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Kurt Lewin's Change Theory

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2. Induction of Guilt or Survival Anxiety

In order to feel survival anxiety or guilt, we must accept the disconfirming data as valid and relevant. What typically prevents us from doing so, what causes us to react defensively, is a second kind of anxiety which we can call "learning anxiety," or the feeling that if we allow ourselves to enter a learning or change process, if we admit to ourselves and others that something is wrong or imperfect, we will lose our effectiveness, our self-esteem and maybe even our identity. Most humans need to assume that they are doing their best at all times, and it may be a real loss of face to accept and even "embrace" errors (Michael, 1973, 1993). Adapting poorly or failing to meet our creative potential often looks more desirable than risking failure and loss of self-esteem in the learning process. Learning anxiety is the fundamental restraining force which can go up in direct proportion to the amount of disconfirmation, leading to the maintenance of the equilibrium by defensive avoidance of the disconfirming information. It is the dealing with learning anxiety, then, that is the key to producing change, and Lewin understood this better than anyone. His involving of workers on the pajama assembly line, his helping the housewives groups to identify their fear of being seen as less "good" in the community if they used the new proposed meats and his helping them to evolve new norms, was a direct attempt to deal with learning anxiety. This process can be conceptualized in its own right as creating for the learner some degree of "psychological safety."

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3. Creation of Psychological Safety or Overcoming of Learning Anxiety

My basic argument is that unless sufficient psychological safety is created, the disconfirming information will be denied or in other ways defended against, no survival anxiety will be felt, and, consequently, no change will take place. The key to effective change management, then, becomes the ability to balance the amount of threat produced by disconfirming data with enough psychological safety to allow the change target 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. For example, working in groups, creating parallel systems that allow some relief from day to day work pressures, providing practice fields in which errors are embraced rather than feared, providing positive visions to encourage the learner, breaking the learning process into manageable steps, providing on-line coaching and help all serve the function of reducing learning anxiety and thus creating genuine motivation to learn and change.

Unfortunately, motivation is not enough. A theory or model of change must also explain the actual learning and change mechanisms, and here Lewin's cognitive models were also very helpful in providing a theoretical base.

4. Cognitive Redefinition

By what means does a motivated learner learn something new when we are dealing with thought processes, feelings, values, and attitudes? Fundamentally it is a process of "cognitive restructuring," which has been labeled by many others as frame braking or reframing. It occurs by taking in new information that has one or more of the following impacts: 1 ) semantic redefinition--we learn that words can mean something different from what we had assumed; 2) cognitive broadening--we learn that a given concept can be much more broadly interpreted than what we had assumed; and 3) new standards of judgment or evaluation--we learn that the anchors we used for judgment and comparison are not absolute, and if we use a different anchor our scale of judgment shifts.  

 An example will make this clear. The concept of "teamwork" is today highly touted in organizational circles, yet the evidence for effective team work is at best minimal. The problem lies in the fact that in the U.S., the cultural assumption that society revolves around the individual and individual rights is so deeply embedded that when teamwork is advocated we pay lipservice but basically do not change our individualistic assumption. How then does change in this area come about? First, we would need to re-define teamwork as the coordination of individual activities for pragmatic ends, not the subordination of the individual to the group. If we define teamwork as individual subordination, as treating the group to be more important than the individual, we arouse all the defenses that lead to quips like camels being horses constructed by a committee, negative images of "group think," lynch mobs, etc.

Second, the redefinition of teamwork also allows one to redefine individualism in a way that preserves its primacy, not to "substitute" groupism for individualism. This process of redefinition in effect enlarges the concept of individualism to include the ability and obligation to work with others when the task demands it. In other words, helping a team to win is not inconsistent with individualism. And, third, one can change the standards by which individual performance is rewarded. Instead of rewarding "rugged individualism" or the competitive winning out over others (which makes collaborative behavior look "weak"), individuals can be increasingly rewarded for their ability to create, lead, and participate in teams (which makes collaborative behavior look "strong"). The best individual, then, is the one who can be an effective team player. What Lewin did with the housewives, was to help them to change their standard of what was an acceptable meat, so that kidneys, liver, etc. became cognitively redefined as acceptable to buy and serve. This process is fundamental to any change if one wants it to last.

The new information that makes any or all of these processes possible comes into us by one of two fundamental mechanisms--1 ) learning through positive or defensive identification with some available positive or negative role model, or 2) learning through a trial and error process based on scanning the environment for new concepts (Schein, 1968).

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