The work of Kurt Lewin dominated the theory and pattern of alteration direction for over 40 old ages. However. in the past 20 old ages. Lewin’s attack to alter. peculiarly the 3-Step theoretical account. has attracted major unfavorable judgments. The cardinal 1s are that his work: false organisations operate in a stable province ; was merely suited for small-scale alteration undertakings ; ignored organisational power and political relations ; and was top-down and management-driven. This article seeks to re-appraise Lewin’s work and dispute the cogency of these positions. It begins by depicting Lewin’s background and beliefs. particularly his committedness to deciding societal con?ict.

The article so moves on to analyze the chief elements of his Planned attack to alter: Field Theory ; Group Dynamics ; Action Research ; and the 3-Step theoretical account. This is followed by a brief sum-up of the major developments in the ?eld of organisational alteration since Lewin’s decease which. in bend. leads to an scrutiny of the chief unfavorable judgments levelled at Lewin’s work. The article concludes by reasoning that instead than being outdated or excess. Lewin’s attack is still relevant to the modern universe.


Freud the clinician and Lewin the experimentalist – these are the two work forces whose names will stand out before all others in the history of our psychological epoch. The above citation is taken from Edward C Tolman’s memorial reference for Kurt Lewin delivered at the 1947 Convention of the American Psychological Association ( quoted in Marrow. 1969. p. nine ) . To many people today it will look unusual that Lewin should hold been given equal position with Freud. Some 50 old ages after his decease. Lewin is now chiefly remembered as the conceiver of the 3-Step theoretical account of alteration

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Address for reissues: Bernard Burnes. Manchester School of Management. UMIST. Manchester M60 1QD. UK ( [ email protected ]) . dismissed as out-of-date ( Burnes. 2000 ; Dawson. 1994 ; Dent and Goldberg. 1999 ; Hatch. 1997 ; Kanter et Al. . 1992 ; Marshak. 1993 ) . Yet. as this article will reason. his part to our apprehension of single and group behavior and the function these play in organisations and society was tremendous and is still relevant. In today’s turbulent and altering universe. one might anticipate Lewin’s open uping work on alteration to be seized upon with gratitude. particularly given the high failure rate of many alteration programmes ( Huczynski and Buchanan. 2001 ; Kearney. 1989 ; Kotter. 1996 ; Stickland. 1998 ; Waclawski. 2002 ; Wastell et Al. . 1994 ; Watcher. 1993 ; Whyte and Watcher. 1992 ; Zairi et Al. . 1994 ) .

Unfortunately. his committedness to widening democratic values in society and his work on Field Theory. Group Dynamics and Action Research which. together with his 3-Step theoretical account. formed an inter-linked. elaborate and robust attack to Planned alteration. have received less and less attending ( Ash. 1992 ; Bargal et Al. . 1992 ; Cooke. 1999 ) . Indeed. from the 1980s. even Lewin’s work on alteration was progressively criticized as relevant merely to small-scale alterations in stable conditions. and for disregarding issues such as organisational political relations and con?ict. In its topographic point. authors sought to advance a position of alteration as being changeless. and as a political procedure within organisations ( Dawson. 1994 ; Pettigrew et Al. . 1992 ; Wilson. 1992 ) .

The intent of this article is to re-appraise Lewin and his work. . The article begins by depicting Lewin’s background. particularly the beginnings of his committedness to deciding societal con?ict. It so moves on to analyze the chief elements of his Planned attack to alter. This is followed by a description of developments in the ?eld of organisational alteration since Lewin’s decease. and an rating of the unfavorable judgments levelled against his work. The article concludes by reasoning that instead than being outdated. Lewin’s Planned attack is still really relevant to the demands of the modern universe.


Few societal scientists can hold received the degree of congratulations and esteem that has been heaped upon Kurt Lewin ( Ash. 1992 ; Bargal et Al. . 1992 ; Dent and Goldberg. 1999 ; Dickens and Watkins. 1999 ; Tobach. 1994 ) . As Edgar Schein ( 1988. p. 239 ) enthusiastically commented:

There is small inquiry that the rational male parent of modern-day theories of applied behavioral scientific discipline. action research and planned alteration is Kurt Lewin. His seminal work on leading manner and the experiments on planned alteration which took topographic point in World War II in an attempt to alter consumer behavior launched a whole coevals of research in group kineticss and the execution of alteration plans. 978 B. Burnes

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004For most of his life. Lewin’s chief preoccupation was the declaration of societal con- ?ict and. in peculiar. the jobs of minority or disadvantaged groups. Underpining this preoccupation was a strong belief that merely the pervasion of democratic values into all aspects of society could forestall the worst extremes of societal con?ict. As his married woman wrote in the Preface to a volume of his gathered work published after his decease:

