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How The Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work

New Book Helps Leaders Facilitate Lasting Change

For decades, leaders in business, medicine, education, and countless other professions have striven to "revolutionize" their industries. Some pay consulting firms millions of dollars to design strategic plans and breakthrough solutions. Plans are created. They are ratified by corporate leadership. Yet, more often than not, very little significant change actually occurs. Individually, we make countless sincere pledges to ourselves and to others to change in some important way. We may even temporarily accomplish the change, but we often return to the status quo.

In How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey explain that most individuals and organizations are actually immune to deep and lasting change in spite of their best intentions to the contrary. If we want a more adequate understanding of the prospect of change, Kegan and Lahey suggest, we must first understand our own powerful inclination not to change.

Deeming every workplace a language community, Kegan and Lahey illustrate how our aspirations for change are poorly served by the ordinary language forms we use to communicate with others and to think matters through in our own heads. By actively engaging the reader in an illuminating series of personal explorations and case studies, they introduce a new complement of language forms we can use to overcome our own immunity to change.

Through their work with many businesspeople, doctors, educators, and consultants, Kegan and Lahey have discovered compelling ways to diagnose and overcome this immunity. Their book shares a new "learning technology," enabling readers to make the same discoveries for themselves. The result is an unleashing of fresh energies and behaviors that truly foster growth and transformation in both individuals and organizations

Overcoming Your "Immune System"

Kegan and Lahey's technology helps us see that, for every unrealized commitment to change we genuinely hold and act out of, we also have a conflicting and harder-to-recognize commitment that prevents the very change we desire. A CEO, for example, may hold a genuine commitment to empowering her employees and fostering more collaboration in her organization. She may even take steps to distribute leadership, designate staff responsibilities, and provide professional development to enhance individual employees' abilities to assume new duties. But, at the same time, a part of her remains tacitly committed to maintaining control, or to feeling indispensible, or to preserving past loyalties. Subtly or overtly, she undermines her new initiatives by behavioring in service to these hidden commitments. These conflicting commitments create a dynamic equilibrium--her own version of an immune system--preventing real and lasting change. How can she overcome this immune system? And, if she succeeds, how might her organization overcome its own immune system?

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work shows us how to transform the familiar work languages of:

  • praising or stroking into ongoing regard
  • complaint and regret into the expression of energy-releasing belief and mission
  • blame and avoidance into responsibility
  • unfulfilled "New Year's resolutions" into diagnosable immunities to change
  • status-quo-preserving assumptions into immunity-disrupting ideas and actions

An Outward Bound ropes course for the mind, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work offers important insight into the complex subject of how we can achieve what we conceive.

About the Authors

As developmental psychologists bringing the field of adult learning to organizational life, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey are best known for championing the idea that there is life after adolescence; that adults' mental development, unlike our physical development, need not end at age twenty; that adults may continue growing and developing in adulthood.

Robert Kegan is the first William and Miriam Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The author and lead researcher of a theory of the evolution of adult competencies, his books, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development and In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, have been translated and published throughout the world.

Lisa Laskow Lahey is research director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and cofounder and senior consultant at Minds at Work, a developmentally oriented consulting firm that works with businesses and schools to turn workplace problems and issues into opportunities for transformational learning.

For More Information

Information on Robert Kegan and his research can be found in the Faculty Profiles.

For more information, please contact Christine Sanni at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (617-496-5873) or Kim Corbin (415-296-8810). To order How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, contact the book's publishers, Jossey-Bass, at or 1-800-956-7739.


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