Competing Commitments: What Is Keeping Team Members from Changing?

In this short read, Rob Brady, our Elite Performance Coach explores the reasons why you might be struggling to change staff, the psychology behind it and what you can do to help them.

Competing Commitments: What Is Keeping Team Members from Changing?

As an industry we have somewhat been behind the change curve with regards to what the rest of the world is doing and with that, if you have been in it long enough, I am sure you have either worked side by side or managed a team member who just won’t change. They resist new skills training, moving their desk position, being assigned to a new team or adoption of new processes or systems – they just don’t do change!


Let’s explore why this might be happening?

Common opinion is usually that this person just doesn’t like to change as an individual. Although according to research this might not be the case. When people arrive at work, they will bring with them how they’re feeling, history from their past and subjective views about how they see the world. Some can be so fundamental that they can find it hard to separate them from facts.

According to psychologists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, resistance to change is not usually from opposing it, and instead applying the productive energy needed to complete it elsewhere, in hidden ‘competing commitments’.

Known as immunity to change, they might consciously want to change and even agree to the change, although they equally might have a strong internal view not to do so, of which they may be completely unaware of.

Immunity to change is not the same as resisting change or disliking it. Instead, it is the existence of an internal conflict between their own unconscious thoughts and desires, and the need for change.

Once you understand your team members competing commitments, the irrational behaviour you once saw, now becomes easier to understand along with their immunity to change. This will challenge the honest foundations of how that person functions and requires openness and vulnerability for them to explore their own beliefs or past experiences. Therefore, depending on the working environment, leadership style or the persons willing to be more open, these factors can still affect immunity to change, and they will continue to struggle with it against their competing commitments.

If leaders want change, they must guide their people through this process, with a commitment to honesty, sensitivity, and privacy around what is disclosed or uncovered, with the feeling of safety that it is not then used against them. You should begin by exploring their limitations and as a leader coach them to reach beyond these.

Kegan and Lahey developed a process to help you uncover those competing commitments for both leaders and individuals to plan out a change process.

1. Time to draw a line, be accountable and state your commitment for change.  

What do you want to change? What needs to be different for the change to happen? What will happen if you don't change? This change goal should not only be desirable, but also required, as the stronger the need the more likely you are to achieve it.

2. Identify what you are doing/not doing that prevents you from achieving your commitment?

Look at this honestly and workout currently you are doing that will prevent change from happening?

3. What are the hidden competing commitments that can be identified? 

From Step 2, what could happen if you decided not to do this and did the alternative instead? How will it affect the team or company if change didn’t take place?  What would be the emotions behind not changing? Fear of failure? Not being liked or accepted by the team?

4. What false assumptions are behind these? 

Once the competing commitments have been defined, explore your underlying false assumptions behind these. What are you assuming?  Where did this come from?

5. Test your false assumption

Once the real root of the problem has been satisfised, now it’s time to test your assumption on whether it’s true or false. (Depending on the situation)

One way to test this is using Kegan and Lahey’s S.M.A.R.T experience

Safe & ModernStart the experience with something simple and not something that turns your life upside down. Look for a small change that would challenge a big assumption.

Actionable – Try a different behaviour to test. Something that you can do within a small-time scale.

Research-based & Test – Gather the information from the experience and review the result.

In an evolving world, the proof is already there, that we do want to change, although sometimes fall short due to our competing commitments. To help combat and manage this within a team, during a change process, leaders need to make an attempt to understand and help employees who struggle with the change process.

However, the main focus is providing a safe, open space to challenge their competition commitments and assumptions so the team can move forward and ultimately the whole business.

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