Got Assumptions?

A recent study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. What do you make of this?  I think that it dramatically demonstrates that the desire, motivation and knowledge needed for us to make changes are not enough to do it-even when it’s literally a matter of life or death!  


There is another way. Lisa Lehay and Robert Kegan are professors, researchers, authors and long-time collaborators at Harvard University. As a result of their research, Lehay and Kegan have created a different approach to making changes and goal attainment. The fundamental difference between ordinary approaches to change and their approach is that it starts with your mindset rather than your skill set. We are all functioning with a set of beliefs they call “big assumptions”, that run us. Their system enables you to identify and examine your assumptions.


What follows is an outline of their system. It will give you a feel for how it works. Using their “immunity map” made up of four columns, you can uncover your big assumptions. As examples, I have included how Bill and Mary might fill in their maps. 


Column No.1: Your Goal

The first column is your goal, one that is important to you.

Bill: I am committed to the importance of losing weight.

Mary: I am committed to relaxing my perfectionistic tendencies.


Column No. 2: What You Do
This is where you list the behaviors that prevent you from achieving your goal.
This is where we usually get stuck, thinking that using a new skill set (technical change) will work, but it does not, as many of us know from repeated failed efforts. The two columns that follow are about your mindset (adaptive change), which does work.
Bill: I eat more than I need for my size, snack, eat the wrong foods, fats and sugar. I eat for pleasure not for nourishment.

Mary: I don’t ask for help or accept help when it’s offered and needed, I take a ton of work home, and I work late almost every night.


Column No. 3: Why You Do It
When you are not doing something you believe would benefit you, it is because you have “competing commitments” that are holding you back. These are usually rooted in the fears that arise when you read through column No. 2 and ask yourself: What makes not doing column 2 feel so scary? I like the way Lahey describes this as being in “some ways a very tender expression, a protection of something you feel vulnerable about.”
Bill: I don’t want others to see me as a dieter. I want to forget my problems and enjoy food and life. I use food to ward off unpleasant feelings.

Mary: I worry that someone else won’t do a good job, and if they do, I’ll be less essential and less respected.

Column No. 4: Assumptions

The “competing commitments” listed in column No. 3 are the result of some “big assumptions.” These are ideas we hold to be true even though, until we challenge them (more on that below), we have no way of knowing for sure.

One way to uncover our big assumptions is to apply “If ____, then ____” thinking to our competing commitments in column No.3.

Bill: If I diet people will think I’m rigid and not fun. I’m afraid to feel alone and empty, food is my sole source of pleasure.

Mary: If I am not respected and seen as essential I would be average, I wouldn’t be special.


Experiment With Assumptions

The last step is to create and carry out modest and safe experiments that challenge your assumptions. These experiments are the equivalent of “dipping your toe” into the waters of change. The idea is to gather data that will allow you to successfully challenge your assumptions, little by little.  


Bill: I will eat just one helping, and notice how I feel.

Mary: I will delegate low-value tasks to qualified staff and note what happens. Am I less respected, less special?


Here again, it is easy to slip into the familiar skill set approach, but these experiments are designed to collect data, not to prove your assumptions are wrong. Your experiments will allow you to better understand how accurate your assumptions are and whether your behavior is protecting you or is counter-productive.


You hold your assumptions close and tight. Your assumptions have been with you for a long time. The experiments, collecting data, and practicing your new habit occurs over time, and is best done with a partner or a qualified coach. It is a remarkable process. Your assumptions will start to change, will cease to be in control, and the changes you make as a result will last.  


“And life could just go on that way, except that the system, this anxiety management system you’ve built, charges rent. It’s costing you something. And what does it cost you? It costs you your goal.”
Robert Kegan 

The 24 Personality Traits/The Dedication Traits/Ambition

#13 Ambition is the degree to which you are competitive and place a premium on your success and career. This is about drive, not effort.

If you are above average you are fiercely competitive, set high standards and success is a major source of satisfaction. You may also lack life balance and never be satisfied.

If you are below average you avoid competition and are satisfied with minor accomplishments. You may also become complacent and have no long-term goals.

Based on where you are on the continuum you may need to consider the value of life outside of work or the value of stretching yourself and growing.


The 24 Personality Traits/The Interpersonal Traits/Trust

#5 Trust is the degree to which you have faith in the motives of others.

If you are above average, you usually assume the best about people and are optimistic. You might also be naïve and gullible.

If you are below average you question the motives of other people. You might also be suspicious or paranoid.

Based on where you are on the continuum you may need to make a greater effort to understand the motives of others or be more open and accepting.


The 24 Personality Traits/The Interpersonal Traits/Exhibition

#4 Exhibition is the degree to which you enjoy being the center of attention.

If you are above average, you love being the center of attention and in the spotlight. You might also engage in attention seeking behaviors that can be inappropriate or overwhelming to others.

If you are below average you are reserved and private. You might also have stage fright and not do well in public performance.

Based on where you are on the continuum you may need to give more thought to when you need to tone it down or if you are avoiding public performance to your detriment.


The 24 Personality Traits/The Interpersonal Traits

#3 Conscientiousness is the degree to which you put your obligations before yourself and your self-interests.

If you are above average your priorities are based on external expectations and rules. You might ignore your own needs and be boxed in by the rules.

If you are below average your actions are based on your internal priorities and are self-focused. You might not be aware of the needs and desires of others.

Based on where you are on the continuum you may need to give more thought to your own needs and perfectionistic tendencies, or a careless attitude towards your commitments.


The 24 Personality Traits/The Interpersonal Traits

#2 Recognition is your desire to be approved of by others.

If you are above average you are motivated by approval and your desire to be viewed as socially acceptable. You might also allow your confidence and motivation come from other people.

If you are below average you don’t care what other people think and are more motivated by things. You might also neglect to give recognition to others.

Based on where you are on the continuum you may need to give more thought to what drives you and makes you feel good about yourself or make an effort to be aware of others need for recognition.



How do you motivate your staff and yourself? If you are focused on rewards and outcomes you are ignoring well-established scientific fact. It’s like holding on to that horse and buggy because you just don’t belief that darned auto thingy works.

Studies conducted all over the world repeatedly demonstrate the following facts:

  1. Rewards as an incentive work for a very small number of tasks. These are tasks that are simple and have a clearly defined destination. In today’s world most of these tasks can either be automated or out-sourced.
  2. Rewards as an incentive destroy creativity. One of the many studies on this topic took a group of MIT students and offered them financial bonuses to solve different sets of problems. The bonuses worked with problems that involved mechanical skills. When offered for problems that required cognitive skills, financial rewards led to poorer performance, and larger financial rewards led to worse performance. Yes you read that correctly, performance declined as the financial rewards grew.
  3. For right-brained tasks motivation is increased when the individual likes what they’re doing, finds it interesting, feels that they are part of something bigger, and have autonomy. Google has taken this finding and run with it. Their employees work on whatever they want 20% of the time. Their most popular products, such as gmail and googlenews, have come out of this time. In fact, half of their new products come out of this totally autonomous time.

Money can’t buy you love and it can’t buy you motivation. Being part of something bigger, autonomy and interest motivate and fuel innovation.

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“Ettie is an excellent and inspiring coach! I was so pleased to have such positive outcomes as a result of our meetings. Ettie has a superb ability to listen and offer clear guidance. I highly recommend Ettie to anyone looking for some inspiration and clear techniques to create their own success!”

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