‘Immunity to Change’ vs Psychodynamics

[Photo source unidentified.  Please advise if anyone knows.  I will add the source accordingly]

I learnt to use the ‘Immunity to Change’ (ITC) approach (or the ‘4-column’ tool) in 2013.  See the post ‘Immunity to Change’.   In the last few years, I have been investing myself into the Systems-psychodynamics approach.   See the post ‘What may also be going on?’.

The more I use them, the more I realise they echo each other a lot.   To be more specific, the ITC approach can be described as a systematic way to apply the psychodynamics approach.   Let me take an example to reflect and illustrate what I see as the linkage between the 2 approaches.

Jeff (pseudonym) headed up the legal and compliance department.   He has repeatedly received feedback from his peer and subordinates to be aggressive.  For example, during some heated arguments, he would bang on the table and walk away from the meeting room.  Upon reflection, he knew that such pattern of behaviour, and more importantly the resulting perception, is not helpful to his work, his well-being, and his career aspiration.  To the last point, he bought in a lot the idea – ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’.    

With some coaching work, he resolved to experiment something specific – to proactively demonstrate understanding to his counterparties.   We explored how he would do so, and role-played to prepare.   However, on review after a few months, he realised that he made little progress.   For example, he noticed that even when he has done something in favour of the counterparties privately, he would not share it and sometimes he would deny it.   He found himself continue to act tough and keep the distance.

With the psychodynamics approach, a common line of inquiry is around ‘What may you be gaining by refusing to show understanding (i.e. a behavioral pattern which the coachee knows consciously to be undesirable)?’   The conversation may help gradually discover his unconscious processing e.g. he was actually protecting himself from the fear of being rejected personally or being taken advantage of.   The possibility of being rejected or taken advantage of was a dangerous place which he did not allow himself any chance to walk into.    

It is like in the diagram – consciously (the ‘brain’) he wanted to demonstrate understanding to the others, but unconsciously (the ‘heart’) he protected himself by doing the opposite.

Such discovery is actually what the ITC approach sets out to do, to be specific, from the column 1 to column 4 like:

  • In column 1, we identify the improvement goal i.e. to demonstrate understanding and care.  
  • In column 2, we explore what Jeff has done or not done to keep the improvement goal from fully achieved i.e. Jeff denied any help he has done privately.   
  • In column 3, Jeff may discover in the ‘Worry Box’ that if he had to reveal his helping acts, he would feel the worry of being rejected or not appreciated, or even taken advantage of.    And the ‘Hidden Commitment’ will thus include items like ‘I am committed not to be rejected with my good intention’.   
  • In column 4, Jeff may discover his Big Assumption as ‘If I got rejected once, no one will ever take me seriously’

(The concept of ‘unconscious processing’ captures both the meaning of ‘Hidden Commitment’ and ‘Big Assumption’ in column 4.)

Well then, how are the 2 approaches different?    Though the line of enquiry is similar, ITC does it more programmatically and in a visually-friendly way.   It makes the psychodynamics approach more accessible to all, especially to those who values logics and structures.    

Another significant difference is that ITC makes the psychodynamics approach more action-able by having the ‘Big Assumption’ concept.    The psychodynamics approach is often argued to help make change by mainly building awareness e.g. when Jeff becomes aware how he gets caught up by his unconscious avoidance, he can choose better next time on how to act / respond.    ITC seems to do more than that.   The ‘Big Assumption’ concept in ITC allows the coachees to take concrete actions to make change e.g. run test and collect data to gradually invalidate the Basic Assumption.   Perhaps more importantly, it offers hope.   People sometimes end up just the experience of ‘stuck-ness’ in the psychodynamics approach – ‘So, I am doomed to fail in work relationship because of that powerful unconscious dynamics in me!!’.

On further reflection, of course, I can integrate the 2 approaches.  For example, after identifying with the coachee on some unconscious processing which has been prohibiting her from achieving what she wants, I can enquire into ‘What may you be assuming which keeps such processing alive?’.    And we then make it explicit and run test to weaken or modify the assumption.   

