Kurt Lewin's Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes Toward a
Model of Managed Learning
Edgar H. Schein
Professor of Management Emeritus
MIT Sloan School of Management
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Few people have had as profound an impact on the
theory and practice of social and organizational psychology as Kurt Lewin.
Though I never knew him personally I was fortunate during my graduate school
years at Harvard's Social Relations Dept. in 1949-50 to have been exposed to
Alex Bavelas and Douglas McGregor, who, in my mind embodied Lewin's spirit
totally. As I will try to show in this essay, Lewin's spirit and the
assumptions that lay behind it are deeply embedded in my own work and that
of many of my colleagues who practice the art of "Organization Development."
This essay will attempt to spell out some of Lewin's basic dictums and show
their influence in my own and others' contemporary work. I will endeavor to
show how my own thinking has evolved from theorizing about "planned change"
to thinking about such processes more as "managed learning."
I. "There is Nothing So
Practical as a Good Theory:" Lewin's Change Model Elaborated
The power of Lewin's theorizing lay not in a formal
propositional kind of theory but in his ability to build "models" of
processes that drew attention to the right kinds of variables that needed to
be conceptualized and observed. In my opinion, the most powerful of these
was his model of the change process in human systems. I found this model to
be fundamentally necessary in trying to explain various phenomena I had
observed, and I found that it lent itself very well to refinement and
My own early work in clinical/social psychology dealt
with the attitude changes that had occurred in military and civilian
prisoners of the Chinese Communists during the Korean war (Schein,
1956,1961,1968). 1 found contemporary theories of attitude change to be
trivial and superficial when applied to some of the profound changes that
the prisoners had undergone, but I found Lewin's basic change model of
unfreezing, changing, and refreezing to be a theoretical foundation upon
which change theory could be built solidly. The key, of course, was to see
that human change, whether at the individual or group level, was a profound
psychological dynamic process that involved painful unlearning without loss
of ego identity and difficult relearning as one cognitively attempted to
restructure one's thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and attitudes.
Unfreezing as a concept entered the change literature
early to highlight the observation that the stability of human behavior was
based on "quasi- stationary equilibria" supported by a large force field of
driving and restraining forces. For change to occur, this force field had to
be altered under complex psychological conditions because, as was often
noted, just adding a driving force toward change often produced an immediate
counterforce to maintain the equilibrium. This observation led to the
important insight that the equilibrium could more easily be moved if one
could remove restraining forces since there were usually already driving
forces in the system. Unfortunately restraining forces were harder to get at
because they were often personal psychological defenses or group norms
embedded in the organizational or community culture.
The full ramifications of such restraining forces were
only understood after decades of frustrating encounters with resistance to
change, and only then did we begin to pay attention to the work of cognitive
psychologists on perceptual defenses, to what psychoanalysts and the
Tavistock group were trying to show us with their work on denial, splitting
and projection, and to Argyris's seminal work on defensive routines (e.g.
Argyris, 1990; Hirschhorn, 1988). In trying to explain what happened to POWs
I was led to the necessity to further "unpack" the concept of unfreezing and
to highlight what really goes on there. Unfreezing is basically three
processes, each of which has to be present to some degree for readiness and
motivation to change to be generated.
It is my belief that all forms of learning and
change start with some form of dissatisfaction or frustration generated by
data that disconfirm our expectations or hopes. Whether we are talking about
adaptation to some new environmental circumstances that thwart the
satisfaction of some need, or whether we are talking about genuinely
creative and generative learning of the kind Peter Senge focuses on, some
disequilibrium based on disconfirming information is a pre-requisite (Senge,
1990). Disconfirmation, whatever its source, functions as a primary driving
force in the quasi-stationary equilibrium.
Disconfirming information is not enough, however, because
we can ignore the information, dismiss it as irrelevant, blame the undesired
outcome on others or fate, or, as is most common, simply deny its validity.
In order to become motivated to change, we must accept the information and
connect it to something we care about. The disconfirmation must arouse what
we can call "survival anxiety" or the feeling that if we do not change we
will fail to meet our needs or fail to achieve some goals or ideals that we
have set for ourselves ("survival guilt").
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