Lewin’s Change Theory Model Will Heat Up Your Organization

Lewin’s Change Theory Model Will Heat Up Your Organization
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Did you know that water is usually more dense than ice? I bet you thought it was the other way around.

Water molecules are closer together than in the crystalline structure of ice. This makes ice less dense and therefore able to float on water.

Understanding this can help you improve your change management. How? Water and ice form the basis of Lewin’s change theory model.

And it’s a model you need to know if you want to be successful at organizational change.

What does ice have to do with change management?

Kurt Lewin’s change theory model is based on the analogy of unfreezing a block of ice, then refreezing it into a new shape.

The analogy is a good one, because we all know that water moves freely. But ice is rigid and static. It doesn’t change. Unless it first turns into its water state.

Your organization can either be water and move freely, or it can be stuck as ice. Which would you rather it be?

A closer look at Lewin’s change theory model

Unfreezing

Before ice can change its shape, it must be unfrozen and become water. It is the same within organizations. Change cannot happen unless the organization first goes through the process of “unfreezing”.

This stage is the catalyst for the shift out of a rigid state.

In business terms, this is when to create awareness of how current behaviors hinder the organization. The goal is to overcome human nature’s resistance to change. Central to this is communicating the logic behind the transition and its benefits.

Communication is therefore especially important during the unfreezing stage. The more we know about a change and the more we feel we will benefit, the more likely we are to accept the change.

Edgar Schein explores this further:

“Unfreezing is basically three processes, each of which has to be present to some degree for readiness and motivation to change to be generated.”

These three processes are:

  1. Disconfirmation
  2. Survival anxiety
  3. Psychological safety

Change starts with dissatisfaction. This comes from data generated by various techniques. The data disconfirms our expectations.

The disconfirmation must arouse the feeling that if we don’t change, we will fail to achieve our goals. This is survival anxiety. And it is necessary to feel this to be motivated to change.

“What typically prevents us from [accepting disconfirmation data]…is a second kind of anxiety which we can call “learning anxiety…”

This is where psychological safety comes in.

Schein concludes: the key to effective change management is outweighing the threat of the disconfirming data with enough psychological safety. This allows employees “to accept the information, feel the survival anxiety, and become motivated to change.”

“The true artistry of change management lies in the various kinds of tactics that change agents employ to create psychological safety.”

Changing

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus

Once the organization is unfrozen, it can move into a new state of being. This step is when implementation of the change happens.

No doubt you are familiar with this step. And the negative outcomes that usually stem from it. The “new world order” is often met with uncertainty and fear, as people struggle to accept it.

That’s why it’s super important to keep reminding employees of the positive reasons for the change. Regular meetings involving ice-breaker exercises can help with this. Psychological safety remains the key component of success.

Refreezing

The final stage of Lewin’s change theory model is freezing. But it might be more accurate to refer to it as refreezing.

This is when the change becomes ingrained. It’s critical that employees don’t revert back to their old ways of thinking or doing.

One way to try and achieve this is to reward all positive efforts in the implementation of the change. Positively reinforced behavior is likely to be repeated.

Another important consideration is ensuring the learner’s environment aligns with the change. Schein explains this well with an example:

“The classic case is the supervisory program that teaches individual supervisors how to empower employees and then sends them back into an organization where the culture supports only autocratic supervisory behavior.”

The bottom line is that the organization must support the change at all levels. Otherwise, it will never become ingrained.

The organization’s culture must accept the change and make it seem normal. The old behaviors must seem abnormal and out of place.  

Conclusion

So, your organization has more in common with a block of ice than you think. Approach your next change initiative with Lewin’s change theory model in mind, so you can mould it into whatever shape you want.

Christopher Smith
Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.
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