The Real Reason People Won’t Change
FROM THE NOVEMBER 2001 ISSUE
Every manager is familiar with the employee who just won’t change. Sometimes it’s easy to see why—the employee fears a shift in power, the need to learn new skills, the stress of having to join a new team. In other cases, such resistance is far more puzzling. An employee has the skills and smarts to make a change with ease, has shown a deep commitment to the company, genuinely supports the change—and yet, inexplicably, does nothing.
What’s going on? As organizational psychologists, we have seen this dynamic literally hundreds of times, and our research and analysis have recently led us to a surprising yet deceptively simple conclusion. Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. The resulting dynamic equilibrium stalls the effort in what looks like resistance but is in fact a kind of personal immunity to change.
When you, as a manager, uncover an employee’s competing commitment, behavior that has seemed irrational and ineffective suddenly becomes stunningly sensible and masterful—but unfortunately, on behalf of a goal that conflicts with what you and even the employee are trying to achieve. You find out that the project leader who’s dragging his feet has an unrecognized competing commitment to avoid the even tougher assignment—one he fears he can’t handle—that might come his way next if he delivers too successfully on the task at hand. Or you find that the person who won’t collaborate despite a passionate and sincere commitment to teamwork is equally dedicated to avoiding the conflict that naturally attends any ambitious team activity.
In these pages, we’ll look at competing commitments in detail and take you through a process to help your employees overcome their immunity to change. The process may sound straightforward, but it is by no means quick or easy. On the contrary, it challenges the very psychological foundations upon which people function. It asks people to call into question beliefs they’ve long held close, perhaps since childhood. And it requires people to admit to painful, even embarrassing, feelings that they would not ordinarily disclose to others or even to themselves. Indeed, some people will opt not to disrupt their immunity to change, choosing instead to continue their fruitless struggle against their competing commitments.
As a manager, you must guide people through this exercise with understanding and sensitivity. If your employees are to engage in honest introspection and candid disclosure, they must understand that their revelations won’t be used against them. The goal of this exploration is solely to help them become more effective, not to find flaws in their work or character. As you support your employees in unearthing and challenging their innermost assumptions, you may at times feel you’re playing the role of a psychologist. But in a sense, managers are psychologists. After all, helping people overcome their limitations to become more successful at work is at the very heart of effective management.
Helping people overcome their limitations to become more successful at work is at the very heart of effective management.
We’ll describe this delicate process in detail, but first let’s look at some examples of competing commitments in action.
Shoveling Sand Against the Tide
Competing commitments cause valued employees to behave in ways that seem inexplicable and irremediable, and this is enormously frustrating to managers. Take the case of John, a talented manager at a software company. (Like all examples in this article, John’s experiences are real, although we have altered identifying features. In some cases, we’ve constructed composite examples.) John was a big believer in open communication and valued close working relationships, yet his caustic sense of humor consistently kept colleagues at a distance. And though he wanted to move up in the organization, his personal style was holding him back. Repeatedly, John was counseled on his behavior, and he readily agreed that he needed to change the way he interacted with others in the organization. But time after time, he reverted to his old patterns. Why, his boss wondered, did John continue to undermine his own advancement?
As it happened, John was a person of color working as part of an otherwise all-white executive team. When he went through an exercise designed to help him unearth his competing commitments, he made a surprising discovery about himself. Underneath it all, John believed that if he became too well integrated with the team, it would threaten his sense of loyalty to his own racial group. Moving too close to the mainstream made him feel very uncomfortable, as if he were becoming “one of them” and betraying his family and friends. So when people gathered around his ideas and suggestions, he’d tear down their support with sarcasm, inevitably (and effectively) returning himself to the margins, where he was more at ease. In short, while John was genuinely committed to working well with his colleagues, he had an equally powerful competing commitment to keeping his distance.
Consider, too, a manager we’ll call Helen, a rising star at a large manufacturing company. Helen had been assigned responsibility for speeding up production of the company’s most popular product, yet she was spinning her wheels. When her boss, Andrew, realized that an important deadline was only two months away and she hadn’t filed a single progress report, he called her into a meeting to discuss the project. Helen agreed that she was far behind schedule, acknowledging that she had been stalling in pulling together the team. But at the same time she showed a genuine commitment to making the project a success. The two developed a detailed plan for changing direction, and Andrew assumed the problem was resolved. But three weeks after the meeting, Helen still hadn’t launched the team.
