Immunity to Change Review

Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey – Immunity to Change (Review & Overview)

For those of you who make sincere New Year’s resolutions each year, then fail to follow through, this article may be of use to you.

How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good). Great book for anyone working with organizational change, and the model is fully scalable to working with individuals (since the organization model is based on working with a unique group of individuals).

The hidden assumption in the model – using their own terminology – is that there are distinct stages of development for adults, based on Kegan’s The Evolving Self, and that moving up the developmental ladder is a good thing (vertical change/transformation rather than horizontal change/translation). Here is a brief summary of Kegan’s model, which has been highly influential in the integral psychology movement.

This summary comes from Mark Dombeck’s excellent two-part look at Kegan’s work (here and here) – recommended reading for a good introduction to Kegan’s project (he covers The Evolving Self and In Over Our Heads).
Kegan is suggesting that as babies grow into adults, they develop progressively more objective and accurate appreciations of the social world they inhabit. They do this by progressing through five or more states or periods of development which he labeled as follows:

  • Incorporative
  • Impulsive
  • Imperial
  • Interpersonal
  • Institutional

In their beginnings, babies are all subjective and have really no appreciation of anything objective at all, and therefore no real self-awareness. This is to say, at first, babies have little idea how to interpret anything, and the only perspective they have with which to interpret things is their own scarcely developed perspective. They can recognize parent’s faces and the like, but this sort of recognition should not be confused with babies being able to appreciate that parents are separate creatures with their own needs. This key recognition doesn’t occur for years.

Kegan describes this earliest period as Incorporative. The sense of self is not developed at this point in time. There is no self to speak of because there is no distinction occurring yet between self and other. To the baby, there is not any reason to ask the question, “who am I” because the baby’s mind is nothing more and nothing less than the experience of its senses as it moves about. In an important sense, the baby is embedded in its sensory experience and has no other awareness.

Babies practice using their senses and reflexes a lot and thus develop mental representations of those reflexes. At some point it occurs to the baby that it has reflexes that it can use and senses that it can experience. Reflex and sensation are thus the first mental objects; the first things that are understood to be distinct components of the self. The sense of self emerges from the knowledge that there are things in the world that aren’t self (like reflexes and senses); things that I am not. To quote Kegan,

“Rather than literally being my reflexes, I now have them, and “I” am something other. “I” am that which coordinates or mediates the reflexes…”

Kegan correspondingly refers to this second period of social appreciation development as Impulsive, to suggest that the child is now embedded in impulses – which are those things that coordinate reflexes. The sense of self at this stage of life would be comfortable saying something like, “hungry”, or “sleepy”, being fully identified with these hungers. Though babies are now aware that they can take action to fulfill a need, they still are not clear that other people exist yet as independent creatures. From the perspective of the Impulsive mind, a parent is merely another reflex that can be brought to bear to satisfy impulses.

The objectification of what was previously subjective experience continues as development continues. Kegan’s next developmental leap is known as the Imperial self. The child as “little dictator” is born. In the prior impulsive self, the self literally is nothing more and nothing less than a set of needs. There isn’t anyone “there” having those needs yet. The needs alone are all that exists. As awareness continues to rise, the child now starts to become aware that “it” is the very thing that has the needs. Because the child is now aware that it has needs (rather than is needs), it also starts to become aware that it can consciously manipulate things to get its needs satisfied. The impulsive child was also manipulative, perhaps, but in a more unaware animal manner. The imperial child is not yet aware that other people have needs too. It only knows at this stage that it has needs, and it doesn’t hesitate to express them.

The Interpersonal period that follows next starts with the first moment when the child comes to understand that there are actually other people out there in the world whose needs need to be taken into account along side their own. The appreciation of the otherness of other people comes about, as always by a process of expanding perspectives. The child’s perspective in this case expands from its own only to later include both its own and those of other important people around it. It is the child’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of the idea that people have needs itself which cause the leap to occur. To quote Kegan again,

“I” no longer am my needs (no longer the imperial I); rather I have them. In having them I can now coordinate, or integrate, one need system with another, and in so doing, I bring into being that need-mediating reality which we refer to when we speak of mutuality.”

