Lisa Lahey: Your Immunity to Change and How to Overcome It

Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit

You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Lisa Lahey. Lisa is codirector of Minds at Work, a consulting firm serving businesses and institutions around the world, and she’s also faculty at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She teaches in executive development programs at Harvard University and Notre Dame and she’s regularly asked to present her work throughout the world. She’s the author of several books, including with Robert Kegan, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, and a book called Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. And with Sounds True, she is a presenter in our new Inner MBA program. This is a nine-month immersion program that we’ve created in partnership with LinkedIn, Wisdom 2.0, and Mindful NYU, a division of NYU that is granting participants a certificate of completion at the end of the nine-month program. And if you want more information, just go to

In this conversation with Lisa Lahey, she addresses what I think from many people is confounding. How is it that when we have a goal we want to change in some way at work, even though we know what we need to do and we say we’re going to do it, it’s like we have one foot on the accelerator and one hand on the emergency brake? What’s really going on? She calls this our “immunity to change,” and I’m so happy that she’s part of our Inner MBA program because I think what she points to is really a critical linchpin in anybody who wants to grow and evolve at work and therefore grow and evolve their organizations. Here’s my conversation with the very brilliant Lisa Lahey:

I’m so happy, Lisa, that you’re here as a guest on Insights at the Edge. I have great respect for your work, for your writing and it’s a real joy to have you as a guest. Thank you.

Lisa Lahey: Thank you and it’s my pleasure to be here. I’m really looking forward to this time.

TS: The book that you cowrote with Robert Kegan, Immunity to Change, addresses for me one of the most important questions that Sounds True has been looking at and trying to help people with now for 35 years, which is the process of transformation. How do we change? What works, what doesn’t work? And I want to start there because the approach that you take in Immunity to Change is different, it’s different from other approaches that I’ve heard or read about. So share how you began to research and write Immunity to Change and introduce our listeners to the book and the process. It’s a big question, but let’s start there.

LL: OK, great. That’s a big question. I will start with shining a light on what we’ve come to learn makes change hard and then flip it on its head to say what we think can help when people are struggling with making change. We know that change is hard and every person listening, I’m pretty certain, has had the experience of something they have tried to change about themselves. Maybe even have made some progress on it and then have slipped back. And this is true all over the world and what we have discovered is that when we ask people, “How many of you have ever tried to change something about yourself?” everybody raises their hand. And everybody also raises their hand when we ask the question, “And for how many of you did that change not go as well as you hoped?”

But the really interesting thing is that when we also ask people the question, “And for how many of you would you think change is actually—you’ve been able to accomplish the change?” A majority, not everybody, but a majority of people raise their hand. So that’s a really interesting reality right there, that there are times we can change and there are times we can’t. And the fascinating question to me and the research that I’ve done and the work that I’ve done in my career is, what distinguishes those two?

And what I would say in a nutshell is that when we’re able to make the changes that we intend to, it’s because the method that we’re using to create change actually matches with the scale, the scope, the quality of the change goal that we have in front of us. And that other times when we’re using pretty much our default model of change because for most of us we only have one model of change, which I’ll talk about in a little bit, but when we use that same model when we actually have got a different type of a change problem, that’s when we are not able to actually make progress and sustain it.

And the main distinction I would quickly make in describing these two different worlds, draws on a colleague of mine, Ron Heifetz, his distinction between a technical change and an adaptive change. And the technical changes are easier for us to make, though we don’t always make them successfully, but in a technical change, we know what to do. It is very behavioral, there’s nothing getting in the way of our learning and employing the skills that we have just learned, and that’s quite different from an adaptive challenge where we actually have to change something that’s going on inside of us, like our inner landscape, in order for us to actually make good use of the skills that we’ve learned.

And this happens all over around even topics we don’t think are adaptive challenges. For example, for many people it would seem as if going on a diet seems like such an obvious, easy thing to do, and I’m using it because we all know—well, including ourselves quite probably, who have gone on a diet, have lost the weight because we know what to do, but it doesn’t stick. We gain the weight back. And what we can discover in that situation is that actually there’s an adaptive dimension for many people around weight loss. And it’s that inner landscape I’m referring to that if you don’t unearth what’s actually going on inside of us, then you’re never going to be able to actually sustain a change. So that’s kind of it in a nutshell.

TS: Now when you use the word “inner landscape” and that you have to engage with your inner landscape to make an adaptive change, can you explain what you mean by that?

LL: Yes, so the inner landscape are all of the—kind of a shorthand, the soft stuff that we refer to when we talk about soft skills. It’s the beliefs we have, it’s our heart, our feelings, it’s our assumptions about ourselves, about other people, about how the world works. It’s a lot of that invisible stuff that’s going on inside of every single one of us. And there’s a little bit too technical of an analogy to make, but it’s like our inner operating system. And it’s got all these complex rules and hierarchies and all this stuff going on that is actually a part of how we un-invisibly—what we draw on in order to make meaning in every situation. And that’s why we have to be looking at those inner kind of rules and assumptions and beliefs if we’re going to really sustain behavioral change.

TS: One of the observations you make in your book, Immunity to Change, is people who have worked at a company, let’s say, for many years and have gotten the same feedback on their review year after year after year after year. And I thought about that—I thought about that for myself because I’ve gotten similar feedback year after year after year, although I seem to be moving in the right direction, albeit quite slowly. And I’ve also given feedback to other people, and it’s like year after year, the same thing, the same thing, almost to the point where why bother, why should I tell the person this thing? It’s not going to change, they’re not going to change.

So in a situation like that, how do you help people, when you go into companies, identify what part of their inner landscape they have to engage with, understand, to make a real shift. Obviously it’s hard to change in these instances because we’re not, we’re not doing it. Even though we may have incremental improvement, it’s pretty little.

LL: Yes, and I would … what we do is invite, starting with the leader, this person to engage in this process that we call creating an Immunity to Change map. And what an Immunity to Change map does is, through a very highly structured process, it helps to shine a light on the specific aspect of somebody’s inner landscape that is operating and is getting in the way of being able to meet the change goal.

And what I think is important to add is, at this next layer in talking about adaptive challenges, that what’s going on in that inner landscape when we can’t change is because we are trying unconsciously to protect ourselves. And every single one of us, in our humanity, is always protecting something about ourselves, except for the most enlightened people who have been able to relinquish their ego. And they don’t have an ego to protect any longer. But for the majority of us, what is going on is we are protecting our sense of safety, our well-being. We are working very hard in unconscious ways to make sure that we don’t basically psychically die. And that’s why some of these kinds of change agendas that we can hear from other people and we can even say, “Yes, yes, I need to do that.” But they’re intractable if we’re not actually aware of what that self-protective mechanism is that’s going on inside of us; because it will always step up and do its job when it’s feeling threatened. But as soon as we can see, “Oh that’s what’s happening, that’s what’s happening inside of me,” that’s when we are, for the first time, really in a position to have a relationship to that power, as opposed to it taking control of us and being in charge of us.

And that’s what the Immunity to Change process does. It, number one, helps somebody to see: What is that part of you that’s protecting yourself? And then once you can see that part, we give you tools to be thinking about enacting: How do you operate in a way where you’re actually able to loosen the grip that self-protecting system has over you?

TS: I just want to be a little confessional for a moment. I noticed while I was reading the book Immunity to Change and I notice it when you speak, too, there’s a part of me that gets a little fuzzy inside. And I think that fuzziness is I know you’re pointing to something really, really important that’s right on the edge of consciousness and unconsciousness when you start talking about that self-protective mechanism. So I want to make it really crystal clear for our listeners who may also be having that type of slightly fuzzy thing happen inside, because you’re getting into the underbelly of who we are, how we protect ourselves.

So give us a concrete example and, at least if it’s OK, if you’d be willing to share something from your own growth process and discovery. And if not, maybe a common theme that you think a lot of people can relate to, either one.

LL: [Laughs] I’m happy to share something of my own.

TS: OK, self-protective mechanism and how you were able to identify, “Oh, I’d never knew that was underneath this behavior that I wanted to change.”

LL: Yes. Yes. So I’m happy to share—I’ve done immunity change maps throughout my life, but I’m going to go back to one that was one of my earlier maps, because it was just so powerful for me to have the felt experience of what it meant to be able to see inside of myself deeply—exactly, to touch on this thing that really feels like fuzzy—and then what I did with it.

So the goal I’m going to go back to is that I wanted to become a more effective public speaker. I was being offered opportunities to speak in front of groups of people and I always felt fine with 15, 20 people, but as soon as it got larger than that, like 50, I would be like, oh my god—I was just so anxious. And I would spend a lot of time and energy talking myself down and doing all kinds of things to try to ease my anxiety. So that’s what led me to say, “Enough already. I really want to become just more—easier. I have something I want to do in the world, and why get tied up in knots?” So my intent was to feel more confident, to be more focused on my message and my audience, the people I was speaking with, rather than my anxiousness. And that’s what I meant by becoming more effective.

