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Why People Don’t Change and How They Can


An entire industry of books and seminars has emerged around how to help people change or grow. Bold titles and quick fix steps promise a new you now!

But what if growth and change don’t work that way?

It’s assumed that growing or changing requires learning new skills or knowledge. However, it’s more likely that real change occurs not when something is added but when barriers are removed.

Harvard professional development psychologist Robert Kegan has spent a lifetime analyzing how people change and why they don’t. Kegan and colleague Lisa Lahey wrote the book Immunity to Change exploring exactly this issue in the workplace.

Having good intentions is not enough, nor is being pushed and prodded against your will. Rather, what Kegan discovered is that most people have internal competing commitments that interfere with their best intentions. Complicating the picture is that at the root of this competing commitment lies a big assumption a person holds that locks their behaviour in place.

Let’s see how this works.

I would like to be a team player but I don’t collaborate enough with colleagues and tend to make unilateral decisions. So the solution is to collaborate more often and delegate decision-making authority, right?

Wrong. This change may last a day or a week, but the real motivator for my behaviour has not yet been identified.

Digging a little deeper I discover that I am committed to receiving sole credit for my work and avoiding the frustration or conflict associated with collaboration. Going deeper still I realize that I assume that no one will appreciate me if I’m not recognized as the sole source of success and that nothing good can come from being frustrated or in conflict.

Competing commitments and big assumptions hold much more influence on our behaviour than do good intentions. The key to changing behaviour is in not rushing to solutions too soon. Changing behaviour means being honest with ourselves or being willing to hold honest conversations with our staff. Solve the competing commitment and the big assumption and you solve the resistance to change.

The workplace is a complicated matrix of competing commitments and big assumptions holding the culture and development of a team in place. Improvements are proposed and temporarily acted upon but soon fade with old habits resurfacing. Once again, change has been thwarted.

Teams that thrive have people that align their goals and objectives to those of the organization. In order to truly accomplish these goals the barriers that interfere with growth and change must be addressed. Most teams have tremendous internal resources that remain untapped. Identifying the competing commitments and big assumptions that underlie the group is a great way to unlock these latent resources and build a dynamic and transparent group that is capable of continuous growth and change.

This blog post is a cross-post of my bi-weekly column featured in the Vancouver Sun. Juma Wood is a manager with Meyers Norris Penny's organization and people consulting group based in Vancouver.