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Overcome Roadblocks to Change

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Discover the subconscious beliefs that prevent you and your team from moving forward

 
As a business leader, you likely consider improvement a priority. At the same time, you probably struggle to create meaningful improvements in your organization.

 

It’s a classic management problem: Despite a plethora of training programs and incentives, employees lack urgency. You wonder if you’ve properly motivated them. You wonder if they have the skill. What’s the problem?

 

The answer is simple: Desire isn’t enough to produce change.

 

Consider a study showing that six of seven heart patients, when told they would die if they didn’t change their habits, did not do so. If it’s virtually impossible to change one’s behavior even in life-and-death situations, how can you change your own in less-urgent situations—and get your employees to change theirs?

 

The answer is self-awareness, which is the pre-requisite for all change. Without self-awareness, there is no solid foundation for transformation.

 

This concept is explained well in Immunity to Change. Not being able to change, say authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, doesn't mean we're weak or lazy; we often fail to follow through on the best intentions for self protective (and deeply hidden) reasons. By showing us how we are held back by our individual beliefs, along with the collective mindsets of our organizations, Kegan and Lahey illustrate how we can finally move forward—and bring our organizations with us. In this Executive Catalyst, we explain Kegan’s and Lahey’s approach.

 

What kind of problem is it?

 

In today’s business world, problems can be divided into two categories: technical problems, which require specific and well known skill sets, and adaptive problems, which can only be solved by advancing one’s mental state.

 

Technical problems are easy to identify. They generally affect only one area of an organization, and they often have cut-and-dried solutions that can be implemented easily because they can be made by a single person. Moreover, the organization readily accepts them. A good example of technical problems: implementing an electronic ordering system to reduce errors.

 

Adaptive problems, on the other hand, are difficult to identify. They generally affect many areas of an organization, and they have complex solutions. In fact, employees often must solve these problems themselves, and the solutions tend to require changes in perspectives, approaches, and roles. As a result, employees may resist solving adaptive problems; they may even refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists. A good example of adaptive problems: encouraging employees to question and even challenge confusing orders.

 

"Employees with self-transforming minds … prioritize information that could reveal the limitations of, and possibly improve, their current frameworks." 

Changes Ahead

According to Kegan and Lahey, the distinction between these two types of problems is important, because today’s 

organizations need employees who can solve adaptive problems—employees who can advance an agenda by making choices, which may involve setting limits and taking stands.

 

Many managers, say Kegan and Lahey, try to hire only employees who can solve adaptive problems. That is, they “seek to win a war for talent by conceiving of capability as a fixed resource to be found ‘out there.’” Other managers seek to develop their teams by investing significant resources in improving employees’ capabilities. Neither approach works: The former simply isn’t a reflection of the real world, because capability can be created; the latter rarely leads to long-term change.

 

How do you engender transformation, then?

 

Understanding mental complexity

 

According to Kegan and Lahey, the first step to engendering change is understanding that employees have different levels of “mental complexity” that influence how they send and receive information.

 

Level 1: the socialized mind. Employees with socialized minds are shaped by their environments. This makes them loyal to the group with which they identify, and they communicate based on these loyalties.

 

Level 2: the self-authoring mind. Employees with self-authoring minds are able to step away from their environments enough to create their own frameworks for judgment and action. This makes them likely to filter out information that does not advance their agendas and send out only information that will.

 

Level 3: the self-transforming mind. Employees with self-transforming minds, like employees with self-authoring minds, have their own frameworks for judgment and action. However, they are able to step away from this framework, recognize its limits, and modify it as necessary. As a result, they prioritize information that could reveal the limitations of, and possibly improve, their current frameworks.

 

Each successive level of mental complexity is formally higher than the preceding one because it can perform the mental functions of the prior level as well as additional functions,” explain Kegan and Lahey.

 

As a result, organizations need workers who, at minimum, have self-authoring minds. Unfortunately, most employees’ mental complexity hovers between the socialized mind and the self-authoring mind. Indeed, two separate studies of mental complexity have shown identical results: that only 7 percent of people have self-transforming minds. The majority, 58 percent, have socialized minds.

 

 

"Today’s organizations need employees who can solve adaptive problems—employees who can advance an agenda by making choices, which may involve setting limits and taking stands." 

Sending the right message

 

According to Kegan and Lahey, organizations that want to foster a culture of change by adopting a development stance must send the clear message that they expect and encourage employees to grow. This includes clearly communicating:

 

  • Adaptive change is desired over technical change.

  • Adulthood is a time for ongoing growth.

