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Five Core Theories – Lewin’s Change Theories – Organisation Development

There are five core theories that provide a solid foundation for the work that OD practitioners do.  Good grounding in theory is essential for every OD practitioner.  The better you understand the theory, the better you will understand the complex and intricate nature of the OD process and OD tool kit.

Lewin’s Change Theories in Brief

Lewin developed a unified change theory based on four distinct elements; Field Theory, Group Dynamics, Action Research and the Three step model of Change.  All have been criticised and all are necessary to bring about planned change.

Lewin viewed the social environment as a dynamic field which impacted in an interactive way with human consciousness.  The theories are useful to the OD practitioner in understanding that by adjusting elements of the organisationl environment then particular types of psychological experience predictably ensue.  In turn, the person’s psychological state influences the organisational environment.

Lewin first introduced the idea of Group Dynamics in relation to the study of the interaction of complex intra- and inter-personal forces in the operation of group behaviour which determine the groups character, development, and long-term survival.

Group Dynamics is concerned with determination of laws underlying group behaviour and studies a group’s formation, structure, interaction and behaviourial processes while looking at the group functioning.

Lewin was well known for  “field theory”.  He was perhaps even better known for practical use of his theories in studying group dynamics, solving social problems related to prejudice, and group therapy (t-groups).  Lewin sought to not only describe group life, but to investigate the conditions and forces which bring about change or resist change in groups.

In developing the Field Theory approach, Lewin believed that for change to take place, the total situation has to be taken into account.  If only part of the situation is considered, a misrepresented picture is likely to develop.

The field theory proposes that human behaviour is the function of both the person and the environment, this means that an individuals behaviour is related both to their personal characteristics and to the organisational situation in which they find themself.

Lewin’s three step model of change is related to Field Theory.  The three step model states that organisational change involves a move from one static state via a progressional shift, to another static state. The model, is also known as Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze.

Stage 1: Unfreeze

This stage involves creating the right conditions for change to occur. By resisting change, people often attach a sense of identity to their environment. In this state, alternatives, even beneficial ones, will initially cause discomfort. The challenge is to move people from this ‘frozen’ state to a ‘change ready’ or ‘unfrozen’ state.

Stage 2: Transition

The transitional ‘journey’ is central to Lewin’s model and at the psychological level it is typically a period of confusion. People are aware that the old ways are being challenged, but there is no clear understanding of the new ways which will replace them. As roles change, a reduced state of efficiency is created, where goals are significantly lowered. The end goal of this stage is to get people to the ‘unfrozen’ state and keep them there.

Stage 3: Refreeze

The end goal of the model is to achieve a ‘refreeze’, re-establishing a new place of stability and elevate comfort levels by reconnecting people back into their safe, familiar environment. Refreezing takes people from a period of low productivity in the transitional state to that of organisational effectiveness and sustainable performance.

Key Points

  1. Organisational Behaviour is a function of a person’s personality, the group environment
  2. For change to be effective it must be collaborative and participative, and take place at a group level if individual behaviour is to shift
  3. Concentrate on individual field factors including group norms, roles, interaction and social processes
  4. Refreezing requires changes at a cultural level, to embed new organisaitonal norms, polciies and practices.
  5. Creating dissatisfaction with the status quo will provide th disequilibrium required to drive change.

Applying Lewin’s Change Theories in an OD Intervention

  1. Pay attention to group dynamics and the powerful forces within the groups
  2. Identify existing rules that create the current organisational reality and change them to create movement.
  3. Plan the mix of people involved in diagnostic events in order to shift forces and facilitate change.
  4. Diagnostic events are key learning events which lead to ‘unfreezing’
  5. Be clear about the type of ‘unfreezing’ work that is needed during the diagnostic phase
  6. Provide a safe environment in which to destablise the status quo, in order to create the motivation to learn and change
  7. Support individuals and the group in understanding what is required of them, providing a plan for the action needed to begin making the change
  8. Create psychological safety to prevent resistance
  9. Provide a desirable direction or ‘best way’ for group members to change toward.
  10. Develop congruence with the organisation environment to stablise the new equilibrium.