Why was Helen unable to change her behavior? After intense self-examination in a workshop with several of her colleagues, she came to an unexpected conclusion: Although she truly wanted the project to succeed, she had an accompanying, unacknowledged commitment to maintaining a subordinate position in relation to Andrew. At a deep level, Helen was concerned that if she succeeded in her new role—one she was excited about and eager to undertake—she would become more a peer than a subordinate. She was uncertain whether Andrew was prepared for the turn their relationship would take. Worse, a promotion would mean that she, not Andrew, would be ultimately accountable for the results of her work—and Helen feared she wouldn’t be up to the task.
These stories shed some light on the nature of immunity to change. The inconsistencies between John’s and Helen’s stated goals and their actions reflect neither hypocrisy nor unspoken reluctance to change but the paralyzing effect of competing commitments. Any manager who seeks to help John communicate more effectively or Helen move her project forward, without understanding that each is also struggling unconsciously toward an opposing agenda, is shoveling sand against the tide.
Diagnosing Immunity to Change
Competing commitments aren’t distressing only to the boss; they’re frustrating to employees as well. People with the most sincere intentions often unwittingly create for themselves Sisyphean tasks. And they are almost always tremendously relieved when they discover just why they feel as if they are rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again. Even though uncovering a competing commitment can open up a host of new concerns, the discovery offers hope for finally accomplishing the primary, stated commitment.
Employees are almost always tremendously relieved when they discover just why they feel as if they are rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.
Based on the past 15 years of working with hundreds of managers in a variety of companies, we’ve developed a three-stage process to help organizations figure out what’s getting in the way of change. First, managers guide employees through a set of questions designed to uncover competing commitments. Next, employees examine these commitments to determine the underlying assumptions at their core. And finally, employees start the process of changing their behavior.
Getting Groups to Change
We’ll walk through the process fairly quickly below, but it’s important to note that each step will take time. Just uncovering the competing commitment will require at least two or three hours, because people need to reflect on each question and the implications of their answers. The process of challenging competing commitments and making real progress toward overcoming immunity to change unfolds over a longer period—weeks or even months. But just getting the commitments on the table can have a noticeable effect on the decisions people make and the actions they take.
A Diagnostic Test for Immunity to Change
Uncovering Competing Commitments
Overcoming immunity to change starts with uncovering competing commitments. In our work, we’ve found that even though people keep their competing commitments well hidden, you can draw them out by asking a series of questions—as long as the employees believe that personal and potentially embarrassing disclosures won’t be used inappropriately. It can be very powerful to guide people through this diagnostic exercise in a group—typically with several volunteers making their own discoveries public—so people can see that others, even the company’s star performers, have competing commitments and inner contradictions of their own.
The first question we ask is, What would you like to see changed at work, so that you could be more effective or so that work would be more satisfying? Responses to this question are nearly always couched in a complaint—a form of communication that most managers bemoan because of its negative, unproductive tone. But complaints can be immensely useful. People complain only about the things they care about, and they complain the loudest about the things they care about most. With little effort, people can turn their familiar, uninspiring gripes into something that’s more likely to energize and motivate them—a commitment, genuinely their own.
To get there, you need to ask a second question: What commitments does your complaint imply? A project leader we worked with, we’ll call him Tom, had grumbled, “My subordinates keep me out of the loop on important developments in my project.” This complaint yielded the statement, “I believe in open and candid communication.” A line manager we’ll call Mary lamented people’s unwillingness to speak up at meetings; her complaint implied a commitment to shared decision making.
While undoubtedly sincere in voicing such commitments, people can nearly always identify some way in which they are in part responsible for preventing them from being fulfilled. Thus, the third question is:What are you doing, or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized? Invariably, in our experience, people can identify these undermining behaviors in just a couple of seconds. For example, Tom admitted: “When people bring me bad news, I tend to shoot the messenger.” And Mary acknowledged that she didn’t delegate much and that she sometimes didn’t release all the information people needed in order to make good decisions.
In both cases, there may well have been other circumstances contributing to the shortfalls, but clearly both Tom and Mary were engaging in behavior that was affecting the people around them. Most people recognize this about themselves right away and are quick to say, “I need to stop doing that.” Indeed, Tom had repeatedly vowed to listen more openly to potential problems that would slow his projects. However, the purpose of this exercise is not to make these behaviors disappear—at least not now. The purpose is to understand why people behave in ways that undermine their own success.
