Using the Immunity to Change Framework for Learning-Centered Change in Student Affairs

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The Immunity to Change framework is a valuable lens through which to examine the change required to create a culture of evidence and learning-centered organizations in student affairs because it helps illuminate the barriers that prevent adaptive change.

Kegan and Lahey’s (2009) book Immunity to Change frames stalled change as an “immunity” that requires individual and organizational learning to overcome. In their constructive-developmental model of mental complexity in adulthood, Kegan and Lahey argue that there are three “plateaus” of adult mental development: the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind (p. 16). Kegan and Lahey argue that mental development continues throughout adult life. They also argue that the demands of contemporary life and organizations expect workers to be at a self-authoring level of mental complexity, and for leaders to be beyond the level of self-authoring, but very few workers and leaders are at those levels (p. 28). This means that vexing challenges reflect a mismatch between the complexity of a situation and leader’s mental complexity.

Drawing from Heifetz’s (1998) distinction between “technical” and “adaptive” challenges, Kegan and Lahey define “adaptive challenges” as those that “can only be met by transforming your mindset, by advancing to a more sophisticated stage of mental development” (p. 29). Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change framework proposes that in order to meet “adaptive” challenges, individuals and groups must adapt, increasing in mental complexity. The framework is diagnostic and prescriptive in nature, explicating the means through which individuals and groups can “incubate mental capacity, and…accelerate it” (p. 30). To do this, individuals and groups must a) formulate the challenge in an adaptive way, seeing “how the challenge comes up against the current limits of our own mental complexity” (p. 31) and b) create an adaptive solution; that is, to change ourselves in some way.

Though the Immunity to Change framework is based in individual developmental theory, the authors expand its use to the dynamics of group change and have often applied it in consulting settings with businesses, educational organizations, non-profits, and government groups. Kegan and Lahey explain the applicability of the framework to groups thusly:

…it is not just individuals who are in the grip of competing commitments and constraining big assumption. Collectivities—work teams, leadership groups, departmental units, whole organizations—also unknowingly protect themselves from making the very changes they most desire

(p. 87)

To formulate challenges in an adaptive way, Kegan and Lahey use a four-column diagnostic tool called an “immunity X-ray” (p. 231):

1 Commitment (improvement goal) 2 Doing/not doing instead 3 Hidden/competing commitments 4   Big assumptions

The purpose of this tool is for individuals and groups to uncover and the hidden or competing commitments that are preventing them from realizing the commitment or goal that they have articulated, as well as realizing “big assumptions” that constrain their movement toward meeting goals in work and life. The tool intends to move individuals toward increasingly complex frames of making meaning, taking on a perspective on their situation that is developmentally more complex in order to “get unstuck” from their challenge. The next step after diagnosis (which helps one to formulate the challenges in an adaptive way) is to undertake an iterative testing and reflection process to overcome the immunities to change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009, p. 253).


Heifetz, R. (1998). Walking the fine line of leadership. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 21(1), 8-14.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.