In English then, the interpersonal child becomes aware that “not only do I have needs, other people do too!” This moment in time is where conscience is born and the potential for guilt and shame arises, as well as the potential for empathy. Prior to this moment, these important aspects of adult mental life don’t exist except as potentials.

The interpersonal child is aware that other people have needs which it needs to be taken into account if it is to best satisfy its own needs. There is no guiding principle that helps the interpersonal child to determine which set of needs is most important – its own, or those of the other people. Some children will conclude that their own needs are most important to satisfy, while others will conclude that other’s needs should be prioritized, and some children will move back and forth between the two positions like a crazy monkey.

As the child’s sense of self continues to develop, at some point it becomes aware that a guiding principle can be established which helps determine which set of needs should take precedence under particular circumstances. This is the first moment that the child can be said to have values, or commitments to ideas and beliefs and principles which are larger and more permanent than its own passing whims and fears. Kegan refers to this new realization of and commitment to values as the Institutional period, noting that in this period, the child’s idea of self becomes something which can be, for the first time, described in terms of institutionalized values, such as being honest. “I’m an honest person. I try to be fair. I strive to be brave.” are the sorts of things an institutional mind might say. Values, such as the Golden Rule (e.g., “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), start to guide the child’s appreciation of how to be a member of the family and of society. The moral, ethical and legal foundations of society follow from this basic achievement of an Institutional self. Further, children (or adults) who achieve this level of social maturity understand the need for laws and for ethical codes that work to govern everyone’s behavior. Less socially mature individuals won’t grasp why these things are important and cannot and should not simply be disregarded when they are inconvenient.

For many people, social maturity seems to stop here at the Institutional stage. Kegan himself writes that this stage is the stage of conventional adult maturity; one that many (but not all) adults reach, and beyond which most do not progress. However, the potential for continued development continues onwards and upwards.

The next evolution of self understanding occurs when the child (by now probably an adult) starts to realize that there is more than one way of being “fair” or “honest” or “brave” in the world. Whereas before, in the interpersonal mindset, there is only one possible right way to interpret a social event (e.g., in accordance with one’s own value system), a newly developed InterIndivdiual mindset starts to recognize a diversity of ways that someone might act and still be acting in accordance with a coherent value system (though not necessarily one’s own value system).

For example, let’s consider how someone with an Institutional mindset and someone with an InterIndividual mindset might judge someone who has become a “draft dodger” so as to avoid military duty. There are precisely two ways that an Institutionally minded person might look at such an action. If he or she is of the mainstream institutional mindset, draft dodging is a non-religious sort of heresy and a crime which should be punishable. If, on the other hand, he or she is of a counter-cultural institutional mindset, then judgements are reversed and draft dodging is seen as a brave action which demonstrates individual courage in the face of massive peer pressure to conform. An institutionally minded person can hold one or the other of these perspectives but not both, because he or she is literally embedded in one or the other of those perspectives and cannot appreciate the other except as something alien and evil.

A person who has achieved InterIndividual social maturity is able to hold both mainstream and counter-cultural value systems in mind at the same time, and to see the problem of draft dodging from both perspectives. This sort of dual-vision will appear to be the worst kind of wishy-washiness and flip-floppery to someone stuck in a conventional Institutional mindset and maturity level. However, if you are following the progression of social maturity states, and how one states’ embedded subjective view becomes something which is seem objectively alongside other points of view as social maturity progresses, you will see that such dual-vision is indeed the logical next step; what a more socially mature sort of human being might look like.

Kegan thinks of the achievement of InterIndividual social maturity, what might be considered “post-maturity”, as a dubious thing. In a wonderful interview published by “What is Enlightenment Magazine ” and available online here , Kegan comments on the danger that this state poses:

“… you have to think about what it means to actually be more complex than what your culture is currently demanding. You have to have a name for that, too. It’s almost something beyond maturity, and it’s usually a very risky state to be in. I mean, we loved Jesus, Socrates, and Gandhi—after we murdered them. While they were alive, they were a tremendous pain in the ass. Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.—these people died relatively young. You don’t often live a long life being too far out ahead of your culture.”

