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Kurt Lewin's Change Theory


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5. Imitation and Positive or Defensive Identification with a Role Model

Cognitive re-definition occurs when the learner has become unfrozen, i.e. motivated to change, and has, therefore opened him or herself up to new information. The next question to address, then. is how the new information comes to the learner. The most basic mechanism of acquiring new information that leads to cognitive restructuring is to discover in a conversational process that the interpretation that someone else puts on a concept is different from one's own. If one is motivated to change, i.e. if the factors described above have been operating, one may be able to "hear" or "see" something from a new perspective.

The best examples come from what has colloquially been labeled "brainwashing," where POWs who were judged "guilty" yet felt innocent, finally were able to admit their guilt when they could identify with their more advanced cell mates sufficiently to realize that the concepts of "crime" and "guilt" were defined differently by the Chinese communists. One was guilty because a crime was defined as "any action that could be harmful to the communists" even if no harm had occurred. A postcard to home, could conceivably contain information that would help the enemy, so sending the postcard was an act of espionage and the sender had to learn to appreciate and confess his or her guilt. Being born into the wrong social class was a crime because middle class attitudes could be very harmful to the communist cause. Semantic redefinition, cognitive broadening and changing standards of judgment were all present in this process.

Only by recognizing this potential for harm, confessing one's guilt, and acknowledging the incorrectness of one's social origins could one hope to learn how to be a good communist or to be released from jail. Once one had accepted the new cognitive frame of reference and learned the new definitions and standards, one could make rapid progress in re-education and remove the heavy disconfirming pressure. The key to the whole process, however, was to identify psychologically with other prisoners who had already made the cognitive shift and learning to see the world through their eyes.

Readers who are familiar with socialization processes in families, schools, companies, religious movements, and other organizational settings will readily recognize this mechanism as the key to apprenticeships, to "big brother" programs, to the concept of "mentoring" and to the various more formal group based indoctrination programs that organizations use. The mentor or big brother is often both a source of psychological safety and the role model to facilitate cognitive redefinition (Schein, 1968; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979)

Defensive identification is a rarer process that occurs when the learner is a captive in a hostile environment in which the most salient role models are the hostile captors, e.g. prison guards, authoritarian bosses or teachers, etc. The process was first described in relation to Nazi Concentration Camps where some prisoners took on the values and beliefs of the guards and maltreated fellow prisoners. In the face of severe survival anxiety, for some learners "identification with the aggressor" was the only solution (Bettelheim, 1943). Genuine new learning and change occurred, but, of course, in a direction deemed undesirable by others. In considering such outcomes one is reminded that unfreezing creates motivation to learn, but does not necessarily control or predict the direction of learning. If the only new information available is from salient and powerful role models, learning will occur in that direction. One of the key elements of a managed change process is, therefore, what kind of role models one makes available to the learners once they are unfrozen.

If either no good role models are available, or one wants the learning to be more genuinely creative one has to create the conditions for what I call "Scanning."

6. Scanning: Insight or Trial and Error Learning

A learner or change target can be highly motivated to learn something, yet have no role models nor initial feeling for where the answer or solution might lie. The learner then searches or scans by reading, traveling, talking to people, hiring consultants, entering therapy, going back to school, etc. to expose him or herself to a variety of new information that might reveal a solution to the problem. Alternatively, when the learner finally feels psychologically safe, he or she may experience spontaneously an insight that spells out the solution. Change agents such as process consultants or non-directive therapists count on such insights because of the assumption that the best and most stable solution will be one that the learner has invented for him or herself.

Once some cognitive redefinition has taken place, the new mental categories are tested with new behavior which leads to a period of trial and error and either reinforces the new categories or starts a new cycle of disconfirmation and search. Note that in the process of search, if role models are readily available, they will most likely be used. Identification is thus an efficient and fast process, but it may lead to solutions that do not stick because they do not fit the learner's total personality. If one wants to avoid that, one must create learning environments that do not display role models, thereby forcing the learner to scan and invent his or her own solutions.  

It is this dynamic, to rely on identification with a role model, that explains why so many consultation processes go awry. The consultant, by design or unwittingly, becomes a role model and generates solutions and cognitive categories that do not really fit into the culture of the client organization and will therefore only be adopted temporarily. A similar result occurs when organizations attempt to check on their own performance by "benchmarking," i.e. comparing themselves to a reference group of organizations and attempting to identify "best practices." The speed and simplicity of that process is offset by two dangers. First, it may be that none of the organizations in the reference set have scanned for a good solution so the whole set continues to operate sub- optimally, or, second, that the identified best practice works only in certain kinds of organizational cultures and will fail in the particular organization that is trying to improve itself. In other words, learners can attempt to learn things that will not survive because they do not fit the personality or culture of the learning system. For change to remain more stable it must be "refrozen."

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