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Posts tagged ‘Lewin’s Change Theory’

Social Psychology – Conflicting Beliefs

Answers the Question

Why people have a bias to seek agreement between their expectations and reality?

How it Began

In 1954 Leon Festinger was working on a new theory of cognitive dissonance.  The theory focused on the view of the social world from the perspective of the individual.  Cognition was viewed as being any attitude, behaviour or emotion that made up a mental representation of the social world within an individuals mind.  Festinger’s research focused on how individual perceptions of other people, social groups and the physical world were cognitive representations and how inconsistency between the representation and reality causes the individual discomfort which in term drives attempts by the individual to reduce the inconsistency.


Festinger’s interest in a headline regarding a group, called the Seekers led by Mrs Keech.  The group believed the world would end on 21st December 1955, as a result of messages received by Mrs Keech through Automatic writing.   Festinger predicted that the failure of a space ship to arrive to take them to safety would create a condition of cognitive dissonance, resulting in the group members experiencing an tension which was unpleasant and that they would find a way to reduce it.  Festinger predicted that because of the commitment to the belief the Seekers would persist in their belief, becoming more evangelical than before.

The events of the night 21st December 2013 are described in Festinger’s paper When Prophecy Fails. He describes the reactions of the group to the failed prophecy.  The result was that Mrs Keech was ‘summoned’ to receive another message.  The message confirmed the belief system of the group.  The group was being tested and their goodness of the group had prevented the cataclysm from occurring.  A second message commanded the group to spread the message, which they duly did, phoning the newspapers and other news services that they could think of.

Therefore the discrepancy between the original belief that the world would end, and the cognitive dissonance caused by the world not ending was therefore overcome by the belief that the small group of believers had saved the world from destruction.

The impact of the study was enormous and a decade of research following the original study showed that dissonance theory was substantially correct but there were some limitations to the theory which meant that the theory had to change.

Key Terminology

Cognitive Dissonance – the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc. Festinger, L. (1957)

Belief disconfirmation paradigm – happens when an individual is presented with information which conflicts with their beliefs. If the individual is unable to change their beliefs the conflict experienced could result in a rejection or denial of the conflicting information. A person unable to resolve the conflict will seek others sharing a similar belief to restore agreement of thoughts.

Induced-compliance paradigm – The induced-compliance paradigm is when a person internalizes an attitude that they were encouraged to express because they had no other justification.

Free Choice Paradigm – When making a difficult decision, there are things about the choice we don’t make that we find appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. By choosing X, you are dissonant about the things you like about Y.

Effort Justification Paradigm – Dissonance occurs whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve a desired goal. One way of reducing dissonance is by the individual exaggerating how desirable the goal is.

In Brief

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and we make efforts to avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

Cognitive dissonance refers to any situation which involves conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This conflict in turn produces a feeling of discomfort which results in an alteration in one of the held attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

The mismanagement of cognitive dissonance is a root cause of many problems in the workplace, especially when it comes to conflict management, bullying and performance management. What we think and do when confronted with two or more conflicting beliefs drive behaviour within the organizational setting. For example, we all make mistakes and therefore have to confront the conflict – I am a good person but I did something bad. And we get plenty of mixed signals, especially in change settings where there is a need for individuals to take more creative risks but the support system and environment embeds the belief that the risks won’t succeed.

Cognitive dissonance is especially powerful, and can make the workplace extremely uncomfortable for individuals and teams when the conflicting beliefs are about ourselves. To relieve the discomfort we may self justify or rationalize, which may involve making excuses for our bad behaviour or shifting blame rather than owning up. This behaviour can lead to good people falling into unethical or unwanted behaviour patterns which have far reaching consequences in regards to performance.

As Organization Development practitioners we need to be able to spot when cognitive dissonance sits at the root of organizational problems and then find productive ways to vent the discomfort associated with it.  This may included focused conversations, open space technology or game storming to open up communication and create space for perceptions to be aired and explored.

In general an OD intervention will need to promote and help individuals to own mistakes, and create a process to manage the discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance by role-modelling and advocating honesty, openness, feedback and a ‘no blame’ culture as positive and necessary components of a healthy workplace.


OD Theory – Psychoanalytical Theory

In addition to the five core OD theories there are other theories that a solid OD practitioner must understand to build on their theoretical foundation for practice.  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.

Psychoanalytical Theory in Brief

Sigmund Freud developed Psychoanalytic Theory of personality that suggests that early experiences influence all human behaviour. The Theory explores two territories of the human mind, the conscious and the unconscious.

The conscious mind includes everything that we are aware of, those parts of our our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally. Part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness.

The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to the theory, the unconscious continues to influence our behaviour and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.

Psychoanalytic theory seeks to address three core issues to behaviour – the id, the ego and the superego.

