How is it that, despite being committed to change, we so often fail to make the changes we are committed to? Kegan and Lahey provided an answer in their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. They suggest that, if we are not making happen what we claim to be committed to, then there must be a stronger, competing commitment to which we are unknowingly committed.
Their process for uncovering this stronger competing commitment is simple and effective and can be used with both individuals and groups. I have slightly adapted it here:
- Improvement Goal (Commitment): Identify something that it is important to you to have or that you value, which you don't yet have in your life.
- Behaviour: Given that the commitment you have just identified is not currently being fulfilled in your life, complete the stem "What I'm doing, or not doing, that is preventing my commitment being more fully realised is ...".
- Worry: The reason why you are not achieving your column 1 improvement goal may be that doing what it would take to achieve this goal would be too uncomfortable. So the next step is to identify the worries/fears that may be preventing you from achieving your goal. Complete the stem "I'm afraid ..."
- Competing Commitments: Given what you're doing, or not doing, what does this suggest you're actually committed to? That is, identify the stronger more compelling outcome that you are actually committed to (the Competing Commitment). Complete the stem "I may also be committed to ...". Having done this you should be able to see your change-prevention system (how your competing commitments systematically generate the very behaviours that prevent progress on your goal) and your anxiety-management system (how generating these behaviours helps you ward off some of your worst fears).
- Big Assumptions: Driving your competing commitments will be one or more assumptions that you treat as true. To uncover this Big Assumption, complete the stem "I assume that if my competing commitment is (not) met, ..." with how you might feel then. (If you come up with something that unnerves you a little, then you are probably on track. If you come up with something noble, you probably need to try again!)
- Improvement Goal (Commitment): I am committed to managing my time better and having a better work-life balance.
- Behaviour: What I'm doing that prevents my commitment from being more fully realised is working weekends, over-preparing and procrastinating.
- Worry: I'm afraid that if I don't work hard I'll be thrown out.
- Competing Commitment: I may also be committed to doing perfect work.
- Big Assumption: I assume that if I'm not perfect, I'll be rejected.
Mental Complexity and Leadership Effectiveness
What is particularly interesting about the process is that it may also provide the technology for accelerating the development of mental complexity. This is important because mental complexity is one determinant of leadership effectiveness (see for example the Leadership Development Framework). Kegan & Lahey state that what produces greater mental complexity is "optimal conflict:
- the persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma,life puzzle, quandary or personal problem that is ...
- perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing ...
- in some sphere of our living that we care about, with ...
- sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it." (p 54)