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Brain mind playing chess mental complexity


How well are you handling mental complexity?  

Published 19 April 2024 in Leadership • 9 min read

It’s become a cliche that we’re living and working in a VUCA world. All that external volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity is challenging for sure. But what about what’s going on inside your head?

The last touchpoint many of us had with the idea of complexity was at least 10 years ago, when the concept of the VUCA world first entered management conversations. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity… But don’t worry, this is not another article on the VUCA business environment in which we are trying to see our ventures succeed.

Where the C in VUCA points to the unpredictable nature of the external environment, there is another realm of complexity that people like Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan seek to explore in the context of their research on Adult Development Theory. It is the realm of mental complexity in those holding formal leadership positions and its implications for the successful implementation of any transformation within organizations.

This article will escort you into the world of “Immunity to Change,” the focused application of the aforementioned concepts to the business environment. Why does immunity to change matter in business, you ask? Because leaders who do not recognize their own blockers deny themselves the opportunity to think autonomously and self-critically. The consequences vary depending on circumstance, but one thing is certain: A stuck leader is never good news for business.

We will explore what you, as a leader, can do to ensure development and growth for yourself and, therefore, for your organization and business. As the saying goes: The fish rots from the head… Here’s how you can avoid being that fish.

Adult Development Theory and the nature of mental complexity

Until now, science has told us that the development of our brain grinds to a halt around the age of 25 and ushers in the long and slow process of decay. This train of thought imagines that increased markers of intelligence and ability are not due to material changes to the brain but can rather be attributed to us learning how to get more out of the same basic mental equipment. Adult Development Theory, which elaborates on the changes to our perspectives, sense of self, and place in society during adulthood, has recently started to paint a different picture and offers an alternative approach.

It builds on research stipulating that our cognitive development as adults is not linearly correlated to aging. If you have ever been in a relationship with someone older than yourself and, in the process, discovered that age does not, in fact, equal maturity, you will intuitively grasp that our research friends are onto something here.

old man with lots of thoughts.
Adult Development Theory elaborates on the changes to our perspectives, sense of self, and place in society during adulthood


Instead, we are beginning to think of our adult development as the unlocking of increasingly complex mental meaning-making systems. Or mental complexity, for short. You can think of these systems as a frame of mind with which we perceive, evaluate, and act upon our reality. The more complex, the more expansive, flexible, inclusive, and free our executive apparatus becomes. Adult Development Theory knows three systems:

System 1: The socializing mind

In this system, our executive decisions are mostly driven by the definitions and expectations of our interpersonal environment. Social structures, hierarchies, and behaviors learned from childhood dominate, and our desire to align with them is what gives our moral compass direction. If, when faced with a decision, you hear your inner voice say, “It ought to be this way, so that is what I shall do,” chances are that you are operating at this level of mental complexity.

System 2: The self-authoring mind

In this system, we become capable of stepping back and learning to behold the world through the lens of a more autonomous judgment and with greater personal authority. Alignment with your personal code or ideology, the ability to take stands and set boundaries is what drives your decisions. If you find yourself thinking more and more, “It ought to be this way, because that is how we have always done things, but I think it might be better to do…”, you are probably operating in or around this level of mental complexity.

System 3: The self-transforming mind

This system is marked by a new level of self-awareness. We gain the ability to peek behind the curtain of what drives us, understand why we feel motivated to take a certain action, and evaluate whether this motivation is still serving us or if we should work to transform. Our self-organization is robust enough to hold multiple, sometimes contradictory, perspectives and maintain focus in a worldview that no longer relies on right or wrong, a or b, left or right.

The transition from one system to the next either happens gradually as a consequence of our relationship with our surroundings or can be unlocked in a more targeted way through study, introspection or dedicated coaching efforts. The important thing is that it is not an automated process, nor is it a given. Research shows across studies that around 58% of the general population live their lives through the lens of the socializing mind.

Here is where things get interesting for business. Dissimilar to the distribution of mental complexity across the three systems in the general population, within businesses, there is a notable difference at Chief Executive Officer (CEO) level. Where middle management is distributed in line with the general population, CEOs within the study groups all exhibited traits in line with people operating in the self-authoring system, with about one in five in transition to self-transforming. What does this tell us?

It tells us that being able to operate in self-authoring and self-transforming systems is an intrinsically sought-out and needed quality in leaders. Where the ability to transition into and between those systems is lacking, we find effective leadership stumbling. We find organizations in which leaders avow behavior change so as to lead their people better, yet find themselves incapable of living up to that vow. We find leaders exhibiting immunity to change.

