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Breaking through learning and development barriers

By Lisa Lie | |6 minute read

Learning is behaviour change. And change is a curious beast. Some people eagerly embrace it, while others just nod in agreement but remain passive.


When it comes to learning and development at work, it’s like dealing with a complex puzzle. Everyone asks for more opportunities, yet consistent barriers like lack of time or manager support surface. But what if these hurdles are just one part of a deeper challenge?

This deeper challenge is what psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey call “immunity to change”. It’s not just about resistance; it’s an inability to change because of entrenched assumptions and conflicting commitments. These may be so established for individuals and organisations that they’re unconscious.

So, when we’re trying to create continuous engagement and habits with learning and development (also known as behaviour change), what can we do?

The immunity-to-change process involves steps that are designed to answer the question, “If you know you need to change something, and you’re fully committed to changing it, why are you not doing it?”

Using this as guide, we can take some specific actions to create more engaged and effective teams through learning and development and break down both real and perceived barriers:

  1. Unveil organisational resistance: Much like individuals, organisations display resistance patterns. Teams might initially rally around a new learning initiative but swiftly revert to old habits. Spotting these patterns is the first step in breaking down resistance or barriers. Sometimes, the most significant transformations can start with small but powerful shifts in learning habits.
  2. Commit to a change goal: Specific, concrete learning goals are critical. Define what needs to change and why. Describe the behaviour you need to change. This clarity propels team members, sparking the drive and curiosity to overcome internal resistance. We want to create a learning experience that allows for this level of personalisation and focus.
  3. Dig for hidden competing commitments: Hidden commitments surface when people weigh the potential consequences of change. Fear often hides behind the resistance. Your team might dread being seen as incompetent, fear disrupting the status quo, or believe they’re only truly measured against other business KPIs (read – learning new things isn’t important for our organisation, so it’s not important for me). By addressing these fears head-on and providing specific skills development in this area, you can unearth the root causes of resistance. Think of it as tending to the roots to ensure the entire tree thrives.
  4. Challenge core assumptions: Underlying assumptions fuel the fear of change. Does your team believe that admitting a lack of knowledge diminishes their value? Challenge these assumptions openly and honestly. It’s about reshaping beliefs and creating space for skills development, with genuine incremental improvement that leads to increased confidence at work.
  5. Test assumptions through actions: Encourage your team to take small, low-risk actions to challenge their assumptions. For example, admitting uncertainty during a meeting or seeking guidance openly can dispel unfounded fears. These small steps, or microlearning, validate the change process and build confidence – like testing the waters before diving in.
  6. Create a collaborative learning community: Peer collaboration is a powerful antidote to resistance. Encourage knowledge sharing and celebrate experiences and successes collectively using a learning experience as a guide. Collaboration nurtures a sense of belonging and empowers employees to challenge their immunity.
    Feedback is another easy win here. Regular check-ins, transparent communication, and positive reinforcement are your guiding lights. Constructive feedback transforms resistance into an opportunity for growth.
  7. Celebrate incremental progress: Acknowledge every milestone, no matter how small. Celebrate each step in the journey, from embracing vulnerability to testing out new skills. Recognition fosters a sense of accomplishment, reinforcing the belief that change is not just possible but achievable. It’s these small wins that pave the way for new perspectives and transformed ways of working.

This process will help you to better understand the external and internal barriers you have to change adoption, what you need to do to overcome them and support you in finding the right learning solutions to create the behaviour change goals your team has.

In the realm of organisational learning and development, addressing immunity to change requires a nuanced approach with patience and insight. By understanding the hidden conflicting commitments and assumptions, you, as a people leader, can guide your team toward genuine, lasting change and a culture of learning by sparking their curiosity with small wins again.

Lisa Lie is the founder of Learna.



Training is the process of enhancing a worker's knowledge and abilities to do a certain profession. It aims to enhance trainees' work behaviour and performance on the job.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.