So as the four-column process unfolds, once you have a goal, the next question is, “What do you do that works against that goal?” And then you have very important honest self-inventory because you need to face into, just even behaviorally, “What do I do that works against myself?” And what I came to see is that one of the things I did that really got me into these knots is I was very comparative of myself. So I’d compare my speaking presence to others, especially the people who I thought were fabulous. And then I would judge myself to be less interesting.

I also was aware that … What I did that worked against my goal was I would pay attention to the butterflies in my stomach while I was speaking. And I also was aware that I would just be looking at people’s nonverbals to see whether I was making sense. And I would always be focusing on the people who didn’t look engaged. And that would then lead me to the next, “Oh my goodness …”—this self-talk around this is not going well—and that would add to my anxiety.

So that’s the second step, and then the next step is really the one that you’re asking to focus on here which is, well, what is going on that was so protective here? And the main thing I want to say right here is all those behaviors I just named that work against my goal are—I’m going to explain—brilliant ways of executing on how to take care of myself, how to be self-protective in the way that I’m just going to describe. And what I came to when I went to this next question in the exercise is that I came to see I had a goal to not become full of myself. I had a goal to not become or be seen as arrogant. I had another goal which was to not feel like a fraud. And I had another goal which was to not take myself so seriously.

And all of those inner self-protective goals were very important to me at some unconscious level. I can tell you, if we wanted to go into more of my own particulars, where those came from. I came to those very honestly, growing up in the family that I did, and really it was a version of “I have a commitment to keep myself small,” and so that’s the immune system I’ve just named. On the one hand, I had that entry goal, which was a real one of wanting to become a more effective public speaker. And at the exact same time, I had a goal that was operating simultaneously to never become full of myself and arrogant, to keep myself small. So that’s the immune system right there. One foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, and basically being stuck. And that’s what the process does. It helps you see how you’re stuck. It also helps you to see why going at the change behaviorally is actually not going to be very effective because there’s a whole other, as I’m saying, inner landscape that keeps fueling those behaviors. And if you don’t get to the dismantling or the loosening or the softening of what’s going on in that inner landscape, you’re going to just keep coming up with behaviors—new behaviors, even more clever behaviors so that I can keep myself small.

So I’m going to pause there just to see whether that makes sense before I tell you how I overturned it.

TS: Yes. A couple of comments and then I do want to get to the dismantling and loosening part. First of all, my first comment is you have become an effective public speaker, so good work, the Immunity to Change process and the system works. The second thing, I think just to make it really clear for our listeners, when you compare this protective function, our unconscious investments—you don’t want to be seen as arrogant and dominating the audience or whatever—how is that an immune system? Why the metaphor of the immune system?

LL: OK, great question. So we call it an immune system, really, to invoke the biological function of our immune system. Our biological immune system has only one purpose and that is to protect us. And it’s this idea that our biological immune system is this amazingly intelligent part of our body and it is our friend and it’s meant to do us only good. And then the reality is that we have autoimmune diseases. And our biological immune system, therefore, even when it intends to protect us, it can actually get us into trouble.

And that’s what we’re trying to help convey here, that the same way our bodies end up rejecting material that the body actually needs to survive—like in the case of my twin brother who had a heart attack when he was 50, a heart attack so severe he had to get a heart transplant. And what happened is when that new heart went into his body, his immune system immediately kicked into gear and fought to reject it. That is like a perfect example of the immune system doing what it’s supposed to do, but in this case it’s actually working against life and thriving. And that’s the idea we want to bring up, just psychologically, that at some point these immune systems served us actually quite well. And that at this point in our lives, we are at a place where we can bring a lot more capabilities and competencies and so on. And that our immune system is not allowing us to actually even turn in the direction of how we can actually be our bigger and better selves. It’s keeping us in this very safe place.

TS: OK, and now let’s move to how you actually, with this awareness, made the change that you wanted to make to become a more effective public speaker.

LL: Great, so the next step in this four-step mapping process, as we call it, is to identify the underlying assumptions that give rise to the self-protective goals that I just described. And so I did a whole inquiry into OK, what are my assumptions? And I came up with a whole bunch of them, but the ones that I think are worth tuning into for the purposes of our conversation now are that I came to see that I assumed that I am not inherently interesting. I also came to assume that I needed to be funny or tell a story in order to be interesting.

So I took those two assumptions and what I thought to do was basically engage in a process to disprove those. And that’s what it is to test these big assumptions, it’s just facing into: these are stories that we tell ourselves. I had been telling myself this in a very unaware level, and if I could really set out intentionally to show myself that I could develop a speaking style that fit me, then I would be able to learn to be more interesting than telling stories or being funny. I realized in this kind of this unfolding practice, I had never given myself a chance to find my own voice.

