Growing Despite "Immunity" to Change
There I was, in an unfamiliar office, sitting in a circle of people I’d never met before—but it was my office and my team. They say buying a company is like jumping on a moving train. Sitting in that first meeting, I got the sense the passengers were surprised where the train had taken them and unsure if they should trust the new conductor. After all, I was a woman in my mid-thirties with no experience in flooring, and my predecessor was a man in his sixties with 40 years in the industry.
I was nervous but excited. I knew it was a good business, and I was determined I could improve upon it with the right tools and the right team. I looked at it like a case study from graduate school: analyze what’s working and change what’s not. And change we did. We added more structure, more technology, more people, and more meetings. Early on, we established our core values, organizational chart, and short-term and long-term goals. We created process maps and checklists and scorecards. We rolled out two important technology solutions. It felt invigorating. We stayed on track by having regular strategy meetings for the company leadership where we discussed our quarterly goals and established who was responsible for what. We also created a list of issues each meeting, and tackled one by one. We had some simple, good processes, and they seemed to work.
As we implemented new approaches, we saw great results. We exceeded our goal by 33% our first year. Halfway through the second year we beat our annual goal, reset it, and beat it again. We were experiencing success, yet it was happening without everyone being entirely on board—at least not with everything. There was resistance to change. No matter how many times I asked for certain things to be done, they weren’t happening—even simple, easily attainable actions and goals.
Recently, I remembered what my grad school advisor, Robert Kegan, described in his book, Immunity to Change—that behind every habit is a strongly held belief that fights against anything that threatens the status quo. He taught that resistance is like an immune system, warding off new invaders. In fact, this resistance is so strong, Kegan and co-author Lisa Lahey note that only one out of seven cardiac patients instructed by their doctors to make important health changes actually follow through with them. Apparently even faced with life or death, most people don’t change. If that’s the case, what are the chances I can roll out a new CRM and people who believe they’re no good with technology—or hate technology—are going to use it? What are the chances that salespeople who were never before accountable to reach goals are suddenly going to get jazzed up to hit their numbers? No chance. Or maybe one in seven—if the cardiac patients are any indication.
At a certain point after banging one’s head on the metaphorical wall, what are the choices? Lower the bar? Make exceptions? Change who’s on the bus? One thing I know for sure is that pushing, when the status quo is not budging, doesn’t work. According to Kegan and Lahey, most of us have an “immunity” to change, and the best way through it is to develop a mindset that growth is possible and exciting. As leaders, how can we instill a spirit of continuous improvement, so that teams and individuals are eager to grow? Can we create learning and development plans for each person? For each team? And what should ours as leaders look like?
While I feel I’ve always been hungry for more knowledge and accomplishments, I do probably have an “immunity” to more internal changes, such as developing greater patience. Realizing this, I recently followed Kegan and Lahey’s advice and outlined the behaviors and beliefs that are causing me to keep one foot on the brake while the other is on the gas. This exercise led to some “aha” moments—for example, I realized that underlying my habit of impatience is a belief that there is never enough time. I can trace that belief back to childhood memories of my family always running late and struggling whenever we left the house. The “immunity map” is fairly simple, and has already helped me rethink my approach. I plan to invite everyone on my team to create one for them as well. I also intend to make some structural changes to instill in our team a commitment to continuous improvement—to validate each person’s unlimited potential to learn and become a new version of their awesome selves. Because our team is awesome.
In our weekly team huddles, we stand in a circle and start out by sharing good news about our lives, both personal and professional. But on the week of Thanksgiving—almost two years after we first met in that circle for introductions—we shared what we were grateful for. Almost every person said how grateful they were to be a part of our team, and each sentiment was incredibly heartfelt. I nearly welled up with tears, feeling such gratitude myself. Top and bottom line aside, that was the best workday I’ve had since purchasing the company. We’ve come a long way as a team, and once we can conquer our “immunity” to change—and embrace a culture of learning—we’ll go even further.