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....and many other thoughts about facilitation, coaching ( teams & individuals) and learning


  • David

‘Immunity to Change’ vs Psychodynamics

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

[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 how much they echo each other. 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:

· 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’ in column 3 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 value 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 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 (as the department head), he was mobilized by the group to be the ‘unreasonable man’ in interacting with the sales department.

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