So the way I began exploring this was I started to be very attentive to the times when I felt relaxed and in the flow: talking with small numbers of people, the places where I felt comfortable or in informal settings. Over time, I began to see that I felt most comfortable when I can be in conversation and—look, at first, I didn’t know what was I going to do with that, how could I be conversational while doing public speaking? But with the help of one of my friends as I was talking through this, I was actually able to craft questions that I could ask an audience and then be more interactive with them.

So that’s what I started doing at first. And I found that, yes, I’d ask the audience a bunch of questions. I found, while I was nervous, I was still able to relax during that time when I was imagining they were responding in their own minds to the questions that I was asking.

But then I had this idea that, oh wait, I could actually—and this is my next test—I could actually ask some questions, but frame them in a way where I could get some yes or no responses from the audience. Raise your hand if this, or—and that allowed me to actually start taking their responses into account, into what I would began to then pick up on what I wanted to say.

And so I started to feel much more like I was in a conversation with people, and that felt great. And it was that initial, like, can we be in this together? That was the main thing I realized I had to accomplish in order for me to feel like I could bring my interesting self into the room, because I was able to be enlivened by feeling like we were in something together.

TS: Now, I want to go back and just connect some dots, I think, for the listener and for myself as well, because when we began our conversation you were talking about the difference between technical changes that we make in our lives and adaptive changes. And I’m realizing in our conversation how important this idea is because often, when people talk about well, how do we change? They don’t draw this distinction, they just say, “I interview lots of people,” and they’ll just say “Do these things.” And I think to myself, “That’s never going to work for certain people. They’ve got these unconscious commitments, it’s not going to work.” And then other people think well, if you get this insight, you’ll change, and that doesn’t always work either.

Anyway, but I haven’t heard these two categories broken out in this way. So in the example that you just gave, this was an adaptive change, which is why you had to get underneath to understand what your unconscious protective investments were. Can you explain why it was adaptive? What made it an adaptive change?

LL: Yes, so what made it adaptive ultimately had to do with these core self-protective commitments, which were to not be arrogant or to not be full of myself. And I’m really glad you’re asking the question you did because the dots need to be connected. When I started to experience myself in a conversational space and a conversational way of being with other people, I didn’t end up feeling like I was being arrogant. I didn’t feel like I was full of myself. I felt like we were in something here together that allowed me to relax that self-protection, and I felt like I could therefore be my fullest self.

So even though it sounds like this technical fix of “Oh, just ask people a couple of questions up-front and be in a conversation with them,” the process of actually taking in the data of what happened inside of me when I did that and how did it feel, and was I able to actually relax into myself and was I able to let go of how people were looking at me or were they seeing me certain ways, and instead be focusing on being much more in my own flow with myself—that’s what made it adaptive.

So there’s technical “moves” you take, but this is where we end up getting confused and change processes. Because if we only take the technical step and plug in, “Oh Lisa, go ask questions at the beginning and it will be OK,” that’s not going to work if I don’t recognize that actually what I’m exploring here, what I’m testing, is this assumption that I’m not interesting. And what I could find out once I have that in view is, “Oh, actually I can relax. I can let my real, kind of, what I have to offer come out,” and that itself is interesting.

TS: Now, first of all, I’m extremely interested in you, Lisa, and in your work. I just want to say that I could talk to you for hours and hours and hours and I’m trying to zero in on exactly what the right things are to ask you that will bring the most benefit to our listeners. And I think as a next step, let’s bring in an example at work that a lot of people can relate to. In your work, what’s one of the most common examples people bring to you and they say, “This is the behavioral change I want at work”?

LL: Well, I would say there are many, but the two that immediately come to mind are people wanting to get better at some kind of time management—

TS: Well, let’s use that. Let’s use that one. Let’s use that one because I think almost everyone can relate to that. Let’s go with that.

LL: OK. Alright. But let me just sneak the other one in because it’s also really important, which is a lot of people want to be better listeners. And I think that’s a really important goal too. But OK, we can go with the one about wanting to be better with time management.

So when people start exploring that goal, they tend to come up with goals like, “OK, I want to get better at prioritizing,” or “I want to get better at delegating.” So let’s just use the delegating one because that comes up a lot in my work with leaders. So what do people do that works against that? That’s that second set of questions. So people talk about “Yes, well, I don’t delegate, or when I do give people something that I’m asking them to do, I micromanage.”