Immunity to change and how to discover your own

Immunity to change shows up when we are feeling stuck. When we understand that there are areas of our lives that we want to apply change to, we somehow find ourselves incapable of doing it. Often unwittingly, we have put inner mechanisms in place that prevent us from progressing and transitioning to systems of greater complexity, autonomy, and leadership prowess.

The process of discovering the root cause of this immunity to enable us to build an improvement pathway takes patience, practice, and in most cases, the supervision of professionals trained in this methodology. In the following segment, we will look at the most critical aspects of this journey using the example of James.

James is the key partner in a famous consulting firm in North America. His story is one we are all familiar with: his work consumes him, and his personal relationships and family are getting little of his thinly stretched emotional bandwidth. To his surprise, he realizes that his personal tension from putting work first are spreading to his employees in the firm. Morale is low, and people have threatened to walk out. James sees this, yet finds himself incapable of shifting his modus operandi. He finds himself immune to the change he desires to make.

“A stuck leader is never good news for business.”

Here is what James had to do to begin overcoming his immunity (high-level steps):

1. Define the “one big thing”

The transition process starts with identifying and fine-tuning the “one big thing” you are working to improve. Working on immunity to change hinges on finding an improvement goal that hits home. The theme that emerged for James was the painful realization that he was not emotionally present when he wanted to be, and thus, the following goal was finally formulated:

To be more fully present in the moment, and with the people that truly matter.

2. Create an inventory of saboteurs

This step focuses on our actions (not attitudes) that keep us from our stated “one big thing”. In the case of James, many of his inventory items were productivity-related and were expressed in ways such as:

  • He had to constantly be productive and take on more work to feel good. He would accept new clients even though business was already good, and the team was stretched thin on resources.
  • He had to respond to all emails at all hours instantly.
  • Instead of resting and enjoying calm, he would feel restless and fret about work.
  • Instead of being present in the moments he yearned for, such as quality family time, he would speak to his wife dismissively as the emotional tug of his work was constant.

Finding the underlying attitudes holds the key to overcoming our immunity to change. Yet, knowing in which situations we self-sabotage grants us access to arenas where we can practise our new ways of being.

3. Identify self-protective strategies

These attitudes underpin the unhealthy behavior patterns we find ourselves unable to change. They serve to shield our ego from harm in its current frame of mental complexity and are challenging to dismantle. We can work to abstract them, but how we phrase these attitudes verbatim can be just as revealing. James phrased his attitude as follows:

  • I always need to be amazing and never have an ordinary moment.
  • I want to stay young forever (and being productive is a marker of youth for me).
  • I can’t stand it if I don’t get my way.
  • I need to win.

4. Crystalize your limiting beliefs

The system of mental complexity we currently operate in holds our beliefs captive. If we work in the Socializing Mind, these beliefs will be informed by our interpersonal relationships and driven by our need to be seen in a certain way by others to feel comfort (even if this entails other negative consequences). It is not voluntary. What is voluntary, however, is noticing our limiting patterns and, in so doing, being granted access to the root cause of your immunity. Read James’s limiting beliefs and you’ll likely find that they, in part, apply to your own life as well:

  • I am what I achieve. If I don’t achieve, I have no worth.
  • If I don’t act young (productivity), then my mortality will overwhelm my life with fear.
  • If ever I freeze or am overwhelmed, or if I ever take a pause, life as I know it will irreversibly end.

This exercise helped us formulate a starting point for James. What followed in the months that we worked together was a systematic dismantling of his limiting beliefs. We cannot think our way past our immunities. Instead, we must start to change our behavior, go against what our habits dictate, and notice what happens to the world around us if we do. For James, he noticed that his business didn’t collapse if he didn’t respond to emails straight away. He noticed that his team was fine managing things in his absence or when he had a low-energy day. His family and colleagues noticed this change, too, and with their encouragement (which is critical), James succeeded in transitioning from the socializing to the self-authoring mind.

There is a reason as to why this topic is being studied in as much depth as it is: mental complexity is, well, complex. While I strongly encourage you to work with a professional trained in this area of leadership development, two excellent books on the topic have been published by the aforementioned authors that I highly recommend:

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Your Organizations

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation


veronique bogliolo

Véronique Bogliolo

Executive and Leadership Coach

Veronique Bogliolo is a leadership and executive coach. She excels in helping individuals and teams transform themselves to achieve their personal and collective goals. She offers a variety of tailor-made programs for individuals or teams, including coaching for personal growth and transformation, professional and executive coaching, leadership programs for individuals and teams, team coaching, and team culture assessment.


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