Kurt Lewin was so invariably and preponderantly preoccupied with the undertaking of progressing the conceptual representation of the social-psychological universe. and at the same clip he was so ?lled with the pressing desire to utilize his theoretical penetration for the edifice of a better universe. that it is dif?cult to make up one’s mind which of these two beginnings of motive ?owed with greater energy or energy. ( Lewin. 1948b )

To a big extent. his involvements and beliefs stemmed from his background as a German Jew. Lewin was born in 1890 and. for a Jew turning up in Germany. at this clip. of?cially-approved antisemitism was a fact of life. Few Hebrews could anticipate to accomplish a responsible station in the civil service or universities. Despite this. Lewin was awarded a doctor’s degree at the University of Berlin in 1916 and went on to learn at that place. Though he was ne’er awarded tenured position. Lewin achieved a turning international repute in the 1920s as a leader in his ?eld ( Lewin. 1992 ) . However. with the rise of the Nazi Party. Lewin recognized that the place of Jews in Germany was progressively threatened. The election of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 was the ?nal straw for him ; he resigned from the University and moved to America ( Marrow. 1969 ) .

In America. Lewin found a occupation ?rst as a ‘refugee scholar’ at Cornell University and so. from 1935 to 1945. at the University of Iowa. Here he was to ship on an ambitious programme of research which covered subjects such as child-parent dealingss. con?ict in matrimony. manners of leading. worker motive and public presentation. con?ict in industry. group problem-solving. communicating and attitude alteration. racism. antisemitism. anti-racism. favoritism and bias. integration-segregation. peace. war and poorness ( Bargal et al. . 1992 ; Cartwright. 1952 ; Lewin. 1948a ) . As Cooke ( 1999 ) notes. given the prevalence of racism and anti-Semitism in America at the clip. much of this work. particularly his progressively public protagonism in support of deprived groups. set Lewin on the political left.

During the old ages of the Second World War. Lewin did much work for the American war attempt. This included surveies of the morale of front-line military personnels and psychological warfare. and his celebrated survey aimed at carrying American homemakers to purchase cheaper cuts of meat ( Lewin. 1943a ; Marrow. 1969 ) . He was besides much in demand as a talker on minority and inter-group dealingss Kurt Lewin 979

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004 ( Smith. 2001 ) . These activities chimed with one of his cardinal preoccupations. which was how Germany’s autocratic and racist civilization could be replaced with one imbued with democratic values. He saw democracy. and the spread of democratic values throughout society. as the cardinal bastion against dictatorship and absolutism. That he viewed the constitution of democracy as a major undertaking. and avoided simplistic and structural formulas. can be gleaned from the following infusions from his article on ‘The particular instance of Germany’ ( Lewin. 1943b ) :

Nazi civilization. . . is profoundly frozen. peculiarly in the young person on whom the. . . future depends. It is a civilization which is centred about power as the supreme value and which denounces justness and equality. . . ( p. 43 ) To be stable. a cultural alteration has to perforate all facets of a nation’s life. The alteration must. in short. be a alteration in the ‘cultural ambiance. ’ non simply a alteration of a individual point. ( p. 46 )

Change in civilization requires the alteration of leading signifiers in every walk of life. At the start. peculiarly of import is leading in those societal countries which are cardinal from the point of position of power. ( p. 55 )

With the terminal of the War. Lewin established the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The purpose of the Center was to look into all facets of group behavior. particularly how it could be changed. At the same clip. he was besides main designer of the Commission on Community Interrelations ( CCI ) . Founded and funded by the American Jewish Congress. its purpose was the obliteration of favoritism against all minority groups. As Lewin wrote at the clip. ‘We Jews will hold to ?ght for ourselves and we will make so strongly and with good scruples. We besides know that the ?ght of the Jews is portion of the ?ght of all minorities for democratic equality of rights and chances. . . ’ ( quoted in Marrow. 1969. p. 175 ) . In prosecuting this aim. Lewin believed that his work on Group Dynamics and Action Research would supply the key tools for the CCI.

Lewin was besides in?uential in set uping the Tavistock Institute in the UK and its Journal. Human Relations ( Jaques. 1998 ; Marrow. 1969 ) . In add-on. in 1946. the Connecticut State Inter-Racial Commission asked Lewin to assist develop leaders and conduct research on the most effectual agencies of battling racial and spiritual bias in communities. This led to the development of sensitiveness preparation and the creative activity. in 1947. of the now celebrated National Training Laboratories. However. his immense work load took its toll on his wellness. and on 11 February 1947 he died of a bosom onslaught ( Lewin. 1992 ) .

