Managing Organizational Change: Lewin & Schein
By Amelia Young | April 7, 2020
In today’s fast-paced, ever-evolving world of business, change is inevitable, and the most successful organizations are adept at managing change through the development of effective change strategies. However, “most global leaders believe managing organization change is a serious challenge [yet a significant] part of corporate life” (Moran, Abramson, Moran, 2014, p. 282).
Organizational change requires that group members adapt their behaviors to meet changes in the environment. Firms able to adapt often thrive while those that resist change struggle to remain competitive. Transformational leaders play an important role in effecting organizational change as this leadership style is “a process where ‘leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation’” (Mindtools, n.d., p. 1). Studies have shown that transformational leaders “coordinate with employees, share their knowledge, [and provide] opportunity in making decisions in [sic] organizational level” (Hussain et al., 2018, p. 126). Global leaders first must “accept that change is a way of life [and that organizations] are changing all of the time” (Moran et al., 2014, p. 283). For leaders to effectively facilitate and lead organizational change, they must be unbiased and open-minded, possess strong strategic and planning skills, be capable team builders, and be strong communicators.
Global leaders must have a purpose and vision of the change, commit to and communicate that vision, create rewards to acknowledge when employees embrace and are empowered by the change, and then model the behaviors and attitude they expect (Moran et al., 2014). Motivating employees toward excellence can be particularly complex and challenging for global leaders, but is never-the-less, a task they must undertake if they are to successfully lead their organizations.
All leaders should understand that developing a strong change strategy is a critical factor in successful change. An action plan is necessary for each phase of the change process. Global leaders working in a multicultural environment must have a broad understanding of the “motivations for resistance, differences in employee/management perceptions, and the importance of ongoing communication” (Moran et al., 2014, p. 283) within their workforce and must include cultural considerations when developing the plan.
One of the most relevant change management models in history is Lewin’s Three-Stage Model of Change, which was developed by physicist and well known social scientist Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. Lewin’s change model has been used widely as the theoretical foundation for modern change models, including Edgar Schein’s planned change theory. Schein, who is a respected expert in the field of organizational culture, says that “‘in most organizational change efforts, it is much easier to draw on the strengths of the culture than to overcome the constraints by changing the culture’” (as cited in Vliet, n.d., p. 1). MNE leaders working in China, or any multicultural environment, who understand this are better able to develop change strategies because they design those strategies from the perspective of the culture in which they operate.
Lewin’s model “requires prior learning to be rejected and replaced” (Wirth, 2004, p. 1). Schein’s theory “is a slightly more detailed version of Lewin’s (1952) change management model, as it is one of the most widely accepted and supported by empirical evidence” (Pennsylvania State University, 2020, p. 3).
Schein’s theory is based on Lewin’s change model, so organizational leaders must understand the three-stages: Unfreezing, changing, and refreezing. Lewin’s model can be “described using the analogy of changing the shape of a block of ice. To change a solid square block of ice to a cone, you have to first melt the square block, reshape the water and then refreeze it to form the new solid shape” (Worsley, Mann, Olsen, & Mason-Whitehead, 2013, p. 130). Lewin’s model represents a simple yet practical model for understanding the process of organizational change.
Schein’s (1999) theory considers that “whether at the individual or group level, [change is a] profound psychological dynamic process [involving] painful unlearning [and] difficult relearning as one cognitively attempt[s] to restructure one’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and attitudes” (p. 59). For this reason, MNE leaders must carefully consider their change strategies from the cultural perspective of their workforce.
Unfreezing – This first stage of change management involves motivating group members to recognize the need for change. Three mechanisms must be addressed, including disconfirmation, creating discomfort, and creating psychological safety (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
Disconfirmation “is the process of showing organizational members that their current behaviors or attitudes are incorrect and that continuing to behave in those ways will not only harm the organization but themselves as well” (Pennsylvania State University, 2020, p. 3). This step makes employees aware that existing behaviors and attitudes are no longer acceptable.
