Skip to main content

New Help for Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap

Robert Kegan's book, "Immunity to Change: How to Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization," provides insight into how an individual's long-held beliefs and habits can keep him or her from positive change.

Professor Robert Kegan's recent book, Immunity to Change: How to Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, written with Lisa Lahey, provides insight into how an individual's long-held beliefs and habits can keep him or her from positive change. In the book -- and in this Q&A -- Kegan and Lahey explain how this immunity builds up, and suggest how people can put an end to the patterns that prevent real change.

What is the "knowing-doing gap"?

Lahey: Ever tried to make a change you want to make, but you still can't do it? That's a version of the knowing-doing gap. Most school principals, for example, know they need to reconstruct their work roles from being "plant managers" to "leaders of instructional improvement," and, in our experience, most of them want to, too. But they find it is hard for them to actually do it. And this is true in every profession we work with, in public and private sectors, in the US and abroad.... They sincerely want to make the change, but, too often, they cannot. And, of course, this is as true in our private lives as our work lives: A recent study from medicine showed that even when a heart doctor's patients know it will literally kill them if they don't change personal habits around diet, smoking, and exercise, only 1 in 7 can actually do it.

So the gap must not be about motivation.

Kegan: Well, it is hard to change if you are not motivated; but, yes, motivation alone is often not enough. Lots of people say the secret is to create a sense of urgency, but things couldn't be much more urgent than your impending death, and that alone is clearly not enough.

But Immunity to Change is an optimistic book.

L: We have been working on how to close this gap for 20 years and I think we are getting somewhere. Most intentional efforts to change or improve take what we call "the New Year's resolutions approach" or "the dieter's approach." You have a clear goal -- lose 10 pounds. You are aware of the behaviors that get in the way of your goal -- you eat too many calories, or carbs, or fat, or whatever. You sincerely resolve to mend your ways. You even come up with a strategy or plan for changing these behaviors -- the diet!

But it doesn't work.

K: Actually, it works pretty well for awhile. It's like Mark Twain said, "I don't know why people say it is so hard to quit smoking; I've done it hundreds of times myself." You do lose weight on a diet -- and then you regain it. One study showed the average dieter regains 107 percent of the weight they take off.

L: And trying to "diet" our way to school improvement, or other, more personal goals, often runs a similar course. Temporary success, followed by a return to the status quo, or worse.

So what is your alternative?

K: We take quite a different view of these so-called problematic behaviors like overeating, or not getting out of your office and into classrooms. We don't look at them as undisciplined sides of ourselves or things we have to fight and defeat. To us, they are like breadcrumbs, and we follow their trail until they lead us back to a whole other set of "hidden commitments" which most of us are not aware we also hold, along with the "visible commitments" like becoming an instructional leader or losing 10 pounds.

Such as?

L: We ask the school principals, "What would your biggest worry be if you were in your office less and in classrooms more?" One says, "I worry that people will no longer feel I am available." Another might say, "I worry that I am not going to like what I see, about the difficult conversations I don't want to have, about disturbing a comfortable and collegial professional culture around here." We have even heard people say, "I worry the math and science teachers will discover I don't know their subjects well enough to be of much help if I do observe."

K: We then invite people to consider that they do not just have these perfectly reasonable worries. They are also actively, and successfully -- even brilliantly -- spending their energies to prevent the thing they are worrying about from happening! That's perfectly understandable.

L: These are their "hidden commitments." So, in addition to the commitment to be in classrooms more, and be more of an instructional leader, one principal may also have a commitment (without realizing it) to be known to the teachers as a principal who is available to them 24/7, or to not finding out about things I don't want to have to deal with, or even to not having my teachers discover I know nothing about high school math.

K: And so long as we are not looking at our hidden commitments we will believe we can "resolve" and "diet" our way out of our obstructive behaviors. But those behaviors are serving a very important purpose!

They are helping us fulfill our hidden commitments!

L: Exactly! They are not really "weaknesses," the way we often see them. They are brilliant behaviors, just exactly what you should be doing, in order to fulfill the hidden commitments -- but these behaviors will also make it impossible to fulfill the visible goals. It is this combo of commitments that creates a single, powerful system -- one foot on the gas pedal (the improvement goal) and one foot on the brakes (the hidden commitment). So the car doesn't go anywhere.

In the book, you call it an "immune system." Why?

K: To make clear from the start the thing we are helping you to see is not a disease, not a bad thing. It is keeping you from making the change you want to make, but not because there is anything wrong with you.

L: An immune system has one purpose: to take care of you, to save your life. It is only trying to protect you. Sometimes our immune systems will get us in trouble, by the way they reject new material the system needs to take in -- but, even then, the system is acting in an effort to take care of you. It is just mistaken.

You say in the book that groups, not just individuals, also have immune systems. Can you give an example from the world of education?

L: We worked with the leadership team of a California school district serving kids from low-income families. The student body is 80 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Anglo; the administrative team is just the opposite. Their unaccomplished goal is to hold their kids -- especially their English-language learners -- to higher expectations. Try as they might, they couldn't get the system to succeed at this goal. But they felt they got to a whole new place and turned a corner when they came to see they had a hidden commitment to what they called "a povrecito culture," a culture that took pity on these "poor little ones" by not heaping upon them the further "burden" of high academic expectations. The big insight, as one of them put it, was seeing "that we could sell our kids short, not out of disrespect for them, but out of our love for them. That was a big eye-opener!"

Once people see their immune system how do they unlock it?

K: Our immune systems are founded on certain core beliefs which need to be examined. We call these our "big assumptions." They are "big" because we are currently taking them as certain truths, not just assumptions, which may or may not be true.

Our approach invites people to shift to an inquiring stance toward their big assumptions. They begin to run experiments of increasing size to see whether they should continue to hold their assumption exactly as they have, or whether it needs to come in for some modification. Even small modifications in the big assumptions can lead to very big changes along the lines of one's original goal.

The book has lots of examples of the changes you see people making across a wide range of professions, roles, and improvement goals. Where are you going with the work at the moment?

K: We are trying to learn more about the most powerful conditions for taking up this work, and the most promising challenges to deploy it against.

L: So an example of the first is that we are exploring the benefits of people engaging in this work within real, intact, ongoing work-teams, where each person's progress means a lot to the others in the group, and where they can hold each other accountable and celebrate the value of the changes that do occur.

K: And an example of the second is in the healthcare sector. Right now we are researching whether our approach might be helpful to an enormous national health problem, "patient nonadherence." Huge numbers of people who are prescribed maintenance medications they should take daily for the rest of their lives do not take their meds. They know they should; they know it could kill them if they don't; they are having no bad side-effects or cost issues, they just 'forget' or, 'for some reason, just don't.' There are almost certainly "immunities to change" here that healthcare people don't know enough about.

Since this interview, CVS Pharmacies released an overview of the initial stage of the Kegan-Lahey research on "why people don't take their medications." Go to for further information.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles