Change theory & practice; Technical depth

In the Jan/Feb Calibration column (SaskBusiness Magazine) I wrote about how Diane Craig, CEO Ford Canada, advocated for the importance of a safe environment, stating that she “cannot fix a secret,” and therefore people must feel safe in admitting their mistakes. This month I am going to write in a more technical format in an effort to reveal the theory and psychology behind Craig’s statements.


(NOTE: though this is technical speak, and intended for organizational life – change is a constant for all of is as individuals – I hope that you find substance here for you personal life as well) The basic construct of change theory (Kurt Lewin 1947, last update 2011) can be distilled to three main stages: unfreeze, movement and refreeze. Lewin held the perspective that opposing forces supported the stability of human behaviour: driving and restraining. Restraining forces were eventually identified as the most important to uncover in creating change, as they also became resisting forces.

At the outset, we are well advised to involve all stakeholders in the change process – for as Change Consultant Daniel Lock points out, “People don’t resist what they create”.

Lewin suggested a methodology for analyzing change he called the ‘force field analysis’. Lock illustrates Lewin’s force field analysis in this way:

The unfreeze stage of Lewin’s change theory involves three key components: disconfirmation (loss of hope in status quo), induction of survival anxiety (acceptance of the disconfirmation as valid) and creation of psychological safety (wherein people do not feel at risk). Without psychological safety, people become defensive and resist change. Once an individual or organization (change target) has passed through the unfreeze stage, realizing their need for change, they must proceed into the movement stage. This is also a difficult stage, as people must wrestle with thoughts, processes, feelings, values, beliefs, and attitudes in learning something new. This stage is also known as cognitive redefinition, or as some current researchers call it, reframing. Reframing involves new understanding of language and interpretation, the expansion of knowledge and the introduction of new (or calibration of existing) measures.

Refreezing is the stage that surrenders the change target back to the stability of opposing forces of driving and restraining. A refreeze of the change target, in the newly-changed state, is important for sustainability of the change. Having stated that the change target must refreeze, it is important to note that for any person or organization to function optimally, they must be capable of ongoing adaptation. This implies that the change process cycles as often as needed to adapt.

Learning anxiety seems to be one of the most problematic areas that Lewin’s theory of change incurs. Edgar Schein suggests that this learning anxiety is a “…painful unlearning,” (Schein 1996) which threatens the identity of the change target through loss of felt competence. This is somewhat akin to a personal disintegration. Schein further suggests that this stage can and must be accomplished “without loss of ego identity [through] difficult relearning as one cognitively [attempts] to restructure one’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and attitudes.” (Schein 1996)

Having said this, I note that Schein also states that, “…all forms of learning and change start with some form of dissatisfaction or frustration generated by data that disconfirm our expectations or hopes.” (Schein 1996) There is no change without disconfirmation. Painful or otherwise,  it must be incurred. To unfreeze, with any hope of achieving real change, we must experience what Schein calls survival anxiety. We must connect disconfirming information that we receive to something we care about. This then becomes the impetus for change. However, while connecting disconfirmation to something we care about may create an appetite for change, it can also serve to heighten anxiety!

A significant component necessary to successfully navigate within Lewin’s change theory is psychological safety. This is the state wherein the change target does not feel at risk and is thereby enabled to accommodate new learning. Given that Lewin believed strongly that “involvement and commitment are inextricably linked,” (Schein 1996) the bond of trust between the change agent and the change target is of critical importance.

Leadership engagement and modeling appear to be critical throughout the three stages, for “…when organizational change was driven by the highest levels of the organization, necessary conditions such as…trusting environment, were created…” (Bezzubetz 2009). Leadership must provide the vision for the benefit that change will bring. “The essential leadership task [is]…to figure out how to engage [change target] in a way that makes the desired outcome important enough to each member to want to participate actively in an effort to make it happen.” (Levasseur 2009)

Several of the articles researched here alluded to the interplay of personal values; therefore, a values-based leadership perspective could be very impactful in achieving change. Values-based leadership practitioners and researchers advocate
that entropy (interchangeable with the impacts of a lack of psychological safety and vision) is reduced as people are engaged with respect to their values.

Okay, so that was the technical speak. The point of writing this is to quantify the leadership position that Diane Craig is speaking to in her simple language of, “I cannot fix a secret.” Ford Motor Company’s expected behaviours of “own working
together” and “emotional resilience” stand as brilliance in providing the psychological safety necessary for adaptation and change. INDIVIDUALLY as well as corporately. For the individual a secret may be translated as denial.