“Not long ago a medical study showed that if heart doctors tell their seriously at-risk heart patients that they will literally die if they do not make changes to their personal lives — diet, exercise, smoking — still only one in seven (14%) is actually able to make the changes.”
Kegan and Lahey’s book Immunity to Change (Harvard Business School, 2009) goes on to note that these heart patients all want to live. None want to die. But, despite their grave prognosis (no pun intended), something within them makes them unable to change. It takes more than sheer will-power to effect change at the deepest levels within ourselves, our churches, our families, and our businesses.
Change comes in two basic forms; technical change and adaptive change.
Technical change is simple enough. If I keep burning the dinner, I learn to change the temperature setting on the oven. A couple of burnt offerings will quickly force a technical change, and hopefully a better outcome.
Adaptive change is altogether different. It describes the capacity to look at problems from multiple angles, even altogether new angles; to change our basic patterns of thinking. It requires greater mental complexity and the willingness to step into unchartered waters to find new solutions.
In a world of rapidly changing technology, technical changes abound. But leadership (as a parent, pastor, or President) depends not on one’s ability with the latest apps, but one’s flexibility in the face of social complexity.
Then add one more layer; our inherent immunity to change. Just as the human body’s immune system will fight against a kidney transplant despite the fact that the transplant is desperately needed for survival, so our personal lives, our family systems, and our corporate cultures are finely tuned to resist changes that threaten the status quo; even when the status quo is relatively dysfunctional.
It’s not that people don’t like change. It’s that we are innately (and unconsciously) wired to resist it — even those of us who claim to embrace change all the time!
This post doesn’t have the time or space to spell out the way forward. I’ll address that in a future post. But let’s resolve at least two things this week. First, let’s acknowledge that while change may be needed, immunity to change is very deeply embedded within us all. Second, until we grasp these deeper dynamics, let’s be gracious with each other.
David Timms serves as Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University.