Those are the kinds of behaviors that get in the way. Then what happens when you turn to that third column and you ask people to try to get underneath what is it that’s actually given rise to those counterproductive behaviors, they come to all kinds of different things. Just illustratively, some people will feel like, “Woah, if I were to really step back from micromanaging, people might screw up and it’s going to be a reflection on me.” Or, “If I delegate, people will actually do it well and then I’m going to no longer feel valuable. I won’t be indispensable.” Or somebody might say, “Oh, no. They’re going to screw it up and then I’m going to worry about difficult conversations I’m going to have to have—and you know what, I don’t even think they’re going to make a difference.”

So all those sort of things can come up where people can feel like they’re going to lose status or they’re going to lose control or they’re going to lose relationships. And those are the kinds of things that can come up in the third column. Does that make sense?

TS: It does. I’m tracking with you. And then some of the underlying assumptions—you’ve already pointed to them in the fourth column, the beliefs I have—is that I would lose relationships or status or something like that. I won’t be needed around here.

LL: Exactly. Exactly. Once people see that’s actually a belief that they’re operating under—and they’ve never actually faced it before, and they haven’t recognized that it’s not only that they’re operating from that assumption but that assumption is driving them—it’s leading them to basically keep in the small lane in their life that they’re currently in, where the best way that they offer value is by doing the things that they know how to do. What happens when people engage this sort of work to overturn that particular belief system, often what they discover is through a series, again, of testing their big assumption, they’ve got to look into the possibility that there are other ways that I can add value.

They start expanding their metric of what value means and expanding their sense of how to provide value. And very often people end up in a place where what they get much better at doing, paradoxically, is really helping to support the very people who they were afraid to delegate to, to become themselves. That becomes a way that they’re really providing enormous value to the organization because they’re allowing or creating the conditions to really bring out the best in others. And that’s an amazingly valuable role.

TS: I want to get right into the very deep water here from my experience, which is when I was taking this four-column process and applying it to my own challenges, when I got into the ideas that I have that are protective and why do I hold them and what’s underneath them, what I found is something that you point out in the book, which is that we have these beliefs—I want to be important and valued at work, I want my ideas to be seen as really creative, etcetera, etcetera—because underneath it, there’s this sort of endless free fall of anxiety.

There’s a huge amount of just unmanaged, just sense of free fall. I don’t know what other word to use for it except like a word like anxiety. And I want you to talk some about that when people get close to that, what it feels like and how they stay sane. There you go.

LL: Well, I look at the immune system basically as an anxiety management system. We’re actually not aware of the things that are in our, I’m saying for short-hand, “column three,” that adaptive challenge, because we’re so good at basically holding ourselves to a goal of “I never want to experience that.” What we’re more often experiencing is not that anxiety, but we’re experiencing the stress and the pressure of keeping ourselves from experiencing that anxiety.

However, when we start revealing what’s going on in the map-making process, to what one’s anxiety is and what the big assumptions are, that is when people can actually end up experiencing the oh-shit moment of like, “Oh my god, that is just what undoes me. And I can’t bear to even imagine investigating that because it just feels too scary to me to do that.” So the main thing—I don’t know if this is really, really very helpful, it’s common to one’s head and heart at the same time. What I always want to encourage people to do is to recognize that yes, it takes a kind of courage to see deeply into ourselves and to just see what is there.

To not see it is always … you could have that choice. Once you’ve seen this, trust me, if you just wait a few days, it’s going to go back underground. But if you can bear the possibility of trying on that you actually have a lot more that you can take to your new-founded or forming relationship with that anxiety, you will be in a position to actually, for the first time, do something different with it. You don’t have to be expending all of this energy trying to keep things under wraps and undercover. There is an enormous upside, if you could imagine it.

And because the process, we like doing this process in large groups because everybody looks around and they say “Woah, I’m not alone here. Every single person in this room has an immune system.” And that is always true whenever we take ourselves to the edge of who we are. We will meet up with our immune system. And if we can all recognize this is us in our humanity. For us to be able to befriend—of course we can feel scared, we can feel anxious about this, and we can breathe that—and we can also come to see that is not us and there are alternatives.

So this is to me what I think is one of the greatest gifts and the potential of the Immunity to Change process, which is that people can see that the problem they’re trying to solve is actually much different than the one they thought they were trying to solve. When you can help them to reframe that, this is really about you coming to see a part of you that is there for very good reasons, and has been there for a very long time, and you may not need it any longer. There is a process that can hold you in this work that can shift from all that self-recrimination to, “Oh, OK, that’s really interesting. This is perfectly normal and there’s nothing wrong with me. Hello, I’m human.” So does that respond to your question?

