What’s the Cure for an Immunity to Change?

The real problem is not that people or institutions don’t want to change; the problem is the psychological barrier to substantive personal or institutional change of which most of us are unaware.

by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

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josh rabin 2A few years ago, Professors Charlotte and Patrick Markey published a study in the Journal of Health Psychology about how often people searched for information on Google about weight loss programs. The researchers found that Google searches for keywords such as “diet” or “Weight Watchers” increased roughly 29 percent every year from December until the end of January, and then fell every month until the end of the following year, at which point the process would repeat.   The statistical trends in this study confirm what most of us already suspect, that one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions falls into the category of something many of us claim to want to change, yet consistently fail to do.

As someone who works in the Jewish community, I’m involved in a lot of discussions about change, which is on the minds of pretty much all of our lay leaders and professionals. And most of us have heard some version of the following refrains: “Synagogues won’t change.”   “Jewish organizations stifle change.”  “The Conservative movement can’t change.”

I understand where these feelings come from. Resistance to change is as much a problem in Jewish institutions as it is for the millions of people who resolve to eat better and exercise more.

However, the real problem is not that people or institutions don’t want to change; the problem is the psychological barrier to substantive personal or institutional change of which most of us are unaware. The greatest obstacles to change come from within, a result of deep commitments we make to ourselves that impede the very changes we claim we want to make.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, of Harvard University, call this phenomenon “immunity to change,” a concept I believe can transform the way we lead our Jewish institutions. In a 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Real Reason People Won’t Change,” Kegan and Lahey explain:

“Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia. Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment. The resulting dynamic equilibrium stalls the effort in what looks like resistance but is in fact a kind of personal immunity to change.”

Perhaps you want to lose ten pounds. At the same time, you don’t want to feel bored, which leads you to snack excessively when you see that extra bag of potato chips in your kitchen cabinet. When you snack, your explicit commitment to lose weight comes into direct conflict with your hidden commitment to overcoming boredom.  As a result, while you may say that you want to lose 10 pounds, you may be completely unaware of the hidden commitments that make this goal unattainable.

Turning to the Jewish world, perhaps your synagogue wants to recruit younger members, reimagine your educational program for teenagers, develop a more functional board of trustees, or change the culture around fundraising and development.  While this desire is no doubt heartfelt, the first step to ensuring that these goals are attainable is for synagogue leaders to identify all the ways in which commitments their institution makes right now impede the goals they want to achieve. These commitments are normal, and based on good intentions. Yet if we pretend that they do not exist, we will never succeed in getting out of the cycles necessary to strengthen and transform our kehillot.

So the big question of course is this, “What’s the cure for our immunity to change?”  The answer will be different for every kehilla, yet engaging in learning and reflective practice to find our own cure requires a community of motivated, thoughtful, and passionate leaders.  That’s why I invite you to join me and more than 1,000 other Jewish leaders this November for United Synagogue’s biennial convention, where we will have a chance to learn with Professor Robert Kegan about “immunity to change” and how to overcome it.

In the book of Mishlei (Proverbs), we are told, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance” (1:5).  The more we become aware of how individual and collective commitments stifle our ability to achieve our goals, the better we will all be at strengthening and transforming kehillot across the globe. Change is difficult, but always possible, and if we come together and challenge one another to cure our immunity to change, we will be the builders who reshape the center of Judaism for generations to come.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and program director of the 2015 USCJ Convention, which will take place from November 13-17 in Schaumburg, Illinois.