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Kurt Lewin: change management and group dynamics.

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) was a social psychologist whose extensive work covered studies of leadership styles and their effects, work on group decision-making, the development of force field theory, the unfreeze/change/refreeze change management model, the `action research' approach to research, and the group dynamics approach to training, (especially in the form of T Groups). Lewin has had a great influence on research and thinking on organisational development, and was behind the founding of the Center for Group Dynamics in the United States, through which many famous management thinkers passed.

Life and background

The German-born Lewin was Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Berlin University until he fled to the United States in 1932 to escape from the Nazis. There, he taught at Cornell University, and then at Iowa, becoming Professor of Child Psychology at the latter's Child Research Station. In 1944, he went on to found, with Douglas McGregor and others, a research centre for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Key theories

Leadership styles and their effects

With colleagues L. Lippitt and R. White, Lewin carried out studies relating to the effects of three different leadership styles on outcomes of boys activity groups in Iowa (1939). Three different styles were classified as `democratic', `autocratic', and `laissez-faire'. It was found that in the group with an autocratic leader, there was more dissatisfaction and behaviours became either more aggressive or apathetic. In the group with a democratic leader, there was more co-operation and enjoyment, while those in the laissez-faire led group showed no particular dissatisfaction, though they were not particularly productive either.

Significantly, when the respective leaders were asked to change their styles, the effects for each leadership style remained similar. Lewin aimed to show that the democratic style achieved better results. The possibility of social and cultural influences undermines his finding to some extent, but the studies nevertheless suggested the benefits of a democratic style in an American context. They also showed that it is possible for leaders and managers to change their styles, and to be trained to improve their leadership and adopt appropriate management styles for their situation and context.

Group decision making

After the Second World War, Lewin carried out research for the United States Government, exploring ways of influencing people to change their dietary habits towards less popular cuts of meat. He found that, if group members were involved in and encouraged to discuss the issues themselves, and were able to make their own decisions as a group, they were far more likely to change their habits than if they had just attended lectures giving appropriate information, recipes and advice.

Force field analysis

Lewin's force field theory viewed people's activity as affected by forces in their surrounding environment, or `field'. Three main principles of force field theory are that:

* behaviour is a function of the existing field

* analysis starts from the complete situation and distinguishes its component parts

* a concrete person in a concrete situation can be mathematically represented.

Force field analysis is used extensively for purposes of organisational and human resource development, to help indicate when driving and restraining forces are not in balance, so that change can occur.

Lewin's force field analysis technique can be used to help distinguish whether factors within a situation or organisation are `driving forces' for change or `restraining forces' that will work against desired changes. Examples of driving forces might be impulsions such as ambition, goals, needs or fears that drive a person towards or away from something. Restraining forces are viewed by Lewin as different in their nature, in that they act to oppose driving forces rather than comprise independent forces in themselves.

The interplay of these forces creates the stable routine of normal, regular activities, which are described by Lewin as "quasi-stationary processes". In day-to-day situations, the driving and restraining forces balance out and equalise to fluctuate around a state of equilibrium for an activity. Achieving change involves altering the forces that maintain this equilibrium. To bring about an increase in productivity, for example, changes in the forces currently keeping production at its existing quasi-stationary levels would be required, through taking one of two alternative routes:

* strengthening the driving forces--for example, paying more money for more productivity

* restraining inhibiting factors--for example, simplifying production processes.

Strengthening the drives would seem the most obvious route to take, but analysis would show that this could lead to the development of countervailing forces, such as employee concern about tiredness, or worry about new targets becoming a standard expectation. In contrast, reducing restraining forces--for example through investment in machinery or training to make the process easier--may be a less obvious, but more rewarding approach, bringing about change with less resistance or demoralisation.

Lewin identified two questions to ask when seeking to make changes within the framework of forcefield analysis.

1. Why does a process continue at its current level under the present circumstances?

2. What conditions would changes these circumstances?

For Lewin, `circumstances' has a very broad meaning, and covers social context and wider environment, as well as sub-groups, and communication barriers between groups. The position of each of these factors represents a group's structure and `ecological setting'. Together, the structure and setting will determine a range of possible changes that depend on, and can to some degree be controlled through, the pacing and interaction of forces across the entire field--that is, the force field.

