need a way to make things visible. Then, they can test their assumptions to see if they’re actually true.

Why is change so hard? Why do we say we want to make changes but then, so often, fail to actually make the change stick? In this episode, Richard and Peter dive into psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work on immunity to change and how to overcome it.


Immunity to Change Book
PDF File with a blank immunity map and the examples used in the episode

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Episode transcription


Why do people—individually and in organizations—so often fail to actually make the changes they say they want to make?

When psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey set out to study this phenomenon, they found some wild examples. The one that sticks with me is that when told by their heart doctor that they will literally die if they don’t make changes around diet, exercise, smoking, or even just taking their medicine reliably, only 1 in 7 high-risk heart patients actually manages to make the change. 6 out of 7 fail to make the changes that will save their lives.

Kegan and Lahey found that something they called immunity to change was at work in these situations where we say we want to change—and have good reasons to change—but don’t actually do it. In this episode, we’ll explore how immunity to change works, and we’ll look at a simple tool Kegan and Lahey created to help us overcome immunity to change.


But before we go there, just a reminder that this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.

Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively.
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs.
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work.


Often this comes down to supporting people so they can make the changes they want to make in their work to produce the outcomes they want to see. Change is hard, and old, ineffective practices can be sticky.

If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on and schedule a conversation with us.


Now, onto today’s topic:

But first, a story: I grew up feeling pretty poor. I don’t know that we were actually that poor, we always had a home—we always had food. But I do remember always wearing hand-me-down clothes, which was fairly embarrassing because my only older sibling is my sister. I also remember a very specific time in 3rd grade when lots of kids in my class were bringing a bunch of junk food for lunch. So, when we lined up to go to the cafeteria one day, Mr. Dunlop, our teacher, announced that he was going to check everyone’s lunch sack to make sure people had something healthy in there. When he got to mine, the only thing in my lunch sack was a peanut butter sandwich made from home-made bread. Mr. Dunlop peeked in and said, “Shopping day, Peter?”

So, growing up, I always felt this sense of scarcity. I remember vowing that when I was an adult, I’d work hard enough to never feel that way. Then, as I became an adult, I picked a career that made that kind of difficult. I started playing music professionally at the age of 15, but I wasn’t a pop musician. So even as a young adult, I had to hustle pretty hard to pay the bills. As I progressed in my career, that served me well. I developed a wide range of interests and skills, and I worked hard across all of them.

Like many strengths, there was a shadow side to that ability to work really hard at lots of things. I was often exhausted. I wasn’t as available to my own kids as I should have been. And I felt like I needed to make some changes, but I had a hard time saying no to new opportunities.

Each call felt like another stepping stone to success, to never feeling that childhood sense of scarcity again. Despite many discussions with my wife about slowing down, every time I had a new opportunity to fly somewhere and do some training, I said yes. Every call to play another gig, I said yes. A local theatre company needs someone to do video and audio for their big production? I’m on it! I was not keeping my commitments to slow down, despite logically, rationally knowing I needed to, and the costs were starting to grow more painful as I missed kid’s birthday parties, or extended family events, and pretty much never slept.


This is a great example of a change that has some clear positive outcomes associated with it, good reasons to change. And the action to take is pretty clear, too—like say no to more things. so this isn’t a problem of having some vague hope but not knowing what to do about it. And yet, for some reason, for Peter, the change wasn’t sticking.

As Kegan and Lahey looked at many examples of situations like this, they discovered that there was a common thread under the surface: hidden competing commitments. People wanted to make a change. And they were committed to the change. They could articulate why it mattered. But it turned out, they were also committed to something else that pushed in the opposite direction; something that preserved the status quo.

That competing commitment, though, was hidden. It was based on deep assumptions that, over time, were sort of baked into the operating system the person approached the world with.


Kegan described these competing commitments as having “one foot on the gas, the change goal, and one on the brakes” –the hidden one. You don’t get too far too fast that way. So, if someone wants to overcome that hidden competing commitment, they need a way to make that commitment and the assumptions behind it visible. Then, they can test the assumptions and see if they’re actually true. Typically, they’re not—hence the need to change. And once you’ve falsified those assumptions, the hidden commitment loses its power, and the change becomes possible.


Kegan and Lahey created a simple canvas called the immunity to change map that elegantly surfaces hidden competing commitments and assumptions. So, let’s walk through an example from our leadership coaching, and then we’ll go back to Peter’s story and see how an immunity to change map worked out for him in that situation.


Richard and I were coaching a leader who wanted to provide clearer direction to his team. He was struggling to delegate effectively, his people were confused about what he wanted, and none of them were getting the results they liked. So, we used an immunity to change map to make sense of that situation.


The immunity to change map in Kegan and Lahey’s book has 4 columns. We’ve added a 5th to capture the experiment you’re going to use to test the assumptions.

So, Column 1 is about the visible commitment, the thing you’re saying you want to do now and why it’s important. In this case, the leader was committed to giving clear direction about what he wants his people to do. Why does it matter? People are more likely to do the right thing if they understand what the right thing is. They’ll be more motivated in their work by being able to connect their tasks to a larger goal. And this leader will be able to delegate more effectively because he’ll be confident his team understands what they need to do.