The next mechanism requires leaders to motivate group members to want to change their behavior by creating discomfort, that is, a level of anxiety or guilt. The first mechanism, disconfirmation, merely helps group members see that existing responses are wrong, but not that they need to change. These primary two mechanisms raise awareness among group members that a problem exists in the organization that requires changing if the company and its employees are going to succeed (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
The last mechanism in the unfreeze stage is creating psychological safety. Although this is a step sometimes overlooked, it is crucial that leaders complete this final step. Psychological safety requires leaders to present to group members positive solutions to existing problems and show members that the new behaviors and attitudes will eliminate their discomfort. Leaders must offer a positive and achievable end goal that is more appealing to group members than the current level of pain (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
For change to be possible, leaders must complete all three mechanisms involved in stage 1, the unfreeze stage of organizational change. Most people have a natural tendency to resist change, and unless they feel discomfort will not be motivated to change. Transparent communication is critical. Employees have to understand the proposed change, why it is needed, and how the change will benefit them. If the workforce is not motivated to change, the leader will struggle to create the change successfully. Motivating the employees can be particularly challenging for global leaders working with multicultural workforces. The idea is that the more we know about a change, and the more we feel it is necessary and urgent, the more motivated we are to accept the change. It is also essential to understand that there is a fine line between acceptable levels of discomfort and too much. If a leader creates too much distress, group members will leave (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
Changing – At this point, members of the organization should be sufficiently motivated and ready to alter their behaviors and attitudes to embrace the desired change. There are two mechanisms required to move forward toward change, including identification, which involves social learning, and scanning the environment (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
Identification requires members to work with a change agent to help integrate the new attitudes and behaviors. The change agent should be a respected member of the organization and should possess both responsibility and authority (Hussain et al., 2018). At this stage in the change process, leaders identify the knowledge change agents need to share, which would include “information, task relevant ideas and suggestions between different levels of management” (p. 125).
Successful implementation of organizational change requires leaders to scan the environment. Knowing what information is being distributed from areas beyond the organization’s official communication is a crucial step sometimes overlooked by leaders. Leaders must recognize that communication from organization leaders is not the only source of information available to group members. Other sources of information can include peers, other group members, supervisors, family, and friends, or any number of different sources. When members seek additional information or opinions from sources other than the organization’s leader, they may hear contradicting information. For example, a veteran employee may not have been adequately motivated, therefore not on board with the change. This person may express discontent with the organizational change and be convincing that change is not necessary. The official message from the organization is only one source of information. Ensuring that stage one, the unfreezing stage, has been successful is vital. If it has not, leaders should go back and work again to create motivation for the change, as it will be “easier to control the message if everyone sees the need for change in the first place” (Pennsylvania State University, 2020, p. 4). If leaders are not successful in adequately motivating group members toward the change, resistance to their desired change is likely.
Refreezing – The refreezing stage is the point where the new desired behavior and attitudes are solidified and become the new norm. The refreezing step involves two mechanisms; fit to self-concept and whether significant others will accept and confirm the changes (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
Fit to self-concept relates to testing the change to be sure the new behavior and attitudes fit individuals. Testing should be conducted in a safe environment, which means that there should be no negative consequences for failure and that the person continues to be supported. MNE leaders must ensure that the behaviors and attitudes become the new standard and norm within the group. There are times when individuals accept and display changed behaviors and beliefs, but over time regress to the old norm. To minimize the risk of this regression, leaders must ensure the environment remains positive and supportive (Pennsylvania State University, 2020).
The last phase of the refreezing stage is about ensuring that significant others within the company will accept the new behaviors and attitudes. The organization itself must provide support by ensuring the necessary resources are available, which can include access to technology or people. For example, if a group member requires access to a senior-level leader but that access is blocked, the new behavior and attitude will not stick.
The Schein theory and Lewin’s model of change are not the only models or methods available related to organizational change, but these are tried and true models that create an excellent foundation for MNE leaders to address organizational change from a multicultural perspective.
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