  • Employee growth will be cultivated.

  • A change in mindset takes time.

  • A change in mindset involves the head and the heart.

  • A change in mindset may not bring about transformation.

  • It is safe for employees to take risks and explore new behaviors.

 

Developing mental complexity

 

Traditional wisdom holds that adult brain cells, or neurons, are unable to change their structures in response to new experiences. A 2005 study published in the Public Library of Science Biology found that is not true, however. Branch-like projections on some neurons, called dendrites, stay physically malleable—which means the adult mind is capable of developing throughout adulthood.

 

The question is, how can you, as a manager, accelerate this development? Resistance to change as a result of limited mental complexity is an adaptive problem. Simply tossing out strategies for eliminating obstructive behaviors is a technical solution, and thus will not work. What will? Revealing the hidden reasons an employee may be resistant to change.

 

This can be accomplished, say Kegan and Lahey, through “immunity mapping,” a process that helps employees understand what is preventing them from moving up the ladder of mental complexity. In essence, it teaches employees to “see not just how things are at the moment, but why they are this way, and what will actually need to change in order to bring about any significant new results.”

 

The reason immunity mapping works, say Kegan and Lahey, is that it doesn’t simply identify bad behaviors; it uncovers the root causes. In other words, it shows the underlying conflicts that prevent employees who want to change from changing.

 

An overview of immunity mapping

 

Immunity mapping often involves an exercise in which participants respond to a series of questions. For example, an introductory question might ask you to imagine inviting five people who know you and wish you well to a meeting to tell you what you could you do to improve yourself. Subsequent questions would delve deeper. As participants move through the process, some of their underlying motivations are revealed, including those that compete with each other. 

 

Ultimately, participants come to understand how their mindsets produce exactly those behaviors that prevent them from making the changes they desire. Participants are then guided down a new path toward accomplishing their goals.

 

"The reason immunity mapping works … is that it doesn’t simply identify bad behaviors; it uncovers the root causes." 

Opportunity

To illustrate this process in a real-world setting, Kegan and Lahey use the example of Peter Donovan, chief executive officer (CEO) of a multi-billion-dollar financial-services company. When Kegan and Lahey began working with Donovan, he had acquired two competitors in different parts of the country. As a result, he needed to shift to a more distributed leadership model. This was an adaptive challenge that was particularly vexing for Donovan, whose leadership style was described as “hands-on” and “top-down.” To help him meet this challenge, Kegan and Lahey led Donovan through a three-step mapping process.

 

 

In the first step, Kegan and Lahey asked Donovan to identify goals for change. He responded that he would like to be more receptive to new ideas, respond to ideas more flexibly, and be more open to supporting new authority and delegating.

 

In the second step, Kegan and Lahey asked Donovan to identify what he was doing that prevented him from achieving these goals. He responded that he was not genuinely seeking out others’ opinions, not asking open-ended questions, and responding with his own opinions or curt responses.

 

In the third step, Kegan and Lahey asked Donovan why he persisted with these obstructive behaviors. He responded that he liked to do things his own way, liked to feel like he was making a direct impact, liked to feel the pride of ownership, and wanted to be the one who knows best.

 

This is reminiscent of a concept Stephen R. Covey discussed in his afterward to the classic Harvard Business Review article, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”which we discuss further in our Executive Catalyst, "Rid Yourself of Monkeys." Many managers fail to delegate, explained Covey, because they subconsciously fear that giving employees power will increase their own vulnerability.

 

Donovan was able to understand this tendency in himself—and how it prevented him from achieving his goals—through immunity mapping. If you’d like to learn more about how, Immunity to Change is an excellent tool.

 

 


  

Our take

 

Whenever a book comes out that can be applied to an executive-coaching client who needs to addresses systemic, root causes of behavior or lack of results, I get excited. That’s because I know as soon as we weed out the underlying cause of a behavior, a transformative shift occurs. Immunity to Change is one such book. When used properly, by psychotherapists and coaches alike, it delivers. That said, a colleague of mine, Jonathan Sibley, has added a concept to immunity mapping he calls a worry box. This allows one to look at the cognitive and emotional components side by side. I’ve used this worry box many times, and find it powerful. It promotes a closer look at some of the impeding thoughts that can create an impasse. I recommend the additional tweak adjunct to Kegan’s and Lahey’s format.

 

 

 

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[Jody Michael Associates] leads you to achieve what you believed was impossible. This process can be difficult, but the reward is beautiful.”

-- Zackary A. Prince, Paralegal/Writer
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