Column 2 is “What am I doing” and “What am I not doing?” These are all the things that are going against that change goal. Column 2 is where we tell on ourselves. What are we doing or avoiding doing that’s screwing up our change goal? In this case, the leader was giving vague directions. They weren’t checking for understanding, and they were accepting work that wasn’t really what they wanted to see.


Column 3 has two parts. The top half is what’s called the “worry box.” It’s where you capture the negative outcomes you worry will happen if you really do the thing you say you’re committed to doing from column 1. And then the bottom half is the hidden competing commitment you infer from those worries.

In this situation, the worry box had things like: “If I give clear directions, I worry that…”

  • People will feel micromanaged.
  • People will think I’m controlling and autocratic.
  • People won’t like me.
  • My staff will quit.


As we explored the energy around those different worries, the hidden competing commitment this revealed was something like, “I’m committed to not being perceived as a controlling and autocratic leader.”


Column 4 is the assumptions underlying the conflict between the hidden competing commitment and the visible commitment. Like, “If I give clear directions people will think I’m controlling.” And, “There’s no way to be clear without being autocratic.” Stating the assumptions strongly like this is helpful (similar, by the way, to what we talked about in episode 118 on resolving conflict using the evaporating cloud tool).


Finally, Column 5 is “what experiments can we try to test the assumptions?” And here, it was, “Practice giving clear direction that points to purpose and provides well-defined enabling constraints within which my staff can self-organize and be autonomous.” This leader needed to see a bunch of examples of clear direction without micromanagement, so we coached them through that experiment. Part of this was skill-building, but a big part of it was just falsifying the assumption that clarity necessarily equals controlling. Good experiments need to have some type of measurement, how we’ll know they worked or not. Otherwise, we tend to just talk ourselves into believing the experiment worked. And this leader decided to measure how comfortable he felt when giving direction this way, whether the team complained about being micromanaged, and whether the team seems to do the right thing based on this style of giving directions.

We’ll post a PDF of this immunity to change map in the show notes along with a blank one you can use.

Peter, tell us about your immunity to change map for addressing your overcommitment situation.


I’ll sort of walk us through the columns here and give you a little bit of play-by-play. When I was reading the book, I started thinking about this problem of lack of focus and just saying yes to everything.  And so, in Column 1, the thing I wanted to do—the change goal—was to focus.  To say no to less important things so that I have more time for what matters the most. And this was important to me because I wanted to not be exhausted all the time, I didn’t want my family to suffer from this tendency that I had, and I also felt like spreading myself a little thin was causing me to not have as big an impact as I could have in any of these potential areas.

So, I really wanted to make sure I was making a big difference without burning out and being more connected to my family.

Going over to Column 2, which is where I get to tell on myself, all the things I am doing and not doing that are screwing up my change goal, and this was pretty easy.  All the things I was doing?  Well, I was saying yes to every gig that came in.  I would book every CSM, CSPO, CAL, individual coaching, org coaching, Leadership Circle 360s that I could possibly squeeze into my schedule.  I was writing blogs, I was creating new visuals, I was reading every book that somebody suggested.

What was I not doing?  Well, I wasn’t saying no to anything. I wasn’t blocking time out for my family.  I wasn’t blocking time out for things that matter to me, like my health, or meditation or prayer.

And I wasn’t deciding what’s most important to me.  By default, I was saying everything is equally important.

Now, moving on to Column 3, the foot on the brake here.  The worry box. What was I freaked out about?  And as I thought deeply about this, I realized that my fear, if I stopped doing everything in Column 2 that I was doing, and started doing everything I was not doing, it was, if I turn things down, people are going to stop calling me.  My income is not going to be enough for my family needs.  I’m going to feel that childhood feeling of scarcity again. And there was a little bit of that that was like I had wasted years of my life focusing on music stuff, and if I started turning down gigs to take on really what was my career in coaching and training, if I turned down the music stuff, then that means I wasted a lot of years on music.  And finally, I had always had this sort of identity of being able to do it all.  And what I wrote down in my worry box was “I won’t be seen as a super-human.”

Now this revealed the hidden competing commitments here, which are; I’m committed to providing for my family—that’s a healthy thing; I’m committed to excellence in everything I do—that’s a healthy thing; I was committed to being what one LinkedIn reviewer referred to as a renaissance man—I really liked that LinkedIn review; and I was committed to integrating a broad range of different fields into a greater whole. So those were all really healthy commitments.  Nothing wrong with any of those.

When we get into Column 4, sort of what are the assumptions here, the assumptions that this revealed to me were if I don’t do it all, I’m not as valuable a person. There was an assumption that I need to regularly make music to be happy.  I remember telling myself that story a lot.  If I’m not regularly making music, I get cranky.  There was an assumption that if I made less money, my family would be disappointed. As I started digging into those assumptions and saying, “Well, how could I test those things? How could I test run an experiment to say are those assumptions true or not?” I decided to kind of go all in on this and say for the next two weeks, every call I get to play a trumpet gig, I’m just going to say no to. And then, I was going to measure, “How do I feel when I say no?” And I thought, “All right.  It’s just two weeks, I could try this out.  It’s not too scary.”  And I made a commitment to try that.