On the other hand, there are a lot of other elements in the psychodynamics approach which is not captured in ITC.   ITC does not look at the unconscious processing in inter-personal and group level.   Go back to the Jeff example – on the inter-personal level, Jeff’s failure to demonstrate understanding and care may actually be located primarily in his interaction with his right-hand man – Chris.   They may be locked into the so-called ‘prosecutor-victim’ pattern – Chris derived sense of safety in the victim role which he played with his older brother.   On one hand, he often complained to others about being mis-understood by Jeff.   On the other hand, he somehow enjoyed the resulting attention (both positively and negatively) from the CEO (like in the past from his parents).

There may also be something on the group level.   The legal and compliance department was recently under huge time pressure and resistance from the strong sales department as the former implemented a very demanding anti-money laundering procedure.   All in the department were stressed out.   Given Jeff’s valency and role, he was mobilized by the group to be the ‘unreasonable man’ in interacting with the sales department.

Why Team?

Really…. why team?   Complementary competencies….  A sense of belonging…. Cross-learning opportunities…   there are many answers to this question.   I was reminded of one important answer during the Gobi race.

The picture is my sketch of a scene in the Gobi race.  It was 3:55am of Day 3 in a middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert – It was quite a magical moment for me.   The light in the tent would be turned on at 4am to wake us up to start the last day of the Gobi race.   I somehow woke up earlier by myself…. probably around 3:30am.   Half-awake in my cozy sleeping bag, I calculated in my mind how much time it would take to finish the 28km if we maintain 4.5 min / km…… or even 5 min / km…. I also tried to change the setting on my smart watch to show pace for every km, but I failed.  I then quietly sat myself up…. thinking to pack up stuff for the day.   

To my surprise, I noticed some others were waking up as well.   Very quickly, I realized actually all were up, packing in the dark, before the ‘wake-up’ call, at the ‘daunting’ 4am!!!   I felt energized, touched, hopeful and eager for the day!!!   Of course, what happened for the rest of the day in the team loaded me with even more feeling on the notion of team.

What made ALL of us wake up so early in the morning?   Why did I feel so good about such a scene?   It is about a group of people committing strongly to do our best – much more than what each of us normally would.   On reflection, I know that such a scene would still touch me deeply even if we finished last on the day.  It is not about the result.  It is also not about winning, award, or how others people see us.   It is about committing together to stretch ourselves for a common goal.   

It could be intrinsically motivating.  I almost forget completely such power… since the sports team in university time.    

What if we could remind the executive teams of such possibility?

Other posts on Gobi:

Demons in Gobi desert

[Photo source unidentified.  Please advise if anyone knows.  I will add the source accordingly]

In the ‘Journey to the West’ story(西游记), the Xuanzang’s (玄奘) crew met with lots of demons in the Gobi desert. We met some as well in the Gobi race – a leadership development program.  However, for us, those demons reside in our own minds.

Here is an incident when the demons showed up.   A vivid and embarrassing example on how our unconscious processing prevents us from advancing towards our stated goal…..  even though we have the capability.

We had a new team member, Kenny (pseudonym), who joined us at the end of day 1.    (Without disclosing too much the program design, we were basically ‘forced’ in an evening to exchange an existing team member with a new one from another team.)    When Kenny joined us in that evening, we did not do much except for exchanging names and some brief greeting.    I believe all could imagine how comfortable it was for Kenny.  After all, moving to share a tent with a group of already-connected strangers at short notice without reasonably-warm welcome was awkward.

In the next morning, we launched into the race… without much words with Kenny.   Kenny chose to withdraw from the race in that afternoon.    Apparently, his legs hurt too much and he explicitly said he did not want to be helped i.e. pushed or pulled by others.   We lost a lot of score (for every withdrawal).  We also lost his supreme ability on numbers and direct-ness, which we only discovered after the race.  He could have contributed a lot in managing our pace and break down our ‘politeness’ dynamics.

During our After-Action Review, we first attributed the loss to our inability to integrate new members.  We then realized that it was probably not true as most are experienced managers or coaches.   The problem was that we did not really want to.   We came up with very interesting hypotheses as follows.  Basically, we were protecting ourselves unconsciously.

