Competing Obligations:Do You Have an Immunity to Change?

It doesn’t matter whether your goal is to lose 5 or 50 pounds, become a better leader, read more, have more fun. New Year’s resolutions and other goals are hard to keep beyond the first month.

Many of the people I work with coaching come to me in January with goals and resolutions to work on. Some succeed, some limp along.  Let’s face it, change is hard.


Because the brain is tricky. No matter how sincerely we want to break a habit, we have an inherent immunity to change. I’ve been reading an excellent book that explains this, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Immunity to Change, Harvard Business School Press 2009)

This means we’re physiologically “lured” into doing what we’ve always done, no matter how strong our intentions. And yet, some people do succeed. We all know have heard or seen the success stories.

You cannot fix an adaptive problem with a technical solution. A diet, for example, is a technical solution to being overweight: To lose weight, eat less and exercise more. But the problem is more complex. Unless you change your mindset (an adaptive solution), you won’t sustain new habits.

Einstein said that how you formulate a problem is just as critical as how you solve it. According to Ron Heifetz, author and leadership expert, one of the biggest mistakes executives make is applying a technical solution to an adaptive problem. It doesn’t matter how much you change what you do. If you don’t shift the way you think, you’ll revert to doing things as you’ve always done them.

Why would any intelligent human being say he’s committed to doing one thing and then do the opposite? For that matter, why do we set goals and let them slide? Why is it so hard to “walk our talk”? After all, no one feels good after a relapse. We don’t set out to fail.

The answer lies in a concept called competing commitments. Once we understand and accept that we often have conflicting desires, it’s easier to find workarounds that help us meet our goals.

So when you set out to achieve change, write down your goal. Then next to it, write down all the things you do (or don’t do) that go against accomplishing this goal. Some of these make perfect sense. There are many good reasons we don’t follow through with what we say we want.

These are our competing commitments. And until you take a hard look at these, you’re more likely to go back to doing what you’ve always done.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *