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Why Are So Many People Immune to Change?

Saybrook University | Sunday January 8th, 2012 | 2 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Nancy Southern, Ed.D.

A couple of months ago, I came across an article in my local paper entitled, American “Allergy” to Global Warming, Why?”

The article asked why so many Americans remain in denial about climate change when such a great amount of scientific evidence exists that indicates it is our reality. The article reviews some of the scientific evidence and asks why there continues to be little motivation for changing our consumption and production practices that appear to contribute to global warming. The writer notes how the support for and against addressing climate change has become part of the political divide, making it difficult to discuss as a public conversation.

In listening to the Republican candidates’ debates, climate change has not been part of the conversation. Will President Barack Obama consider it dangerous territory when we move into debates between the two presidential candidates?  If so, a great opportunity to bring this conversation to Americans across the country will be lost.

What was missing from the article was much perspective on why we are not all willing to embrace the greatest challenge of our time. One lens to look at this “allergy” to global warming is through Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work, framed as immunity to change.

Kegan and Lahey provide a map to help understand why people often develop an immunity to change. The map provides a way to identify and discuss what an individual or organization is visibly committed to in terms of values, goals, and actions.  Granted there is a great divide in values and beliefs about aspects of American culture, but I would imagine that every American can agree that we want our children and grandchildren to live in an environment that supports life as we know it. We need to identify and find the common values and commitments that enable us, as Americans, to stand on common ground and move forward from there to develop shared goals toward a sustainable future.

The framework asks individuals and organizations to identify and discuss what they are not doing to support their commitments or what they are doing, instead, that keep them from realizing their commitments. While there has been a tremendous social movement toward creating a sustainable world, it is hard to determine if we are anywhere close to a tipping point, where the forces driving society toward sustainability will influence and lessen those resisting it. I believe we still have a lot of work to do at the individual, community, organization, and societal level. The awareness of the need for change has greatly increased, but we need to assess what we are not doing or doing instead that keeps us from living our commitments. What we are not doing is having a national conversation on what changes we need to make to address climate change and create a sustainable future.

The framework also asks individuals and organizations to identify their competing commitments. What is getting in the way of making the needed or desired changes? One that is clearly present for many Americans, families, and organizations is the need to manage within limited financial means. While it is hard to think about making changes with limited resources, thinking systemically might enable us to see that what we thought was a competing commitment, actually can support us toward our goal. To recognize those opportunities might require insight into the “big assumptions” that hold us.

As Kegan and Lahey note, big assumptions often show up in the judgments and generalizations that drive our actions. They are assumptions we don’t question, and often are not even aware are keeping us stuck. When assumptions go unquestioned, they keep us from seeing possibilities for change.

Getting back to the American allergy to global warming described in the article, one can imagine that a big assumption of those anticipating major effects of climate change, is that NOW is the time when we have to make changes regardless of our limited resources. While a big assumption of others may be that climate change will happen regardless of what we do, or that it is not as important as creating jobs or lowering the deficit.

Working with these different assumptions requires an on-going conversation—one that acknowledges the different assumptions and considers the possible effects of them. Systems thinking can help connect the dots and support the possibility that taking action to address climate change can create jobs and strengthen the economy. One of the laws of systems thinking is that cause and effect are not closely related in time. It is hard for people to see that the assumptions, patterns of behavior, and structures that led up to both the environmental and economic crises are not the same ones that will support us in addressing these two important areas for change. We cannot continue to do what we have always done and expect different results. We need new thinking; new ways of living and working; new social, organizational, and economic structures to move us toward a sustainable future. To overcome this “allergy” to global warming and immunity to change, we need to raise the levels of awareness, talk about the need to change, and bring our big assumptions into conversations that can stimulate new action.

Nancy Southern, Ed.D., is Chair of the organizational systems program at Saybrook University and is a regular contributor to Rethinking Complexity, a blog produced by students and faculty members of Saybrook’s organizational systems program. Read more of Dr. Southern’s work at: www.rethinkingcomplexity.com.


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  • Balboa Sam

    Good article… is “Immunity” really the right word?  “Immunity” implies that it can’t hurt them.  I think “Ignorant” is the right word… no?

  • Dbrock

    Hello Nancy.  I really enjoyed this piece.  As Balboa has commented, I
    am not so sure that people have an immunity to change.  The issues with
    bringing about effective changes NOW, as opposed to when it becomes too
    late, boils down to a mass of other factors.  Some of those factors for
    me are rooted in crowd behavior/psychology, culture, and the economic
    system.  The simple fact is that people have not been given a chance to
    see what their other options are and what a life with real wealth
    (education, health, sustainability, meaningful relationships, meaningful
    work, etc) feels like as opposed to a life of chasing capital.

    Please
    feel free to read my blog on the obstacles to forming genuine a care
    which discusses some of the issues in developing a care for the
    environment as your post touches upon.

    Thanks!