  • We were angry about the ‘talent exchange’ activity itself – the command to expel a member out. Some were probably even angry (or embarrassed) about themselves saying / not saying something contributing to a member’s departure. Me for sure.  We then projected such anger to the new member;
  • We do not want to get hurt again, and thus we do not want to invest too much in the relationship with the new.  After all, we do not know when another round of ‘talent exchange’ may come again;
  • We do not want to be seen as ‘unfaithful’.   If we were nice to the new, it seems that we did not care about the departed one

I found it so revealing, but also embarrassing – how could I got so caught up by these…. Inner demons / unconscious 心魔 in action!!

On further reflection, the question is how we could possibly overcome such psychological obstacle.   Basically, we need 2 things:

  • Good self-awareness in noticing quickly own feeling of ambivalence to welcome and thus such inner demons
  • A clear and commonly-committed goal in place

Then, the person who is aware of such inner demons can say something like that:

‘Hey, we are probably feeling bad about XXX leaving.  I do.   And we probably are feeling ambivalent about YYY joining.  To be frank, I do.   And I suspect there are some inner demons in action (as mentioned above).    But we have a goal to achieve and it is not fair to YYY.   I thus invite all to see YYY as he is, instead of what we project him to be.    We also need to YYY’s contribution to achieve the goal together.  What do you think?’

Not easy but possible.  If someone can do it, this is truly an act of leadership.

Related previous posts:

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

Leadership Development in Gobi desert

‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’

It was Day 2 of the Gobi race and we were somewhere midway in the 96km race.   Right in the middle of the day, all were tired and some were injured.   Whilst I was at the front using the GPS to navigate, I noticed that Danny (pseudonym) was at the back of the line, and falling behind more and more from the pack.   He did not look good. 

I picked up the walkie-talkie and asked him, ‘Are you ok?’.   He replied. ‘I am ok’    I then carried on the walking.

This sounds like a normal and caring exchange.  But subsequently, I realize that this kind of ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions is one of the BIG reasons why we performed so badly in Day 1 and Day 2.   This is probably a major reason why teams at work failed to unleash its potential better.

Why so?   It is about what was probably going on…. actually:

Overt >>> ‘Are you ok?’                       

Covert >>>‘‘You do not look good.  You probably need some help to pick up the speed for us all. We do not want to finish last again!   But I do not want to make you look weak.  And I do not want to be rejected if I offer concrete help.  I better just check gently only.’

Overt >>> ‘I am ok’

Covert >>> ‘Man, I am in big trouble.  My leg can hardly move and I am slowing the team down.   But I cannot look weak in front of the others.   And you may not really want to help.  You just asked out of courtesy.   It is better to say I am ok’

Apparently, the ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions covered up opportunities for the team to improve.    A team can perform better than a collection of people only if the members can share their resources and capabilities.   This means that a high-performing team can transfer ‘resources / capability surplus’ from the stronger to the weaker.   (Note that one can be stronger in a particular aspect e.g. physical strength but weak in another e.g. navigation)

It was a big ‘Aha’ to me as this above ideas came to my mind during our joint reflection.  I felt so shitty – How could I be consumed by the personal pride / fear of rejection at the expense of team performance?   Instead of asking ‘Are you ok?’, it made more sense for me to just go behind Danny and pushed him, or to pull him with a hiking pole.   Whilst I sensed that it was not just me gone off-task this way, I shared in our circle in our tent something like this, 

‘I, may be even we, have been fxxking (deliberate choice of words) too polite to each other…….   This has been keeping us from getting better……   To be specific, we have no option but SHAMELESSLY:

  • Ask for help
  • Accept help
  • Offer help’

Others laughed and we started to talk about this problem. This apparently helped bringing the undiscuss-able more discussable.   Subsequently, with other factors, we did step up our ‘shameless’ exchange of help on Day 3.

Further reflection will lead to the next question – how can a team battle against the obstacles (e.g. personal pride / fear of rejection) to ‘shameless’ exchange of help ?    The ‘triangle’ in the book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ answers the question well.   What need to achieve is the vulnerability-based trust (as described by the model) i.e. readiness to admit mistake, weakness and concerns to the fellow team members.    A key to build such trust is personal disclosure e.g. personal history, personality profile (and stories behind it), among other things mentioned in the book.

I feel so grateful of such lively and personal lesson in illustrating models in books.