Change Management MythBusters

Change can happen in many forms be it something you want to change in your life, a change happening in a organization or a movement demanding social change. The field of “Change Management” aims to understand such changes. Kurt Lewin, a German American psychologist, is known as one of the founding fathers of the field.

He is often associated with a three-step model of change entailing the steps of “Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze”. However, Cummings et al. (2016). show that Lewin never created such a model. Instead, his writings mention parts of it in another context and after his death, the constructed model got repeated over and over again without any reference to his actual research. You could say some early form of “Fake News”. In addition, it has been rightly criticized for being overly simplistic and linear in contrast to complex change processes.

Lewin’s actual force field theory shows this complex nature of change. He advocated studying change on a group level (i.e., organizations or societies) rather than just looking at individuals. These groups entail forces that promote change and others that promote stability. Thus, all parts of the group should be involved in the change process and get a chance to voice their opinion. Successful change can happen if you involve everyone affected.

Why this misinterpretation of Lewin happened is not entirely clear. Yet, it can be noticed that change theories have shifted more towards an effective manager being an individual change agent or even a hero that fights against the resistance to change. In that narrative, the linear three-step process fits as it is about breaking this resistance and building something new that is cemented after the process is done.

Below you can find the two opposing visual representations. Using the current pandemic as an example, you can see how Lewin was way closer to the truth of seeing the complexity of implementing change as a constant back and forth between various forces in the same group. Hopefully, he will be remembered and quoted for this in the future.

“Fake” Three Step ModelActual Force Field Theory

To find out more I recommend: Cummings, S., Bridgman, T., & Brown, K. (2016). Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management. Human Relations, 69, 33–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726715577707

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