Psychoanalysts argue that all human personality is comprised of these closely integrated functions. The id refers to our biological or physical functioning which influences behaviour that is unfettered, compelling and lacking morality, selfish and intolerant of tension. id functions on the principle of pleasure before anything else and operates at an unconscious or instinctive level.  Many of us have experienced what is commonly referred to as a Freudian slip. These misstatements are believed to reveal underlying, unconscious thoughts or feelings.

The ego is the rationally functioning element of human personality. Ego exerts conscious control, trying always to be the mediator between the id and the superego. Ego seeks pleasure based on rationality instead of irrationality and therefore results in behaviour that is rational and always conscious.  The ego is the aspect we present to the “outside” world, it is our public face.

The superego represents our moral system. It strives to put a right or wrong label on our behaviour and is driven by our own morality.


Key Points

  1. Humanity is irrational, materialistic and mechanistic.
  2. Our early experience influences our behaviour
  3. Anxiety occurs when there is conflict among the three divisions of id, ego and superego.
  4. Humans use defence mechanisms to control the anxiety.
  5. Development of the concepts of human conscious and unconscious and conscience.


Applying Psychoanalytic Theory in an OD Intervention

  1. Observe the impact of id, ego and superego on the interactions between employees and management,
  2. Monitor the conscious and unconscious forces that bind fellow employees together, and the role of autonomy in people’s lives.
  3. During the diagnostic phase, build a model of the dynamics of the workplace.
  4. Highlight how work and the organization interact with the employees’ unconscious motivations and ideation.
  5. Challenge individuals who use splitting (a process whereby we simplify a complex situation by attributing all its ‘x’ characteristics to one of a pair, and all its ‘y’ characteristics to the other e.g. Goodies and Baddies) in their organisational framing, or organisations where splitting has become institutionalised
  6. Continue to remind participants that all work systems have technical, human and social aspects and these are interdependent rather than allowing them to perceive them in separate configurations
  7. Ensure whether the method that is being developed has the requisite characteristics that will in fact enable it to facilitate transition.
  8. When working with an individual or a group in an organisation include something of the other individuals and departments, the products, the technologies, the markets, the geography, the legal framework and the history.

Three Essentials of Organisation Development

I was asked the other day what my three essentials of Organisation Development are.  It was a interesting questions which really got me thinking.  What are the three most important things an OD practitioner should practice in any intervention?

You might have an alternative set of essentials but this was the answer I gave.

#1 – People

Any organisation development intervention must have people at its centre.  Organisation Development is about allowing the people in the organisation to create the change the organisation is looking for.  OD is a holistic intervention, and therefore isn’t restricted to the top brass.  In fact, it works quite the opposite in that it releases everyone from the bottom up to have a say, and share their knowledge, talent and skills in developing the organisation.

If your OD intervention isn’t people centred, and unashamedly humanistic it is probably not an OD intervention.

#2 – Know you Tools, Know your Theory

Whether it is Complexity theory, Action Research Theory, Lewin’s Change Theory, Systems Theory or Appreciative inquiry the cross discipline theoretical background of OD is essential to understanding the tools that an OD practitioner will use in their OD practice.  If you don’t understand the behavioural sciences, sociology and psychology behind methods such as gamestorming, focused conversations or world cafe’s you won’t know which tools to use to deliver the results the organisation needs for sustainable performance and organisational effectiveness.

A mechanic doesn’t try to fix your car engine without knowing how the combustion engine works ‘in theory’ – by understanding the process the mechanic can quickly identify where the process is broken and know what tool/method required to make the engine roar back into life.  OD is no different.

Many practitioners dismiss academic theory as ridiculous ‘ivory tower’ thinking and not applicable to the real world.  The interesting thing is that the theory that OD is built on is often criticised by the academic community because it is built on practice and field work experimentation, worse still, in the eyes of academics, it takes bits of different disciplines because those ‘bits’ are relevant and ignores the stuff that doesn’t add value to the process.  Get to know your theory and you’ll get to understand How the OD toolkit works and when to use the different tools.

#3 – Be Sustainable

I could have chosen a number of things for number three, but the one I plugged for is that of legacy.  The OD practitioner is the catalyst in OD interventions.  They must have the ability to build the business case for the leadership team, get the leadership team on board to sponsor the programme, build relationships with key change agents within the business and draw together disperate groups to make the intervention successful.  They become the centre of the intervention.  The use of self as a catalyst of change is a central pillar of OD practice.  BUT.  What happens when the OD intervention comes to an end?  How do you prevent the organisation from slipping back into old habits?

This is the paradox of the life of the OD practitioner.  You are the centre of change whilst at the same time building a legacy which means that the organisation learns how to change itself.  The OD practitioner must translate the practices, and tools that they use so they become embedded into the way that the organisation does things.  The questions you ask, become the organisation’s questions.  The techniques you use, are understood and used by the organisation you are working with and more importantly you leave the organisation in a positon where they have learnt how to develop themselves without the ‘self’ of the OD practitioner being present.

When the OD practitioner is no longer needed then the OD intervention has worked.

So there you have it, my top three essentials for the OD practitioner.