I’m not going to comment on whether or not Kegan’s social maturity theory is accurate. Whether or not it is accurate, it is still a very useful and interesting way of thinking about how social maturity develops. If we can agree to accept this theory as basically correct, for a moment, a whole lot of mental problems and disorders that are otherwise difficult to talk about suddenly start to make some sense; start to “click into place.”

OK, so that is the foundation – and yes, it was long.

What Kegan found is that even given the tools to make our subjective developmental stage an object of awareness, which allows us to work with it, and the language tools to change it – How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation – people still were not capable of transformational change in their lives, even when that is exactly what they want. So what gives?

Turns out that as they worked with the Seven Languages, they discovered that people have shadows – nothing new there for those of us doing work on the psyche – and in those shadows lurk some nasty little assumptions about who we are as human beings. Kegan and Lahey call these competing commitments.

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.(2001)

The book is filled with many similar examples. Each story serves to demonstrate how the model works, but each one also shows how challenging it can be to get to our hidden competing commitments.

Kegan & Lahey use the following chart to work with their clients to uncover their competing commitments – I have found it useful to use this for myself and I want to now start using with my clients.


Obviously, you’ll need a bigger version to work with, but you can make on in Word, or Excel, or many other programs. The key is what goes in each of the columns.

Column 1 – Write your commitment
Column 2 – List everything you are doing/not doing that works against your commitment
Column 3 – Write down what you think your competing commitment(s) might be
Column 4 – Write the underlying assumption you are making about why the competing commitment is important

Here is an adaptation from Immunity to Change showing how to fill in this chart. (Wagner, Kegan, Lahey, Lemons, Garnier, Helsing, and Howell, 2006)

Step 1:

The first step of the exercise is to identify a commitment that is “important and insufficiently accomplished.”

What is the most important thing that you need to get better at, or should change in order to make progress towards your goal of ___________________________ (fill in the blank with a goal). Now, frame this as a commitment and write it in Column 1.

Criteria for the commitment:

  • It should feel genuine.
  • It should be clear how this commitment relates directly to the stated goal.
  • It should not yet be fully realized, meaning that there is plenty of room for improvement and future growth.
  • It should implicate you as an individual.
  • It should feel important to you.
  • It should be stated as a positive, not as a negative (not as, “I want stop being mean” – better to say, “I want to be kind and compassionate”).

Step 2:

In Step 2, recognize your counterproductive behaviors.

What are you doing, or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized? Write a brainstormed list in Column 2.


  • Keep the list to specific behaviors.
  • Refrain from listing reasons about why you engage in these behaviors.
  • List only those behaviors that undermine or work against your commitment.
  • List any behavior in which you engage that prevents your goal from being realized.

You may feel inclined to want to attack this list of behaviors, but without deeper exploration, it will be very difficult to change them. As you continue the exercise you’ll begin to uncover what is keeping these behaviors in place.

Step 3:

In step three, you identify your competing commitment(s).

Start by imagining what it would be like to do the exact opposite of the behaviors you listed in Column 2. What do you think would happen? What are your fears? Write these fears in Column 3.

The fears that surface ought to point you towards a competing commitment. This may not be a commitment that you are aware of. In contrast to the first-column commitment, which is the sort of commitment you “have,” the competing commitment is the sort of commitment that “has you.”

Draw a line underneath the list of fears and write what you think may be your competing commitment. You might have more than one.


  • This commitment should make you feel uncomfortable—in other words, it isn’t something you would want put on a plaque.
  • It should be clear how this commitment is self-protecting.
  • It should show how your countering behaviors make perfect sense.

Once you’re finished, you can draw two arrows that connect the first and third columns. These arrows represent the countervailing commitments that cancel each other out and keep you stuck and “immune to change.”


Step 4:

In Step 4, identifying the big assumption that is underlying your competing commitment.

Your big assumption is a kind of rule or prediction about what will happen if you act in certain ways. To identify it, you take your competing commitment, reverse it, and replace the words “I am committed to…” with “I assume that if…” Next add a “then…” and complete the sentence.

The big assumption should…

  • Show why the 3rd Column Commitment feels absolutely necessary.
  • End calamitously.
  • Display a constricted world.
  • Overall, it should make your stomachs tighten…that’s a good sign!