The next step, then, is to invite people to consider the consequences of forgoing the behavior. We do this by asking a fourth question: If you imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior, do you detect in yourself any discomfort, worry, or vague fear? Tom imagined himself listening calmly and openly to some bad news about a project and concluded, “I’m afraid I’ll hear about a problem that I can’t fix, something that I can’t do anything about.” And Mary? She considered allowing people more latitude and realized that, quite frankly, she feared people wouldn’t make good decisions and she would be forced to carry out a strategy she thought would lead to an inferior result.
The final step is to transform that passive fear into a statement that reflects an active commitment to preventing certain outcomes. We ask, By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing? The resulting answer is the competing commitment, which lies at the very heart of a person’s immunity to change. Tom admitted, “I am committed to not learning about problems I can’t fix.” By intimidating his staff, he prevented them from delivering bad news, protecting himself from the fear that he was not in control of the project. Mary, too, was protecting herself—in her case, against the consequences of bad decisions. “I am committed to making sure my group does not make decisions that I don’t like.”
Such revelations can feel embarrassing. While primary commitments nearly always reflect noble goals that people would be happy to shout from the rooftops, competing commitments are very personal, reflecting vulnerabilities that people fear will undermine how they are regarded both by others and themselves. Little wonder people keep them hidden and hasten to cover them up again once they’re on the table.
But competing commitments should not be seen as weaknesses. They represent some version of self-protection, a perfectly natural and reasonable human impulse. The question is, if competing commitments are a form of self-protection, what are people protecting themselves from? The answers usually lie in what we call their big assumptions—deeply rooted beliefs about themselves and the world around them. These assumptions put an order to the world and at the same time suggest ways in which the world can go out of order. Competing commitments arise from these assumptions, driving behaviors unwittingly designed to keep the picture intact.
Examining the Big Assumption
People rarely realize they hold big assumptions because, quite simply, they accept them as reality. Often formed long ago and seldom, if ever, critically examined, big assumptions are woven into the very fabric of people’s existence. (For more on the grip that big assumptions hold on people, see the sidebar “Big Assumptions: How Our Perceptions Shape Our Reality.”) But with a little help, most people can call them up fairly easily, especially once they’ve identified their competing commitments. To do this, we first ask people to create the beginning of a sentence by inverting the competing commitment, and then we ask them to fill in the blank. For Tom (“I am committed to not hearing about problems I can’t fix”), the big assumption turned out to be, “I assume that if I did hear about problems I can’t fix, people would discover I’m not qualified to do my job.” Mary’s big assumption was that her teammates weren’t as smart or experienced as she and that she’d be wasting her time and others’ if she didn’t maintain control. Returning to our earlier story, John’s big assumption might be, “I assume that if I develop unambivalent relationships with my white coworkers, I will sacrifice my racial identity and alienate my own community.”
Big Assumptions: How Our Perceptions Shape Our Reality
This is a difficult process, and it doesn’t happen all at once, because admitting to big assumptions makes people uncomfortable. The process can put names to very personal feelings people are reluctant to disclose, such as deep-seated fears or insecurities, highly discouraging or simplistic views of human nature, or perceptions of their own superior abilities or intellect. Unquestioning acceptance of a big assumption anchors and sustains an immune system: A competing commitment makes all the sense in the world, and the person continues to engage in behaviors that support it, albeit unconsciously, to the detriment of his or her “official,” stated commitment. Only by bringing big assumptions to light can people finally challenge their assumptions and recognize why they are engaging in seemingly contradictory behavior.
Questioning the Big Assumption
Once people have identified their competing commitments and the big assumptions that sustain them, most are prepared to take some immediate action to overcome their immunity. But the first part of the process involves observation, not action, which can be frustrating for high achievers accustomed to leaping into motion to solve problems. Let’s take a look at the steps in more detail.
Step 1: Notice and record current behavior.
Employees must first take notice of what does and doesn’t happen as a consequence of holding big assumptions to be true. We specifically ask people not to try to make any changes in their thinking or behavior at this time but just to become more aware of their actions in relation to their big assumptions. This gives people the opportunity to develop a better appreciation for how and in what contexts big assumptions influence their lives. John, for example, who had assumed that working well with his white colleagues would estrange him from his ethnic group, saw that he had missed an opportunity to get involved in an exciting, high-profile initiative because he had mocked the idea when it first came up in a meeting.
Step 2: Look for contrary evidence.