Model of change--Unfreeze-change-refreeze

Lewin's change management model is linked to force field analysis. He considered that, to achieve change effectively, it is necessary to look at all the options for moving from the existing present to a desired future state, and then to evaluate the possibilities of each and decide on the best one, rather than just aiming for the desired goal and taking the straightest and easiest route to it.

Lewin's model encourages managers to beware of two kinds of forces of resistance deriving, firstly, from `social habit' or `custom'; and, secondly, from the creation of an `inner resistance' to change.

The two different kinds of forces of resistance are rooted in the interplay between a group as a whole and the individuals within it, and only driving forces that are strong enough to break the habits, challenge the interests or `unfreeze' the customs of the group will overcome the forces of resistance. As most members will want to stay within the behavioural norms of the group, individual resistance to change will increase as a person is induced to move further away from current group values.

In Lewin's view, this type of resistance can be lowered either by reducing the value the group attaches to something, or by fundamentally changing what the group values. He considered a complex, stepped process of unfreezing, changing and refreezing beliefs, attitudes and values to be required to achieve change, with the initial phase of unfreezing normally involving groups discussions in which individuals experience others' views, and begin to adapt their own.

Since Lewin's death, `Unfreeze-change-refreeze' has sometimes been applied more rigidly than he intended, for example through discarding an old structure, setting up a new one, and then `fixing' this into place. Such an inflexible course of action fits badly with more modern perspectives on change as a continuous and flowing process of evolution, and Lewin's change model is now often criticised for its linearity, especially from the perspective of more recent research on nonlinear, `chaotic' systems and complexity theory. The model was, however, process-oriented originally, and Lewin himself viewed change as a continuing process, recognising that extremely complex forces are at work in group and organisational dynamics.


What is now known as the T-Group (or `Training Group') approach was pioneered by Lewin when, in 1946, he was called in to try to develop better relations between Jewish and Black communities in Connecticut. Bringing such groups of people together was, Lewin found, a powerful way to expose areas of conflict, so that established behaviour patterns could `unfreeze' prior to potentially changing and `refreezing'. He called these learning groups T-Groups.

This training approach became particularly popular during the 1970s. Some interpreters of the method, however, have used it in a more confrontational way than Lewin may have intended.

Action research

Lewin's `action research' approach is linked to T-groups. Introduced during the 1940s, it was seen as an important innovation in research methods and was especially used in industry and education. Action research involves experimenting by making changes and simultaneously studying the results, in a cyclic process of planning, action and fact-gathering. Lewin's approach emphasised the power relationship between the researcher and those researched, and he sought to involve the latter, encouraging their participation in studying the effects of their own actions, identifying of their own biases, and working to transform relationships within their community.

`Action research' centred on the involvement of participants from the community under research and on the pursuit of separate but simultaneous processes of action and evaluation. Different variations of this approach have evolved since Lewin's day, and its validity as a scientific research method for psychology is often questioned. Its strengths, however, in offering groups or communities an involving, self-evaluative, collaborative and decision-making role are widely accepted.

In perspective

Lewin is well-recognised as a seminal figure in social psychology, though his early death obscured his central role in the development of the managerial human relations movement. In the United States and the United Kingdom, (especially through the work of the Tavistock Institute) much subsequent management thinking and research has been influenced by Lewin's approaches and ideas. These, following in the tradition of Mayo's 1920s and 1930s Hawthorne studies, underlie the whole current field of organisational development and change management.

Key works

Resolving social conflicts: selected papers on group dynamics
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948

Field theory in social science, Dorwin Cartwright (ed)
London: Tavistock Publications Ltd, 1952. (Reprinted 1963)

Group decision and social change In: Readings in social psychology,
by T. M. Newcomb and E. L. Hartley (eds)
New York: Holt, 1947.

Journal articles
Patterns of aggressive behaviour in experimentally created
`social climates', with R. Lippitt and R. White.
Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 10, 1939, pp. 271-99

Action research and minority problems,
Journal of Social Issues, vol. 2, 1946, p.65

Frontiers in group dynamics
Human Relations, Vol. 1, 1947, pp5-41
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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