Step 5:

The final step of the exercise is to determine how best to move forward—that is, how to take steps towards change in your life.

In order to move forward, you might:

  • Observe the big assumption in action.
  • Stay alert to challenge the big assumption.
  • Design a test of your big assumption.
  • Run the test and discuss the data openly.

That is the basic process – there are a lot of fine points to doing this that make owning the book worthwhile. It’s easy to think we have uncovered competing commitments and big assumptions when really we haven’t gone deep enough to affect change.

Read an interview with Kegan & Lahey, INNER CONFLICTS, INNER STRENGTHS: The greatest barriers to change come from within; so do our greatest opportunities.

Read Immunity to Change: A Report From the Field by Jonathan Reams (Integral Review, Vol. 5, No. 1).
I then ordered their latest work, (2009) Immunity to Change. How To Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization and read through it in anticipation of being able to apply what further insights it might have in a two day consulting assignment. While the concepts of subject object relations and adult development are rich in their descriptive power, the question still remained for me: how can they be successfully applied in practice?

In this article I will present a description of my experience starting to answer this question. First, however, I present an overview of Immunity to Change. My goal here is not to review the book in a traditional sense, but to provide a quick summary of its core points as context for those not yet familiar with the book or Kegan and Lahey’s, or Kegan’s earlier work. From there I will describe my experience of testing out the work in the two contexts mentioned.

Read The Ethics of Promoting and Assigning Adult Developmental Exercises: A Critical Analysis of the Immunity to Change Process by Sofia Kjellström (Integral Review, Vol. 5, No. 2).

Abstract: The Immunity to Change (ITC) process devised by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey is promoted as an influential technique for creating individual and organizational change. A critical analysis of the ITC process applied in university settings and organizational contexts show that an unintended result is the unwillingness and inability of some participants to participate adequately. Significant theoretical and ethical implications arise in the interplay between three interrelated variables (a) the role and competence of the facilitator, (b) expectations and capabilities of the participants, and (c) the mental demands and assumptions of the process. The inquiry illustrate that the ITC process is probably built upon an implicit assumption that change into greater mental complexity is always good and right, and its inherent structure creates demands that can put participants “in over their heads.” The main conclusion is that developmentallyaware, ethical approaches to using transformational practices such as the ITC should meet at least three demands: they should be conducted as voluntary activities on the part of well-informed participants, they should integrate an adult developmental perspective into the process itself, and they should openly allow the possibility that it is the organizations that may also need to change.

I want to add one last comment to this whole, way-too-long post. The idea of hidden assumptions and competing commitments really is nothing new for some of us – those who have been doing parts (subpersonalities) work for more than just a little while.

Any exiled part (see this post for an explanation of IFS parts defintions) will be holding hidden assumptions (I am dumb, I do not deserve love, and so on); and any manager will be holding competing commitments (I need to keep you from looking stupid, No one can be trusted, and so on). It is the job of the manager to keep the exiles locked in the psychological closet.

It is the job of the therapist to negotiate and assure managers that if they allow us to access the exiles, while also promising to address their own unique needs (managers only want to keep us safe, it’s just that their methods are no longer developmentally appropriate), that we can relieve the whole system of its burdens (neglect and/or trauma, often as not). But we have to work with the managers to get their trust – not to exclude the firefighters, either, who are also important – we cannot simply dive right into working with the exiles (a huge mistake most “inner child” therapists make). It takes time and alliance building.

The program Kegan & Lahey offer is a cognitive-behavioral approach to doing this kind of parts work, without any of the immediacy and somatic elements inherent in parts work. As such, those of us who like parts work but will never get it approved in our treatment plans can use the Immunity to Change model (under the guise of CBT work with scripts) to do the same work, with none of the hassles.

Just saying . . . .


Kegan, R. and Lahey, L. The Real Reason People Won’t Change. Harvard Business Review. 2001 Nov. 85-93.

Wagner, Kegan, Lahey, Lemons, Garnier, Helsing, and Howell. (2006) Change Leadership: a practical guide to transforming our schools. NY: Jossey-Bass.