When immunity holds you back: the real reason legal leaders struggle to bring about change

Published 17/05/2022

Published 17/05/2022

If you’re a legal leader, chances are you’ve had to manage at least one person that’s made you want to tear your hair out.

They seem smart, competent and committed to the company. Yet for reasons you can’t fathom, they don’t perform well in certain areas – and never change their behaviours.

If you’ve been in that situation, you’re far from alone. The truth is, creating behavioural change in the workplace is incredibly difficult.

Why? Because of a concept described by organisational psychologists as ‘immunity to change’.

In fact, immunity to change is so prevalent, it’s likely you struggle with it yourself. Even if you don’t know it.

But according to Teaching Fellow Daljit Singh, it’s not all bad news… Change is possible. It’s just not easy.

Why deep change is so challenging

The concept of immunity to change is built on the idea that we are all resistant to deep change. 

“We all have systems working against us to prevent change within ourselves. These are often subconscious, hidden competing commitments that are at odds with our conscious, desired goals,” says Daljit, the Principal of the Transforming Talent Consultancy.

The most unfortunate aspect of this dilemma is that the deeper the change required, the deeper the resistance. 

So, Daljit poses the question: How do you recognise your own defence mechanisms? And how do you begin to dismantle them? 

“As a leader, you need strategies to ensure the changes you want to take place, will take place, avoiding the unwitting self-sabotage along the way.

“What's more, if you lead other people, you can use this concept of ‘immunity to change’ to help guide them past their own subconscious obstructions, realise their goals and create a team with behaviours that benefit your company,” he says.

The paradox: two competing commitments

So, how is it possible that we all form unconscious behaviours that are detrimental to our goals?

Daljit explains, “Our unique worldviews shape how we think and behave. These views are formed by our experiences and the people around us – starting from a very young age. 

“This means we all hold a set of assumptions that guide our choices. Assumptions that we very rarely – if ever – question,” he says.

The result? Finding yourself stuck in your ways and an inability to understand your lack of change. Or facing employees who say they’re committed to change but are digging in their heels instead of moving forward.

“To change our behaviours, and help others change their behaviours, we need to put these beliefs under scrutiny.

“We need to be able to dismantle the thought process that’s causing these seemingly contradictory actions,” he says. 

Immunity to change in action

So now you understand the theory, you might be wondering how this dynamic could come to play in your workplace. Daljit presents a thought experiment.

“Say you have a staff member called Jan who is actively looking into new digital technologies and making suggestions to you about bringing these into the firm.

“So, you create a working group – which includes Jan – to create a formal proposal.

“Next thing you know, Jan has withdrawn from the project. She no longer seems to care at all about new legal tech. She isn’t engaged with the working group. And the project stalls.

“For the sake of this hypothetical situation, let’s say Jan has a competing commitment that says she must be the person who gets the credit for this project. And that the belief behind this commitment is that no one will appreciate or notice her if she isn’t the single source of success.

“Perhaps Jan’s belief was created from other project experiences or from being overlooked for her work in the past.

“In this example, you can see how seemingly contradictory behaviours can actually make a lot of sense when you understand the reasoning behind them,” he says.

Killing sacred cows and exposing vulnerabilities

To arrive at the crux of the problem is not always an easy task.

“Delving into immunity to change means asking people to call into question their long-held beliefs and giving them the tools to explore those in an effective way.

“That’s why organisational psychologists have developed a methodology to help leaders change themselves – and their teams. Through upskilling in this area, leaders create the best chance of meaningful, lasting change,” he says.

Let’s break down those immunities

The College of Law’s Leadership 12-week course teaches you how to:

  • Build the behaviours that will make you an effective leader – in today’s complex legal environment
  • Apply tried and true methods to dismantle immunity to change – within yourself and your team
  • Critically analyse the values you, your team and organisation hold to overcome any roadblocks preventing your organisation’s success


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