980 B. Burnes
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004LEWIN’S WORK

Lewin was a human-centered who believed that merely by deciding societal con?ict. whether it be spiritual. racial. matrimonial or industrial. could the human status be improved. Lewin believed that the key to deciding societal con?ict was to ease acquisition and so enable persons to understand and reconstitute their perceptual experiences of the universe around them. In this he was much in?uenced by the Gestalt psychologists he had worked with in Berlin ( Smith. 2001 ) . A consolidative subject of much of his work is the position that ‘ . . . the group to which an single belongs is the land for his perceptual experiences. his feelings and his actions’ ( Allport. 1948. p. seven ) .

Though Field Theory. Group Dynamics. Action Research and the 3-Step theoretical account of alteration are frequently treated as separate subjects of his work. Lewin saw them as a uni?ed whole with each component back uping and reenforcing the others and all of them necessary to understand and convey approximately Planned alteration. whether it be at the degree of the person. group. organisation or even society ( Bargal and Bar. 1992 ; Kippenberger. 1998a. 1998b ; Smith. 2001 ) . As Allport ( 1948. p. nine ) provinces: ‘All of his constructs. whatever root-metaphor they employ. consist a individual wellintegrated system’ . This can be seen from analyzing these four facets of his work in bend.

Field Theory

This is an attack to understanding group behavior by seeking to map out the entirety and complexness of the ?eld in which the behavior takes topographic point ( Back. 1992 ) . Lewin maintained that to understand any state of affairs it was necessary that: ‘One should see the present state of affairs – the position quo – as being maintained by certain conditions or forces’ ( Lewin. 1943a. p. 172 ) . Lewin ( 1947b ) postulated that group behavior is an intricate set of symbolic interactions and forces that non merely affect group constructions. but besides modify single behavior. Therefore. single behavior is a map of the group environment or ‘?eld’ . as he termed it. Consequently. any alterations in behaviour root from alterations. be they little or big. in the forces within the ?eld ( Lewin. 1947a ) .

Lewin de?ned a ?eld as ‘a entirety of coexisting facts which are conceived of as reciprocally mutualist. . . ’ ( Lewin. 1946. p. 240 ) . Lewin believed that a ?eld was in a uninterrupted province of version and that ‘Change and stability are comparative constructs ; group life is ne’er without alteration. simply differences in the sum and type of alteration exist’ ( Lewin. 1947a. p. 199 ) . This is why Lewin used the term ‘quasi-stationary equilibrium’ to bespeak that whilst there might be a beat and form to the behavior and procedures of a group. these tended to ?uctuate invariably owing to alterations in the forces or fortunes that impinge on the group.

Lewin’s position was that if one could place. secret plan and set up the authority of these forces. so it would be possible non merely to understand why persons. Kurt Lewin 981 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004groups and organisations act as they do. but besides what forces would necessitate to be diminished or strengthened in order to convey about alteration. In the chief. Lewin saw behavioral alteration as a slow procedure ; nevertheless. he did acknowledge that under certain fortunes. such as a personal. organisational or social crisis. the assorted forces in the ?eld can switch rapidly and radically. In such state of affairss. established modus operandis and behaviours interrupt down and the position quo is no longer feasible ; new forms of activity can quickly emerge and a new equilibrium ( or quasistationary equilibrium ) is formed ( Kippenberger. 1998a ; Lewin. 1947a ) . Despite its obvious value as a vehicle for understanding and altering group behavior. with Lewin’s decease. the general involvement in Field Theory waned ( Back. 1992 ; Gold. 1992 ; Hendry. 1996 ) .

However. in recent old ages. with the work of Argyris ( 1990 ) and Hirschhorn ( 1988 ) on apprehension and get the better ofing opposition to alter. Lewin’s work on Field Theory has one time once more begun to pull involvement. Harmonizing to Hendry ( 1996 ) . even critics of Lewin’s work have drawn on Field Theory to develop their ain theoretical accounts of alteration ( see Pettigrew et Al. . 1989. 1992 ) . Indeed. analogues have even been drawn between Lewin’s work and the work of complexness theoreticians ( Kippenberger. 1998a ) . Back ( 1992 ) . for illustration. argued that the preparation and behavior of complex systems as described by Chaos and Catastrophe theoreticians bear striking similarities to Lewin’s conceptualisation of Field Theory. Nevertheless. Field Theory is now likely the least understood component of Lewin’s work. yet. because of its possible to map the forces encroaching on an person. group or organisation. it underpinned the other elements of his work.