TS: It does and another question is emerging, which is, I’m curious to know what you see as the intersection between deep contemplative work, meditative work, whether it’s people going on retreat—and there’s a similar experience if you meditate for a long period of time, and I sense that you’re familiar with this—of feeling like you don’t quite have the same reference points that you used to have. And there’s this sense of open space. “I’m not quite sure that the defenses …” or, “I can’t invest in them, I don’t believe in them.” And some people can get really scared at those moments when they hit those places, sometimes called “the void” or something like that. And I’m curious if you think there’s any kind of intersection between that type of deep meditative work and getting underneath our protective mechanisms in the way that you do in the immunity change process.

LL: I think surely there is an overlap. Without going into a lot into anything more than this one line I want to say, I do think that there are significant developmental demands to the question that you’re posing and also doing the immunity change work. In both cases, in doing deep contemplative work and Immunity to Change work, we have to have the muscle of being able to be self-aware and being able to see something about our inner landscape.

And we know that it’s not an automatic fix. But I would say that there comes a point in most adults’ experience where, if they’re interested and have reason to, they are able to actually see their protective system. And I think this void that you’re describing that people can experience, one of the ways that the Immunity to Change process can be responsive to that is to be saying, you don’t have to actually experience yourself in the void right off the bat if that feels like too much. Is there a process that you could envision where the grip just gets less and less? So it’s just a barely light touch and you’re not all the way in this place where you feel like, “Oh my god.”

If that’s so scary that your contemplative practice ends up having to basically collapse—which I know, when I’ve done the Immunity to Change process before, people have— it’s open game. Whatever people want to choose for self-improvement goals—and I’ve worked with several people who have wanted to deepen their contemplative practice, or to have a more regular meditation practice—this thing that you’re describing actually often is what comes up in people’s self-protective column, which is some version of basically, “I feel like I’m going to fall off a cliff. I am going to be annihilated.” And to help people to see that there are a bunch of assumptions they have about their inability to handle that, that are worth just looking at and then exploring, “How can I actually prove to myself that I can handle certain kinds of emotions that will allow me to move more, not just jump in but just more, to get closer to that place that feels so scary to me?”

TS: Now Lisa, you introduced these interesting two words, “developmental demands,” and even as your been talking about the difference between the technical change and adaptive change—you were talking about how “adaptive changes require a different type of change,” is what you said—but a developmental process is what I understood. There’s some change in our development that we have to go through. Can you explain that idea? What are developmental demands?

LL: The starting point is that all people develop. And we know this about children, it’s very easy to see in children, but a lot of people actually don’t think that adults can develop. What they think they can do is learn, but not develop. And from our perspective as developmental psychologists—which, by the way, is the root and the intellectual foundation of everything that we’ve been talking about so far in Immunity to Change system—it rests on these developmental principles. But adults can develop if they are given proper conditions, and those proper conditions are some very important combination of getting support and getting challenged. And we know that if you have too much support, that’s kind of like a warm bath and you just stay there, it’s really lovely. And if you get too much challenge without the support, it can feel overwhelming, and that’s when we’re in the overwhelmed state. So we need to find the right balance between support and challenge.

And when you’ve got those conditions, what we find—and our research supports this, but there are many lines of research that support it—is that there are three very big shifts that happen in adulthood. And adulthood is—I’m going to kind of not define it by age because these three different meaning-making systems that I’m going to describe actually are not age-dependent, though they progress over time. So you could have somebody who makes sense in a more adult-like way kind of in their teens or early 20s, but again it could be somebody who’s in their mid-30s who psychologically is making sense of the world in that same way, in part because they haven’t been provided those supports and challenges.

But those three meaning-making systems—and I’m going to do a major kind of Reader’s Digest version here, but people should read the book Immunity to Change because it does lay this out, or Robert Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads, which does a really in-depth description of these different places in development, of why understanding development matters. But so to start with the first of these three systems in adulthood, we call it the socialized mind, and at this particular point in development, the way people are systematically making sense of the world is through their subjectivity to meeting other people’s expectations. It’s the time in our life when we are keenly tuning into “What do significant other people expect of me and how can I be the good—?” You fill in the blank—the team player, the good loyalist. “How do I actually show up in a way where I’m meeting those expectations?”

And that’s a very important place in development from a societal perspective, because it means that people are getting brought into more of a shared sense of how things are, and we can be working together, how things are. But what’s not true in that particular meaning-making system that becomes true in the next meaning-making system is I haven’t included in myself in whose expectations I’m trying to meet. I don’t actually have clear expectations for myself independent of what others want from me. So this first adult place of development I’m describing: my sense of well-being very much depends on my ability to meet other people’s expectations.

