In this fluid world, all organizations are affected by change. The extent to which an organization manages change often dictates whether that organization will thrive, or even survive. While deemed the “new normal” due to today’s global economy and technological advances, according to the 2008 IBM Global Making Change Work Study, organizational change has always been a constant, and models of organizational change have existed for decades. One of the cornerstone models for understanding organizational change is social scientist Kurt Lewin’s three-stage model developed in 1951: Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze.
Unfreeze represents the stage before the change occurs -- the point at which the status quo ends. Organizations determine the need for change and develop messaging that details why current ways will no longer work. Old customs and norms are replaced. As this happens, employees experience uncertainty about how changes will impact them. This uncertainty may lead to a fear of change that may, in turn, spur dissent.
During the Change stage, organizations incorporate new behaviors, and employee uncertainty eases. Communication and training are essential to help employees understand their roles in making change happen. As organizations foster this understanding, people start to buy in to the new ways that will support the organization’s new vision. Employees are most likely to accept change if they understand how the changes will benefit them. However, some people -- particularly those who benefit from the status quo -- may be adversely impacted by change, and it will take time for others to recognize the benefits.
Refreezing takes place after the change. This is the point when organizations establish the change as the standard. Those affected embrace the new ways of working. Moreover, reinforcement and measurement of behavior changes take place. Incentive systems are put into place to achieve desired behaviors. Performance appraisals, promotions and bonuses are based on desired performance and resulting outcomes. Organizations develop objective measures to gauge their efforts and form strategies for sustaining change into the future.
Lewin’s model is largely viewed as a top-down model, driven by management. Critics contend that the model ignores situations that may require bottom-up change that originates from non-management employees, as explained by Michael W. Durant in his article "Managing Organizational Change." These critics maintain that successfully leading change requires a strategy that goes beyond a linear, mechanistic set of events that are rigidly controlled. Yet it is this mechanistic approach that organizations typically embrace. Since the majority of organizational change projects ultimately fail, organizations may consider adopting change models that better facilitate two-way communication between organizational managers and employees, thus empowering employees to become active players in the change process.
- Mind Tools: Lewin’s Change Management Model -- Understanding the Three Stages of Change
- Credit Research Foundation; Managing Organizational Change; Michael W. Durant
- “SAM Advanced Management Journal”; Creating a Sustainable Approach to Change: Building Organizational Change Capacity; Anthony F. Buono, et al; 2010
Lisa Huddleston is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer with more than 15 years of experience in health-care public relations. She also served as an editor at Writer’s Digest Books, where she produced the annual “Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market” guide. Huddleston holds a Bachelor of Arts in communication from the University of Dayton.