Group Dynamics

the word ‘dynamics’ . . . comes from a Grecian word significance force. . . ‘group. . . dynamics’ refers to the forces runing in groups. . . it is a survey of these forces: what gives rise to them. what conditions modify them. what consequences they have. etc. ( Cartwright. 1951. p. 382 )

Lewin was the ?rst psychologist to compose about ‘group dynamics’ and the importance of the group in determining the behavior of its members ( Allport. 1948 ; Bargal et Al. . 1992 ) . Indeed. Lewin’s ( 1939. p. 165 ) de?nition of a ‘group’ is still by and large accepted: ‘ . . . it is non the similarity or unsimilarity of persons that constitutes a group. but mutuality of fate’ . As Kippenberger ( 1998a ) notes. Lewin was turn toing two inquiries: What is it about the nature and features of a peculiar group which causes it to react ( act ) as it does to the forces which impinge on it. and how can these forces be changed in order to arouse a more desirable signifier of behavior? It was to turn to these inquiries that Lewin began to develop the construct of Group Dynamics.

Group Dynamics stresses that group behavior. instead than that of persons. should be the chief focal point of alteration ( Bernstein. 1968 ; Dent and Goldberg. 1999 ) . Lewin ( 1947b ) maintained that it is bootless to concentrate on altering the behavior of persons because the person in isolation is constrained by group force per unit areas to conform. Consequently. the focal point of alteration must be at the group degree and should concentrate on factors such as group norms. functions. interactions and socialisation procedures to make ‘disequilibrium’ and alteration ( Schein. 1988 ) .

Lewin’s open uping work on Group Dynamics non merely laid the foundations for our apprehension of groups ( Cooke. 1999 ; Dent and Goldberg. 1999 ; Gallic and Bell. 1984 ; Marrow. 1969 ; Schein. 1988 ) but has besides been linked to complexness theories by research workers analyzing self-organizing theory and non-linear systems ( Tschacher and Brunner. 1995 ) . However. understanding the internal kineticss of a group is non suf?cient by itself to convey about alteration. Lewin besides recognized the demand to supply a procedure whereby the members could be engaged in and committed to altering their behavior. This led Lewin to develop Action Research and the 3-Step theoretical account of alteration.

Action Research

This term was coined by Lewin ( 1946 ) in an article entitled ‘Action research and minority problems’ . Lewin stated in the article:
In the last twelvemonth and a half I have had juncture to hold contact with a great assortment of organisations. establishments. and persons who came for aid in the ?eld of group dealingss. ( Lewin. 1946. p. 201 )

However. though these people exhibited. . . a great sum of good-will. of preparedness to confront the job forthrightly and. . . truly do something about it. . . These eager people feel themselves to be in a fog. They feel in a fog on three counts: 1. What is the present state of affairs? 2. What are the dangers? 3. And most significantly of all. what shall we make? ( Lewin. 1946. p. 201 )

Lewin conceived of Action Research as a two-pronged procedure which would let groups to turn to these three inquiries. First. it emphasizes that alteration requires action. and is directed at accomplishing this. Second. it recognizes that successful action is based on analyzing the state of affairs right. placing all the possible alternate solutions and taking the one most appropriate to the state of affairs at manus ( Bennett. 1983 ) . To be successful. though. there has besides to be a ‘felt-need’ . FeltKurt Lewin 983 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2004need is an individual’s inner realisation that alteration is necessary. If felt-need is low in the group or organisation. presenting alteration becomes debatable. The theoretical foundations of Action Research prevarication in Gestalt psychological science. which stresses that alteration can merely successfully be achieved by assisting persons to re?ect on and derive new penetrations into the entirety of their state of affairs.

Lewin ( 1946. p. 206 ) stated that Action Research ‘ . . . returns in a spiral of stairss each of which is composed of a circle of planning. action. and fact-?nding about the consequences of the action. ’ It is an iterative procedure whereby research leads to action and action leads to rating and farther research. As Schein ( 1996. p. 64 ) remarks. it was Lewin’s position that ‘ . . . one can non understand an organisation without seeking to alter it. . . ’ Indeed. Lewin’s position was really much that the apprehension and larning which this procedure produces for the persons and groups concerned. which so feeds into changed behavior. is more of import than any resulting alteration as such ( Lewin. 1946 ) .

To this terminal. Action Research draws on Lewin’s work on Field Theory to place the forces that focus on the group to which the person belongs. It besides draws on Group Dynamics to understand why group members behave in the manner they do when subjected to these forces. Lewin stressed that the modus operandis and forms of behavior in a group are more than merely the result of opposing forces in a force?eld. They have a value in themselves and hold a positive function to play in implementing group norms ( Lewin. 1947a ) . Action Research stresses that for alteration to be effectual. it must take topographic point at the group degree. and must be a participative and collaborative procedure which involves all of those concerned ( Allport. 1948 ; Bargal et Al. . 1992 ; Gallic and Bell. 1984 ; Lewin. 1947b ) .


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