Not being able to change doesn't mean we're lazy, stubborn, or weak. A pair of Harvard educators argue that our best-laid plans often fall through for smart, self-protective (and ingeniously hidden) reasons.
This past fall, 24 people gathered for a workshop at Harvard University, among them members of the university's human resources department, executives from nonprofit institutions, one labor union official, members of a prominent international consulting firm, a high school principal, a teacher—and me. We had signed up for the session to better understand why people struggle to make significant changes—why, for instance, their vows to improve their lives (go to the gym, be nicer, lose 10 pounds, drink less, clean up more, save money) are so often followed, sometimes in a matter of weeks or even days, by utter failure.

The workshop is led by clinical psychologist Robert Kegan, PhD, and Lisa Lahey, EdD, experts in adult learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They've spent more than 20 years wondering why it is that people don't change, studying those—the few—who have successfully broken a habit and the many who, despite repeated attempts, can't. Eventually, they arrived at a theory, the premise of which became the title for their new book, Immunity to Change. Their metaphor, invoking the body's exquisite ability to ward off disease and invasion, is apt: Our best efforts to change, the researchers claim, are routinely overwhelmed by forces within us.

Kegan and Lahey have spent decades working with small groups of educators who wanted to improve their skills as teachers and administrators. They now shepherd several thousand people a year through the process they've developed. Like their book, these sessions tend to be skewed toward organizations and their leaders, but their method works as well for individuals looking to make changes as it does for executives looking to tweak their management style.

Today, under Kegan and Lahey's guidance, our group begins to engage in some supervised soul-searching. They hand us a four-column worksheet that Kegan describes as "a mental map that functions as an X-ray." For the first column, Kegan and Lahey tell us, pick a goal, one that would make a significant difference in our lives. A New Year's resolution, maybe. Or the promise we've been making (and breaking) for years. In the second column, they ask us to list all the ways that we routinely kneecap ourselves.

As an example, they bring up a former workshop participant—a superstar CEO they call Peter. Focused, disciplined, the co-founder of a multibillion-dollar company, he's the kind of person who decides to lose 10 pounds, does it in a few months, and keeps the weight off for years. But he's been less successful in softening his top-down management approach. In column one of the worksheet, Peter wrote that his goals were to delegate more and become more open to his staff's ideas. In column two, he easily identified how he sabotaged himself: by not seeking out other opinions, cutting off staffers midthought, and not empowering them to make their own decisions. 

What's striking about Kegan and Lahey's approach is that it recognizes the often good, if poorly understood, reasons for Peter's behavior (and, by extension, our own). Our flat-out failure to bring about the change we desire is not for lack of good intentions. Whatever it is that we resolved to do or to stop doing in the past, they don't doubt that we meant it. While we beat ourselves up over our lack of willpower, our laziness, our weakness, our dark side that wins out time and again—Kegan and Lahey say those change-resistant behaviors have a very good reason for being.


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