The very next call that came in, I think it was the next day in fact. I got a call because a person that I sort of knew was sick and couldn’t attend a rehearsal and so I got a call to sub in the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which is one of the great big bands in the LA area.  Kind of a dream call, actually. This was a big step up for me.  I love playing in big bands.  This would be a huge opportunity to play with a really great caliber of musician.  I thought, really?  This is the first call I get after making this commitment? But I said “All right. I gotta run the experiment.”  And I said, “Oh! sorry; I have a different commitment. I can’t make it.” Which was actually true. I had made a commitment to say no, expecting to feel really disappointed that I had turned down this really awesome opportunity.

And I hung up the phone, and I felt this immediate sense of relief.  Like, (sigh!)  I can just hang out with my family that night.  I don’t have to drive into LA, which is a long drive.  So that was interesting.  Like, that was some good evidence that maybe my assumptions weren’t true. And then, a couple of days later another call came in, and Steve and Edie Gourmet were on tour and they were going to be coming through the area and I got a call to do several shows with Steve and Edie Gourmet, and it was going to pay really well.  And I would be playing with kind of one of my trumpet heroes who was touring with that show, so I would be playing second trumpet with this guy I had always admired as a trumpet player.  And I thought, “Ah!”  Well, I looked at my calendar. I don’t have too much else going on, on the calendar.  I think “It’s OK if I say yes to this one, because I’m not that busy during that week.”  And I hung up the phone and I felt terrible.  Like, “Oh!  I didn’t do what I said I committed to do.”  So, I texted a friend of mine—another great trumpet player in town– and said, “Hey, Brad, you don’t happen to be available for these dates…”

And he said, “Ya, I’m available for all of those.”  And I called them right back, and I said, “I overlooked an important commitment.  I’m sorry, I can’t make all those dates, but Brad is a great trumpet player.  He can do them, here’s his number.  You should reach out to Brad.”

And once again, it was interesting.  I felt so good after hanging up the phone and giving the gig to Brad, that I got teary eyed.  I got very emotional about what it felt like to actually turn that down, because of what it meant about spending more time with my family.


That’s fantastic.

It turns out the immunity to change isn’t just for individuals, too. So, we’ve talked about a couple of individual examples. Teams can collectively struggle to make a change because of hidden competing commitments that they share. A common one we see is teams with lots of work in progress who want to move from starting lots of things to actually finishing things. But they struggle to make that change stick.

So, let’s walk through one more immunity map, in this case, for a whole team wanting to make a change.

So, Column 1, the visible commitment:

We’re committed to finishing things. Why? Because that’s what customers pay us for. Because we’ll see results more often. Because we’ll be more motivated. Because we’ll be having a real impact.


Column 2, what are we doing instead? How are we screwing up that change goal?

  • Carrying unfinished work from one sprint to the next
  • Preferring to work in our specialties over helping with other tasks that are in progress
  • Starting something new rather than helping another team members finish
  • Taking on extra requests mid-sprint
  • Saying “yes” anytime an important stake holder asks us to do anything


Column 3, what do we worry will happen if we really focus on finishing things, and what hidden commitments does that reveal?

We worry that…

  • We’ll get less done in the end.
  • Team members will be less motivated, maybe because they didn’t get to work on their specialty.
  • Stakeholders will be upset with us because we say no.

And this reveals that, even as we say we’re committed to finishing things, we also have a pretty strong commitment to starting more things.


Column 4, what assumptions are behind this?

  • If we don’t say “yes” to stakeholder requests, they’ll get upset, and bad things will happen to us.
  • Maybe If we don’t let everyone focus on their specialties, key team members will get bored and leave.
  • If we don’t work on more things in parallel, we won’t meet our commitments.


Finally, Column 5, how might we test those assumptions? Well, we could…

  • Try a small work in progress limit for a sprint, see what happens to our productivity and our morale.
  • Make interruptions visible, when people ask for things and see if we could have said “no” to some of them.  (I like that one, by the way, because it’s not actually saying no to them.  It’s keep saying yes, but look at them and see “could we have said no to some of these?”  Nice and safe.


In the end, a team that runs those experiments is likely to discover that finishing things has pretty immediate positive outcomes and that the worries mostly don’t materialize. This makes it much easier to stick to the change.


We’ll put the PDF of this immunity map in the show notes, too.


Do you have a personal or team change you’re struggling to get to stick? Try an immunity to change map and see if there’s a hidden competing commitment getting in the way. You’ll find, as we mentioned, a blank PDF of the canvas in the show notes for this episode.

If the stakes are high, you might benefit from engaging a coach to support you in that change. Visit, and let’s chat about how we can help.

Thanks for tuning in!

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