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Change Management – Leading Thinking edgar schein on kurt lewin’s work on organisational change and learning has influenced many thinkers in the field of change management. Edgar Schein is no exception


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Change Management – Leading Thinking
edgar schein on kurt lewin
Kurt Lewin’s work on organisational change and learning has influenced many thinkers in the field of change management. Edgar Schein is no exception. In a 1995 working paper, Schein explains how Lewin has influenced his work and proposes a refined version of Lewin’s basic change model of unfreezing, changing and refreezing.1

Lewin believed that in order for development of any kind to take place, the human psyche had to undergo a three-stage process; unfreeze, change, and refreeze. He recognised that human change was a dynamic psychological process involving often painful unlearning, without damage to the ego, and then difficult relearning as the individual attempts to reconstruct thoughts and attitudes.


Schein elaborates upon Lewin’s theory by stating that the stability of human behaviour is based on an equilibrium, supported by a ‘force-field’ of driving and restraining forces. For change to take place, this forcefield needs to be altered, or unfrozen.
The unfreezing stage refers to the necessity for the human psyche to remove psychological defences before it can accept change, or development. Simply producing a driving force towards development usually provokes an immediate and opposite reaction. Once the psyche has unfrozen, change can occur, which then needs to be refrozen in order to remain a stable part of development.

Schein has built on Lewin’s work to develop a model of change based around seven key stages. We discuss these below:



Stage 1 – Disconfirmation

All forms of learning or development begin with some form of dissatisfaction brought about by information, which disconfirms our existing expectations. Examples of this include witnessing negative data or factors such as falling profits or high staff turnover. This leads to a ‘survival anxiety’, the feeling that we must develop in order to survive.



Stage 2 – Survival Anxiety

To feel this anxiety, we have to accept the information as valid, but this can be blocked by a ‘learning anxiety’, a feeling that entering a developmental process is tantamount to admitting that something is wrong, and we will lose our effectiveness and self-esteem.



Stage 3 – Overcoming the learning anxiety

This learning anxiety needs to be overcome, otherwise the disconfirming information will be ignored, and no development will take place. Therefore, the creation of a psychological safety net is necessary to balance the threat of the information, allowing the survival anxiety to kick in. This safety net may be in the form of group working, making sure that in development, mistakes are not discouraged, generally making the development process as painless as possible.


Stage 4 – Cognitive Redefinition
This is a process whereby in order to learn something new, and to get around existing prejudices, the new concepts are redefined, enlarged and finally the standards are changed so that we are able to understand through this redefinition process.
Stage 5 – Imitation and positive or defensive identification with a role model
Cognitive redefinition can only take place when we have been unfrozen, or motivated to develop, and the next stage in the process is the actual learning or development. One way that this can happen is through the identification of a role model, and the imitation of their processes. Mentoring is a good example of this.

Stage 6 – Scanning

A more creative method of development is scanning, in which we can expose ourselves to a variety of new information and select a solution to the development problem. However, this is a more difficult process, and for this to occur, role models must be absent, otherwise developers tend to choose the easiest path.



Stage 7 – Refreezing

For development to remain stable, it must be refrozen. Scanning is easier to refreeze than imitation, because it is more likely to have been tailored to the developer. In a group situation, it is best to develop the whole group so that they will develop norms to support the refreezing process.


In order to ensure that change occurs properly, and the refreezing stage takes place, it is important to create the right environment, in psychological terms. Facilitators need to be aware of the need to support and encourage this process so that the changes occurring are second order change, i.e. lasting change, rather than temporary or first order change.

1 Edgar Schein, Kurt Lewin’s Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes Toward a Model of Managed Learning, an invited paper for Systems Practice Journal, March 1995.



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