Scaling Up – How Our Hidden Immune System Makes It Hard to Change Old Habits

Over-active immune reaction

“What got you here, won’t get you there.”

Many a new leader or manager has heard this truism coined by Marshall Goldsmith and have understood it to mean that they will need to up their game and change their approach if they want to succeed as leaders. They are advised to “be more strategic and less tactical,” to zoom out and view the whole system rather than being stuck in the weeds. To delegate more and to empower and motivate others. To set a vision and “bring people along.” Most of them genuinely want to step into this new leadership space and make a larger contribution. But many find it really hard to let go of their old ways.

Because what got them here, got them here. Up until now, their behaviors and habits worked and helped make them successful. Whether they were problem solvers, detail hounds, or perfectionists, their ways of being are part of their professional identity. Such habits are well-established grooves, and any approach to change needs to understand the source and power of these patterns in order to move beyond them and chart a new course.

It’s about fear.

Chances are, many of the very same habits and behaviors that leaders seek to change – like being on top of all the details – has functioned to keep them safe from something they fear. Whether conscious or not (and many of these fears are unconscious) our underlying fears will not easily allow us to dismantle their protections. Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey use the metaphor of the immune system in their excellent and practical book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. As their model recognizes, our habits often arise out of hidden commitments to avoiding something we believe to be a threat. For example, we may earnestly want to “scale up” and delegate more, but if we are committed to perfectionism, we will struggle to empower others.  Or if we are afraid of looking stupid and committed to avoiding it, we will be unlikely to try something new where we risk failure, like proposing a new strategy.

Underlying our hidden commitments are beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world that hold us back. One recent client had a deep-seated belief that if he made just one mistake, it would ruin his reputation, no one would trust him ever again, and he’d lose his job. This helped explain his difficulty trusting his team. An exhausted and overwhelmed VP uncovered an unexamined assumption that management wasn’t “real” work, causing her to de-prioritized her management and leadership responsibilities.  An executive who was being told he needed to listen more had a hidden assumption that he needed to prove how smart he was all the time to justify his senior position. In each case, the underlying assumptions triggered a response that was akin to an overactive immune system and prevented them from changing their behaviors or taking even small risks. If you see an existential threat in the slightest loss of control, micro-managing makes all the sense in the world, and you are unlikely to stop micro-managing until you are able to change your assumptions.

The task in coaching, is not just about the technical change of  adopting a new delegation framework or helping a leader manage his time better to prioritize strategic work. In order to promote sustained change, the coach must help each leader explore his or her hidden commitments and the fears and assumptions that lurk beneath. Once these have been surfaced, the leader is able to challenge these assumptions by experimenting with new behaviors.  It is through de-bunking our big assumptions that we coax our immune system to let down its guard, learn new behaviors and cultivate new habits so that we can be successful in new roles and environments.