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The Power of Immunity to Change

Immunity to Change

Immunity to change is a process that was developed by Robert Keegan and his associates. Although change cannot exist because sameness does not exist, the change we are discussing here refers to an evolution as each moment transcends and includes the previous.  The immunity to change, in the sense of evolution, is actually a necessary function of change.

Leaders as individuals within organisations struggle with change. They struggle with the evolution of the transcendence of the previous moment. In particular, when a paradigm shift or change in the status quo is needed, it is often met with resistance.  Leaders tend to struggle with engaging people to accept the changes they are proposing.

This is what Keegan refers to as immunity to change. This resistance is akin to the immune system rejecting something that is unfamiliar even though it may be beneficial.  Even though the change may be recognised as a contradiction to what is not working, it is still resisted. Sharon Drew Morgan calls this a homeostasis, where the system seeks to maintain itself. This is a simplistic but powerful understanding of what happens in an individual and a cultural collective when a vision is proposed but faces resistance despite its necessity.


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Competing Commitments

The immunity to change starts with a commitment to a new direction or a new way of framing. Immediately upon committing, immunity to change appears as resistance to a different way of doing and being.  This brings about counter-commitments that are driven by the desire to maintain the status quo.  The counter-commitment is generally backed by an assumption.  Take for example a person who is prescribed lifesaving medication but refuses to take it.  The commitment is to take the medication in order to live.  The counter-commitment is not taking the medication.  When asked what the commitment means, the assumption might be revealed that the person does not want to take the medication because it is related to ageing.  The competing commitments are backed by the assumption that taking medication is an indication of old age.

People are unaware of their competing frameworks until they are asked metaquestions about what would happen if they were to engage in a behaviour and what it means. The competing commitment gets in the way of the original commitment, but the person is unaware of the competing commitment because they do not have the action logics that allow them to step back and look at the frame that is governing the game. This is called frame intelligence.

Building Frame Intelligence

Building frame intelligence is a developmental process that manages internal polarities. With change, there is often an internal polarity occurring between committing to a good idea and having a counter-commitment to what was previously framed, yet the governing frame may not be recognised. These competing commitments equal ourselves, our social, and our world belief structures of which we are most often unaware.

Moving Beyond Assumptions

Immunity to change is necessary because it allows us to become objective to what we are subject to, so we can view it and bring action inquiry into the process. By stepping back to view the big assumption, we can take responsibility for the assumption. The assumption is most often a core belief that sits at the centre of us (as human beings). Keegan says these frames and belief structures were formed in early childhood. Even though physiologically we have matured, we are still running assumptions that were created when we children. We are used to looking through them, and these assumptions filter out the commitment to the changes we want to make even though we know change is necessary for growth.  

Five Core Elements of Change

This brings us to the five core elements of change:


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First, you need to identify what it is that needs to change. The moment you begin to think about engaging in the change, excuses begin to arise because we have a hidden commitment is to the status quo.  The process continues to explore what will happen if you engage in the behaviours that will bring about the change. This leads to an identification of fears that can reveal your big assumption which is a universal generalisation.  Logically it is not true, but it is a part of your psyche that is holding you back.

Developmental Coaching

This is where development coaching really steps in to create stronger leaders. The metamodel from NLP is used to bring about specificity.  Specificity questions can reveal that the big assumption is an ungrounded belief structure created in childhood that although still in existence, is irrelevant in adulthood.  Coaching calls awareness to the big assumption and shows how it holds you back from what you want to achieve.

Resistance is Necessary

Leaders need to be able to create the polarity of a new vision that stands in the face of the existing culture to draw forward the competing cultural and individual commitments. Polarity leadership is critical to bring forward the excuses that need to be discussed. Resistance is a critical element of the change process that is essential for the development of the individual and the collective. The resistance is the energy that is needed in order for the change to be implemented. Resistance is an essential part of the process that leads to new understandings and new frames. This is the power of immunity to change.


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Next Steps

The coaching room offers a variety of programs to help you unleash your most effective leader.

Unleashing Leadership is designed for managers and executives transitioning to and exceeding expectations in, middle and upper Management and Executive roles. One and three-day corporate courses are currently available.

A weeklong course is coming soon in 2018.


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