In this next place in development, which we call the self-authoring mindset, the way I think, the way I put the pieces together is actually quite central. So I certainly know what people expect of me, but my ability to respond to that is going to be filtered first through what I believe needs to happen. And this is the place in development where the title, self-authoring, actually gives a headline here—we are authoring, we are writing our lives. We are not reading about ourselves, we’re actually the composers and the authors. And it’s the time in our life when we have our own North Star that is guiding us. It’s our compass and it frames what we are doing in the world.

Then this is a very important part of development—again, I just want to emphasize that not everybody is at that place of development, because it actually requires this combination of support and challenge. And the reality is that in many sectors, work sectors, there is not a lot of productive support and challenge. I work a lot in the public school system, and you don’t have to look too far at many public schools to see that the adults in the system are often asked to do a lot of complying, and not asked to do a lot of, “Well what do you think about this and what’s your philosophy and stance towards how all kids can learn,” and so on. Just a little commentary there. So that’s the second place in adult development that we can describe.

And then the third is what we call the self-transforming mind, and this is the place in development—and there’s even progressively fewer people, adults at this place of development—where the very form of how one knows, or that North Star itself, gets transformed and there’s no allegiance to any one form of things. Rather, the allegiance is to yes, it’s all moving. When you look at things from one place, you see certain things, and if you look at it from another angle, you will see other things. And so there’s a recognition if you stand in any one place you will both see things and not see things simultaneously, which then moves you to take a look at it from multiple perspectives.

So this is the place in development where we say the abiding question is “How else can it be genuinely understood?” There’s ability to really hold onto dialectics and look for dialectics. Look for the ways that things are woven together and operate—like light and dark have a relationship to one another and you’re seeking to see those things.

I know that is quite abstract, but if I did a quick way of just running through those three different mindsets by using the metaphor of a board of an organization, in the socialized worldview, I could be a member of the board. In the next place in development, I’m the board chair. And in the self-transforming mind, oh, the board is just one possibility for how we can organize. There’s Senate, there’s Congress, there’s all different ways we can organize.

So that’s just, metaphorically, a way of holding these three different places and recognizing that we don’t just turn a light switch to get from one place to another. There are a series of evolutions that happen between each one of these worldviews that I just described. And we’re able to be quite specific about what the relationship is between the mindset you’re leaving and the mindset you’re beginning to take on until you finally are more fully in a particular mindset.

TS: So this was very clear, Lisa. Very, very clear, you did a terrific job, and I think I actually understand the three different evolutionary steps of these meaning-making systems the way you described them. The question I have is, does this mean that if there’s a certain problem I want to solve that seems intractable, it’s not a technical problem because I’ve been working on it and it’s not working? I might need to evolve to a different higher developmental level in order to find the solution?

LL: It may be. That is true. And I want to make that really concrete because I see this a lot in my work. Here’s a very quick example of it, which is somebody can do an Immunity to Change map around, say, having difficult conversations. And in the end, in those assumptions lists, what they come to is, “I assume that if I am not liked by people, I am not going to be included.” That’s actually a pretty common big assumption. And there’s a way that you can seek to overturn your immune system that keeps that big assumption in a place where, what you basically do is learn new ways of how to get people to like you so you will get included.

In other words, you expand your repertoire of how people can like you, but you are still operating out of the same psychological developmental place. It’s different from if you took the exact same assumption and you were to say, “You know, the thing I want to really explore is that I can be OK if people do not like me.” And there is a very different question that you could take to that very same assumption. It’s going to depend where somebody is in their own development whether one of them feels more compelling and the other is “Oh my god, I wouldn’t touch that with a 10 foot pole.” Or “No, I’ve done that before, I’m ready to go to the—I’m tired of needing to look outside of myself to feel OK about myself.”

And then that exploration itself will be the juice to help the person begin to make that developmental journey. And that’s a way they begin to “solve” that problem.

TS: So it sounds like the answer to my question was, it depends. It depends on how you’re approaching your Immunity to Change x-ray and what your real underbelly work is that you want to do at that moment in time. It depends on you?

LL: Yes. That’s right, it depends where you are in your own journey. You can’t take on too much if you don’t have enough there. So you may need to go more slowly until you get to the really big “cracking open the nut.”

TS: And what do we know from your work about leadership and what makes a really good leader, a better leader, based on their level of development? Are leaders who have a self-transforming mind inherently more skillful, more capable, do they grow better organizations?

LL: Well, that’s a very good question. So what we can say is that development does not necessarily make you more effective. What it does is it increases your capability, your capacity to handle complexity. And if you are in a setting where you are being hamstrung to do certain things, you will actually not be able to use all of your capabilities. The more developed you are, the more you’re able to see that’s what’s happening. So you could do some interventions on behalf of seeking to author what is leading to the hamstrung-ness, but there’s not a one-to-one correspondence.

