Lewin’s Change Theory: Why it Matters For Organizational Change
Updated: Nov 16
The behavior of change (how people accept, embrace, and perform it) is the core component of modern organizational change management. Kurt Lewin’s Model of Change was the first widely recognized model of change management.
While it was initially extremely popular, current service management thinking criticizes the model for being too abstract and simplistic to make a fundamental change in today’s organizations since the corporate landscape is so complex and dynamic. But, the three-step model of change still has its place today, and it provides some real, actionable guidance.
What Is Lewin’s Change Model?
Kurt Lewin, a leader in change management, was a German-American social psychologist who practiced in the early 20th century. Lewin was one of the first people to research organizational development and group dynamics, and he developed his three-stage model to evaluate two areas:
The change process of corporate environments
How the status-quo affects organizational changes
He proposed that the behavior of an individual in response to changes is a function of group behavior. Interactions and forces affecting the group structure jeopardize the individual’s behavior and capacity to change. Because of this, the group environment must be a consideration in the organizational change process.
Lewin’s three-stage model describes the status-quo as the present situation, but the process to implement a proposed change should continue to evolve. To understand group and individual behavior, we must evaluate the entire organizational environment, known as field theory, which is used to develop most change models, including this one.
The Three Stages of Change
Let’s look at the three stages of Lewin’s model and how it describes the nature of change, how to implement it, and the common challenges that accompany it.
During the first stage, Lewin identifies human behavior (as it pertains to change) as a “quasi-stationary equilibrium state.” You can think of this state as a mindset, a physical and mental capacity that can almost get reached, but it initially sits where the mind can evolve without attaining that capacity.
Lewin also argues that change follows resistance, and the group forces prevent individual people from embracing the change. Because of this, it’s necessary to agitate that equilibrium state to instigate a behavior pattern more open to change. He suggests an emotional stir-up might cause a disturbance to the group dynamics and force a feeling of self-righteousness among individual members. But, there are a variety of other ways to shake up the current status quo, and you’ll need to consider whether or not an individual, group, or company-wide change is a necessary adjustment.
Actions in the first “unfreeze” stage can include things like:
Determining what aspects need to change. You can do this by surveying your company to gain a better understanding of why (and if) changes are necessary.
Ensuring support from the C-suite and management. To achieve support, you’ll want to enlist the help of stakeholders and frame your issue in a way that will create a positive impact company-wide.
Creating a need for change. You can create this need by marketing a compelling message stating why change is a good thing and communicate about the change using a long-term vision.
Once the status-quo has been “unfrozen,” it’s time to start implementing the changes. Organizational change is known for being complex, so executing a planned-out change might not have the results you predicted. Therefore, it’s essential to prepare various change options, from planned change processes to trial-and-error ones. With each change attempt, it’s necessary to look at what worked, what didn’t, and which parts of the process were resistant to change.
There are two important drivers of a successful and effective organizational change process. These are:
Information flow, which refers to sharing information at multiple levels of the company’s hierarchy to make a variety of expertise and skills available and coordinate problem-solving company-wide.
Leadership which you can define as the influence that certain people have in the group to achieve a common goal. Well-planned organizational change processes require a defined vision and motivation from the leadership.
An iterative approach is also a necessity when it comes to sustaining changes. According to Lewin, changes left without reinforcement are likely to be short-lived and, therefore, will fail to meet the organization’s objectives.
In this stage, companies should:
Communicate clearly throughout the organization about the planned changes, their benefits, and who will get affected. Answer any questions the people involved may have and clarify any misunderstandings.
Empower and promote actions that inspire change. Encourage your employees to get involved with the changes, and support your managers by providing daily and weekly direction.
Involve everyone as much as you can. Small, easy wins can turn into larger ones quickly, and working with a larger number of people can help you with your stakeholders.
The final step is about sustaining the changes you implemented. The goal for everyone involved is to consider this as the new status quo so that they no longer resist the forces of change. Without taking appropriate steps to sustain and reinforce the new changes, the previous behaviors tend to reassert themselves. Organizations should consider implementing both formal and informal mechanisms to implement and “freeze” new changes. Taking those steps to counter the effects of resistance to the changes can help them become the new normal over time.
During the refreeze phase, companies should:
Tie new changes into the company culture by identifying the change supports and barriers.
Promote and develop practices to sustain the changes over the long term, like:
Ensuring that leadership and management get support from stakeholders and employees.
Establishing processes for people to give their feedback.
Offer training and support for both the short and long-term, and promote both informal and formal methods for sustaining the changes.
What is the Advantage of Using Lewin’s Change for Organizational Change?
Lewin’s Change Management three-step model is a great choice for organizational change because it is easy to understand and put into practice throughout organizations. However, unlike other commonly used methods, it only requires these three simple steps and doesn’t take long to execute.
Even better is that Lewin’s Change Management theory runs parallel to other efficient methods that don’t directly impact the business’s continuity. Furthermore, this means that you can easily implement this or make changes without the risk of uprooting your company.
The Disadvantages of Using Lewin’s Change Method
This sound theory often has some generous payouts. It does come with some disadvantages. Changes in a workplace can cause a lot of discomfort for employees. They will often become worried about their performance. Change within a company is often a good thing. However, it carries with it some doubt or even discouragement with staff.
The other huge disadvantage happens most commonly in the refreezing stage. The refreezing stage can take the longest to see the results of the recent implementations. If changes continue to happen before the first is settled, it can cause even more disruption.
Why Your Organization Should use Lewin’s Change Theory
Because this theory seems simple, it is a favorite for those organizations that seem to be struggling to uncover bad habits or other unseen problems. This simple yet effective theory offers a fresh perspective. Here are some reasons why your organization should be using.
It’s easy to use.
Depending on the nature of the organization, there can often be a lot of moving parts. Keeping massive changes simple can be a great help to many who feel overwhelmed by the process. Keeping it simple also supports employee transition from start to finish.
Furthermore, this simple system makes it easy for you to share these changes with investors and stakeholders at any time. Sharing this information can help gain approval or feedback in order to speed up the process during these implementations.
Simple changes also make for easy hiring processes and onboarding. New employees and old will both benefit from easy-to-understand and implement training. Furthermore, saving you a few bucks.
Encourages Lasting Change
When something is easy to use, it is often easy to keep in use. And while changes don’t have to be long term, using Lewin’s Change Theory keeps it simple and can help support those changes that are long term.
Furthermore, companies need to be able to figure out what needs to be changed. Sometimes this can take a few tries. Because businesses move quickly in their world, if an organization gets an implementation wrong, it can cause a ripple in the company.
However, Lewin’s theory offers the Unfreeze state that gives companies a transition period before the change becomes permanent. That cushion time offers organizational leaders to reflect on the outcome of the current changes that have been made.