Your organization needs to implement significant change in order to survive. You have high hopes that this will go well, since your people are talented and enthused about the mission. There’s one big problem that really has you stymied. A few otherwise great people don’t seem to be adjusting. They say they’re on board, and they are sincere in their efforts. Yet they seem to have unrecognized barriers that impede their ability to make necessary changes.

Getting to the root of this problem requires a realistic grasp of how people really change and how that impacts the overall process.

Understand the real barriers to change. The Harvard Business Review article, The Real Reason People Won’t Change, demystifies the puzzling reality that sometimes productive, engaged employees resist change, even when they say they want to support it. Authors Kegan and Lahey say that often these people have a competing commitment, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. Here are their five steps to helping these people achieve a much-needed metamorphosis:

  1. Identify the stated commitment (what the person says they want to do, but have thus far been unsuccessful)
  2. Diagnose the competing commitment(s)
  3. Identify the big assumption (Thoughts/perceptions that support the competing commitment)
  4. Question the big assumption
  5. Test and replace the assumption

Real-life example. I’ll use myself as an example. I say that I want to be fit. In spite of this stated commitment (1), I have a competing commitment (2). My competing commitment is that I really like the comfort and ease of eating what I want and not exercising. That is not something easily admitted, so it took some dialogue with my coach to figure that out. Next I had to identify the big assumption (3) that supports the competing commitment. In my case, I assumed that I stink at self-discipline, since I’ve gotten off the healthy bandwagon repeatedly, going back to being overweight and sloth-like. To question the big assumption (4), I examined its validity. I realized that I know what works and have actually stayed fit for years at a time. To test and replace the assumption (5), I now practice the mantra that I can and do apply self-discipline. I have done a pretty good job of replacing my old assumptions. I realize now that a one-day cookie binge is not a big deal and not evidence of my inability to stick with the program.

If you wonder if you’ll have to get a counseling degree to help your people change, fear not! The article outlines the questions to be explored and gives examples to help guide the conversation. The authors even help understand how groups can have competing commitments and how to help teams identify unspoken dynamics and move forward.

What competing commitments are getting in the way of you making necessary changes? Dig deep to figure them out and replace your assumptions that are barriers to change. “The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable” (Paul Broca).

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