Organizational Change in Today's Economy

Models of Change and Overcoming Employee Resistance

Rafe Harwood

As organizations evolve and come to be seen as dynamic, coping systems, the concept of how they change and methods by which they manage change has continued to be refined. Managing a process of change in an organization can be a highly complex task and is often essential for effective organizational development (OD). This article will provide an overview of the change process faced by many organizations. Different models of change will be highlighted and the resistance to change displayed by many employees will be examined.
  • The Focus of Change

  • Leavitt et al. (1973) proposed that change may focus on 1 of 4 subsystems in an organization:
  • Lewin's Force Field Model

  • A classic model of OD, commonly referred to as the 'force field' model, was proposed by Kurt Lewin in 1951. He described organizations as systems which are held in a constant state of 'equilibrium' by equal and opposing forces. The model suggests that a range of 'driving forces', which exert a pressure for change, are balanced by a number of opposing 'resisting forces'. Driving forces urging change might include the availability of new technology, economic pressure from competitors or even changes in local or national legislation. Conversely, resisting forces might include a firmly established organizational culture and climate or industry-specific customs. Lewin proposed that any process of organizational change can be thought of as implementing a move in the equilibrium position towards a desired or newly established position.

  • The Three-stage Process of Change

  • To elaborate on his model, Lewin also suggested a three-stage process of change implementation which is necessary for effective change within an organization. Those three stages are:
    1. Unfreeze - Creation of motivation to change.

    An organization must be prepared for any change which is about to occur. This process is known as 'unfreezing' and involves the investigation of resisting forces. Any premature unilateral or authoritarian increase in driving forces for change will, according to the Lewin model, be met by an equal and opposite increase in resisting forces. No change will occur unless there is motivation within the organization to do so. If there is no motivation, it must be induced. This is often the most difficult part of any change process. Change not only involves learning, but unlearning something that is already present and well integrated into the personality and social relationships of the individuals. It is for this reason that an organizations culture can often act as a resisting force to change.

    Practice: The following methods are often used by managers and OD consultants to unfreeze an organizational system:
    1. Change - Adjusting the equilibrium.

    Developing new attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours based on new information. Once the resisting forces have been investigated, understood and minimized, the change can be implemented. Resisting forces are reduced and driving forces increased. Doing so adjusts the position of equilibrium towards the desired balance position.

    Practice: There are three main approaches with which change may be implemented: Change, or OD, is seen as a process of rational persuasion whereby the benefits of the change are logically explained to those who are influenced by it. This approach also assumes employees are rational individuals, but acknowledges the existence of socio-cultural norms within organizations. It challenges established values, beliefs, attitudes and norms and re-educates employees into the new techniques of working. This method of change involves a process of the imposition of legitimate authority. Feedback may be denied and no alteration to plans may take place as a result of resistance. This approach simply forces through change by authority.

    Practice: Methods used by managers and OD consultants to lead change:
    1. Refreeze - Making routine.

    For a change to become routine and accepted into the day-to-day practices of an organization, the organization must go through the final stage of refreezing the organizational system. A variety of strategies may be adopted to achieve this, including new rules, regulations and reward schemes to reinforce the change process and maximize the desired behaviours of staff or employees.

  • The Seven-stage Model of Change

  • Whilst Lewin's model provides a simple and understandable representation of the organizational change process, more recent models have developed his model and extended the idea into more depth. In 1980, Edgar Huse proposed a seven-stage OD model based upon the original three-stage model of Lewin.
    1. Scouting - Where representatives from the organization meet with the OD consultant to identify and discuss the need for change. The change agent and client jointly explore issues to elicit the problems in need of attention.

    2. Entry - This stage involves the development of, and mutual agreement upon, both business and psychological contracts. Expectations of the change process are also established.

    3. Diagnosis - Here, the consultant diagnoses the underlying organizational problems based upon their previous knowledge and training. This stage involves the identification of specific improvement goals and a planned intervention strategy.

    4. Planning - A detailed series of intervention techniques and actions are brought together into a timetable or project plan for the change process. This step also involves the identification of areas of resistance from employees and steps possible to counteract it.

    5. Action - The intervention is carried out according to the agreed plans. Previously established action steps are implemented.

    6. Stabilization & Evaluation - The stage of 'refreezing' the system. Newly implemented codes of action, practices and systems are absorbed into everyday routines. Evaluation is conducted to determine the success of the change process and any need for further action is established.

    7. Termination - The OD consultant or change agent leaves the organization and moves on to another client or begins an entirely different project within the same organization.
    Practice: The 7-stage model is a useful heuristic to illustrate the complex nature of organizational change. However, such neat linear models are prone to oversimplify situations. The pace of organizational change in today's rapidly developing economic climate can result in the 'refreezing' stage never being reached or completed. This means that organizational systems often undergo a continuous series of change interventions and rarely revert to a stabilized state of equilibrium. In other words, change is often so rapid and recurrent that the system fails to restabilize itself before the next change initiative is conducted. Organizations prone to fashion and fads in managerial practice particularly suffer from this effect.

  • Popular Change Management Interventions

  • The Focus of Change Management Agents