Next, employees must look actively for experiences that might cast doubt on the validity of their big assumptions. Because big assumptions are held as fact, they actually inform what people see, leading them to systematically (but unconsciously) attend to certain data and avoid or ignore other data. By asking people to search specifically for experiences that would cause them to question their assumptions, we help them see that they have filtering out certain types of information—information that could weaken the grip of the big assumptions.
Because big assumptions are held as fact, they actually inform what people see, leading them to systematically (but unconsciously) attend to certain data and avoid or ignore other data.
When John looked around him, he considered for the first time that an African-American manager in another department had strong working relationships with her mostly white colleagues, yet seemed not to have compromised her personal identity. He also had to admit that when he had been thrown onto an urgent task force the year before, he had worked many hours alongside his white colleagues and found the experience satisfying; he had felt of his usual ambivalence.
Step 3: Explore the history.
In this step, we people to become the “biographers” of their assumptions: How and when did the assumptions first take hold? How long have they been around? What have been some of their critical turning points?
Typically, this step leads people to earlier life experiences, almost always to times before their current jobs and relationships with current coworkers. This reflection usually makes people dissatisfied with the foundations of their big assumptions, especially when they see that these have accompanied them to their current positions and have been coloring their experiences for many years. Recently, a CEO expressed astonishment as she realized she’d been applying the same self-protective stance in her work that she’d developed during a difficult divorce years before. Just as commonly, as was the case for John, people trace their big assumptions to early experiences with parents, siblings, or friends. Understanding the circumstances that influenced the formation of the assumptions can free people to consider whether these beliefs apply to their present selves.
Step 4: Test the assumption.
This step entails creating and running a modest test of the big assumption. This is the first time we ask people to consider making changes in their behavior. Each employee should come up with a scenario and run it by a partner who serves as a sounding board. (Left to their own devices, people tend to create tests that are either too risky or so tentative that they don’t actually challenge the assumption and in fact reaf-firm its validity.) After conferring with a partner, John, for instance, volunteered to join a short-term committee looking at his department’s process for evaluating new product ideas. Because the team would dissolve after a month, he would be able to extricate himself fairly quickly if he grew too uncomfortable with the relationships. But the experience would force him to spend a significant amount of time with several of his white colleagues during that month and would provide him an opportunity to test his sense of the real costs of being a full team member.
Step 5: Evaluate the results.
In the last step, employees evaluate the test results, evaluate the test itself, design and run new tests, and eventually question the big assumptions. For John, this meant signing up for other initiatives and making initial social overtures to white coworkers. At the same time, by engaging in volunteer efforts within his community outside of work, he made sure that his ties to his racial group were not compromised.
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It is worth noting that revealing a big assumption doesn’t necessarily mean it will be exposed as false. But even if a big assumption does contain an element of truth, an individual can often find more effective ways to operate once he or she has had a chance to challenge the assumption and its hold on his or her behavior. Indeed, John found a way to support the essence of his competing commitment—to maintain his bond with his racial group—while minimizing behavior that sabotaged his other stated commitments.
Uncovering Your Own Immunity
As you go through this process with your employees, remember that managers are every bit as susceptible to change immunity as employees are, and your competing commitments and big assumptions can have a significant impact on the people around you. Returning once more to Helen’s story: When we went through this exercise with her boss, Andrew, it turned out that he was harboring some contradictions of his own. While he was committed to the success of his subordinates, Andrew at some level assumed that he alone could meet his high standards, and as a result he was laboring under a competing commitment to maintain absolute control over his projects. He was unintentionally communicating this lack of confidence to his subordinates—including Helen—in subtle ways. In the end, Andrew’s and Helen’s competing commitments were, without their knowledge, mutually reinforcing, keeping Helen dependent on Andrew and allowing Andrew to control her projects.
Helen and Andrew are still working through this process, but they’ve already gained invaluable insight into their behavior and the ways they are impeding their own progress. This may seem like a small step, but bringing these issues to the surface and confronting them head-on is challenging and painful—yet tremendously effective. It allows managers to see, at last, what’s really going on when people who are genuinely committed to change nonetheless dig in their heels. It’s not about identifying unproductive behavior and systematically making plans to correct it, as if treating symptoms would cure a disease. It’s not about coaxing or cajoling or even giving poor performance reviews. It’s about understanding the complexities of people’s behavior, guiding them through a productive process to bring their competing commitments to the surface, and helping them cope with the inner conflict that is preventing them from achieving their goals.