Kurt Lewin

Change Management and Group Dynamics Thinker

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Kurt Lewin: Change management and group dynamics thinker
Image of Kurt Lewin used with permission from The Kurt Lewin Instituut

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.

Biography

Life and career

Kurt Lewin was born in Germany in 1890. In 1909 he entered the University of Freiberg to study medicine but transferred to Munich to study Biology. Around this time, he became involved in the socialist movement. His doctorate was undertaken at the University of Berlin, where he developed an interest in the philosophy of science and encountered Gestalt psychology. He got his PHD in 1916 while serving in the German Army. By 1921 he was Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Berlin University, and starting to make a name for himself as a researcher, writer and teacher.

He relocated to the United States in 1933 to escape from the worsening political position in Germany. He taught at Cornell and then at University of Iowa, becoming Professor of Child Psychology at the latter's Child Research Station in 1935. In 1944, with Douglas McGregor and others, Lewin founded the Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (It is now based at the University of Michigan). At the same time, Lewin was also engaged in a project for the American Jewish Congress in New York – the Commission of Community Interrelations. It was out of some of this work in 1946 with community leaders and group facilitators that the notion of ‘T’ groups emerged. He and his associates were able to get funding from the Office of Naval Research to set up the National Training Laboratories in 1947 in Bethel, Maine. However, Lewin died of a heart attack in 1947 before the Laboratories were established.

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.

Force field theory

Lewin's force field theory viewed people's activity as affected by forces in their surrounding environment, or field. Lewin defines a field as the totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent.

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 theory 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 impulses 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 comprising 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 force field analysis:

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

2. What conditions would change 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.

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.

Kurt Lewin had an impact on a generation of researchers and thinkers concerned with group dynamics. In particular, two key ideas which emerged out of field theory, it is argued are crucial to an appreciation of group processes; they are interdependence of fate and task interdependence.

Interdependence of fate: It is not similarity or dissimilarity of individuals that constitutes a group, but rather interdependence of fate. Any normal group, and certainly any developed and organised one contains and should contain individuals of very different character. What is more, a person who has learned to see how much his own fate depends upon the fate of his entire group will be ready and even eager to take over a fair share of responsibility for its welfare.

Task interdependence: Interdependence of fate can be a fairly weak form of interdependence in many groups, argued Lewin. A more significant factor is where there is interdependence in the goals of group members. In other words, if the group’s task is such that members of the group are dependent on each other for achievement, then a powerful dynamic is created.

Kurt Lewin had looked to the nature of group task in an attempt to understand the uniformity of some groups’ behaviour. He remained unconvinced of the explanatory power of individual motivational concepts such as those provided by psychoanalytical theory or frustration-aggression theory. He was able to argue that people may come to a group with very different dispositions, but if they share a common objective, they are likely to act together to achieve it. This links back to the field theory. Interdependence (of fate and task) also results in the group being a ‘dynamic whole’. This means that a change in one member or subgroups impacts upon others.

Three step change management model: Unfreeze-change-refreeze

Lewin's change management model is linked to force field theory. 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 be aware 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 group 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.

T-groups

What is now known as the T-Group (or Training Group) approach was pioneered by Lewin along with his colleagues and associates from the Center of Group Dynamics. They designed and implemented a two-week programme that looked to encourage group discussion and decision-making, and where participants (including staff) could treat each other as peers, using 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, may 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 in their community or organisation.

Action research centres 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 is sometimes 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 of Human Relations), 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.

One of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century, Kurt Lewin continues to exercise significant influence on contemporary psychological theory, research and practice. Today's scholars frequently cite his thinking and research.

Further reading

Content you can read on this website now

Key works by Kurt Lewin

Books and book chapters

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

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

Field theory in social science. Cartwright, D. ed. London, Tavistock Publications Ltd, 1952

A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935

Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1936

Journal articles

Frontiers in group dynamics. Human Relations, 1 (1), 1947, pp.5-41

Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2 (4) 1946, pp.34-46

Patterns of aggressive behaviour in experimentally created 'social climates'. With R. Lippitt and R. White. Journal of Social Psychology, 10 (1) 1939, pp.71-99

Key works by others

Books

Gold, M., ed. The complete social scientist: a Kurt Lewin reader. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1999

Cartwright, D., ed. Field theory in social science. London: Tavistock Publications, 1952 (reprinted 1963)

Marrow, A. The practical theorist: the life and work of Kurt Lewin. New York: Basic Books, 1969

Centre for Strategic Business Studies. Managing change. Winchester, CSBS, 1998

De Mascia, S. Project psychology: using psychological models and techniques to create a successful project. Farnham, Gower, 2012

Journal articles

Cummings, S., Bridgman, T. and Brown, K. Unfreezing change as three steps: rethinking Kurt Lewin's legacy for change management. Human Relations, 68 (11) 2015 pp.1-29. DOI: 10.1177/0018726715577707
Published online on 30 September 2015 (and link checked 28 June 2017) at
http://hum.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/24/0018726715577707.full.pdf+html

Cooke, B. The Kurt Lewin - Goodwin Watson FBI/CIA files: a 60th anniversary there-and-then of the here-and-now. Human Relations, 60 (3) 2007, pp.435-462

Burnes, B. Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change: a re-appraisal. Journal of Management Studies, 41 (6) 2004, pp.977-1002

Sonenschein, S. We're changing - or are we? Untangling the role of progressive, regressive and stability narratives during strategic change implementation. Academy of Management Journal, 53 (3) 2010, pp.477-512

Andre, J. Plan do stabilise repeat: how to lead change successfully. Management Services, 57 (1) 2013, pp.42-47

Cooke, B. Writing the left out of management theory: the historiography of the management of change. Organization, 6 (1) 1999, pp.81-105

Likert, R. Kurt Lewin: a pioneer in human relations research. Human Relations, 1 (2) 1947, pp.131-140

Schein, E. Kurt Lewin's change theory in the field and in the classroom: notes toward a model of managed learning. Systems Practice, 1995.

Liden, R. and Antonakis, J. Considering context in psychological leadership research. Human Relations 62 (11) 2009, pp.1587-1605.

Websites

Kurt Lewin Institute
http://www.kurtlewininstituut.nl

Research Center for Group Dynamics, University of Michigan
http://www.rcgd.isr.umich.edu/

Tavistock Institute website
http://www.tavinstitute.org

Tavistock Institute of Human Relations: Group Relations website
http://www.grouprelations.com/index.php

Infed: Information on the life and works on Kurt Lewin
http://infed.org/mobi/kurt-lewin-groups-experiential-learning-and-action-research/

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