What you could say is that people, leaders who are making sense in a more self-transforming way, have a greater likelihood of being able to incubate, hold, and transform organizations that will make for organizations being able to hold greater complexities themselves. But it’s not a one-to-one correspondence. So they’re the ones who are more—if anybody’s going to be able to do it, they’re going to be able to, but it’s a necessary and not sufficient.

TS: And when you say “handle complexity,” tell me what you mean by that word complexity?

LL: So the simple way to talk about complexity is to be thinking about perspectives. And a more simple way of thinking about taking perspective is that I do a kind of listening to another person, and I put myself into their shoes, and I try to imagine what they’re saying. And that’s very important and great and very important, and there’s a point in development where that is not true.

But there is a more complex way that you can do that. And that more complex way— I’ll give you a couple of versions—is that you’re actually tuning into things that the person is not saying, and you are doing things that are “listening to the music” for example, in how people are speaking, and you’re not actually even honing in on the words. So when you do a version of a paraphrase that—what I earlier described as really “trying to get into those shoes”—the paraphrases between these two differences are quite different, because you will be much more tuned into the words between the words in this next level of complexity.

But then there’s another level of complexity, which is understanding that what a person is saying in a given moment actually is a reflection of a set of values and beliefs this person has, and this is a moment in time when you’re listening to that person. That is also a more complex way of really understanding what the person is saying, because it helps you to understand what’s really at stake for the person when they’re saying what it is that they’re saying there.

So that’s just to give you a small example of how you can see there’s greater, more complexity that you see, and the hope is that in seeing more and more of that, it’s not just like hey, complexity is a great thing just all by itself, but I hope you can see in that example you’re actually able to join with that person in a much more profound way when you are able to take more of the historical perspective and to be able to do the reading between the lines. Does that make sense?

TS: That all makes sense. I think the question I have is, you don’t seem to think there’s necessarily a one-to-one correlation between a leader’s ability to handle complexity and their effectiveness at work. And I was like “Huh, I thought there was.” I don’t get that. Why wouldn’t that just make someone more effective?

LL: Well, part of that has to do with having people not having done all of their, for shorthand, Shadow work. So I could be making sense of the world from a self-authoring perspective, for example, and can be quite clear about what our strategy is and why it’s going to get us where we need to go and so on. But I may not be recognizing that I have basically shut off my ability to hear what other people have to say. Because it’s not just that I want it to go my way, but there’s something that is really much more like an ego level at stake for me that I cannot actually fundamentally shift what I believe needs to happen here. And so I have a deafness to others and it’s a blind spot. And if I don’t actually face into that blind spot, I’m not going to actually be effective even in my own strategy.

TS: Alright, Lisa, here as we come to an end of our conversation, I’m so pleased that you’re part of Sounds True’s nine-month immersion training program, the Inner MBA, in partnership with LinkedIn and Wisdom 2.0. And graduates of the program get a certificate of completion from a division of NYU called MindfulNYU. What do you hope participants who learn the Immunity to Change process will gain? How will they be different, and as a result, how will their organizations be different?

LL: My hope is that people will come to know at a really deep level—so not just intellectually, but they will know through the experience of going through our process what change actually requires, what adaptive change actually requires, and that they will begin to recognize how much their ability to tune into their emotions and the affective aspects of their being actually matter a great deal to their ability to change and their ability to be effective. As does tuning into their bodies and using their bodies as a way of learning more and more about who they are, because my sense of working with many people over the years is that we seem to be overly privileging people’s intellects. And I know that’s just not enough when it comes to really enacting change.

So my hope is that people really understand in this deep way what it takes to change. They’ve had a personal experience of it, they also know, then, the distinction between adaptive and technical changes and how to approach the two of them differently, and I also hope that what they can bring to their organizations and the people they work with is a greater compassion for others and other people’s change processes, and that they don’t make conclusions about people and write them off because people don’t seem to be able to be making these changes. But rather to see, “Oh, there’s actually more to this, and if I could allow this person more of the grace to take up the work that they need to and that our organization needs them to, everybody will be better served by that.”

TS: I’ve been talking with Lisa Lahey. Along with Robert Kegan, she’s the author of the book Immunity to Change, How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. It’s a very deep book with lots of opportunity for self-reflection and for you to apply the Immunity to Change process to yourself. She’s also a featured presenter in Sounds True’s Inner MBA program, and to learn more about that, you can check out

Lisa, thank you so much for being a guest on Insights at the Edge, thank you. Thanks for your good work.

LL: Aww, thank you, Tami. Thanks.

TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. waking up the world.

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap