Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

December 1999
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The Change Process

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Leaders lead their constituents somewhere different from where they are already. Thus, the essence of leadership is change. Consequently, leaders must understand the change process and how change is achieved.

The Change Process:

There is a typical pattern of events that occur from the beginning of a change to the end. Kurt Lewin divided the change process into three distinct phases: unfreezing, changing and refreezing.

1. Unfreezing phase. People come to realize that the old ways of doing things are no longer appropriate, and that change is needed. This recognition may occur as a result of an obvious crisis, or from the leaders’ efforts to describe threats or opportunities not yet apparent to most people in the organization. An organizational “catharsis” of some kind is often necessary before the shell of complacency and self-righteousness is broken open, and prejudices against major change removed.

2. Changing phase. People look for new ways of doing things and select an appropriate and promising approach.

3. Refreezing phase. The new approach is implemented and it becomes established.

All three phases are necessary for successful change. Moving too quickly through the stages can endanger the success of a change effort. If a leader attempts to move directly to the changing phase without first unfreezing the attitudes of his constituents, he is likely to meet with apathy at best, and strong, organized resistance at worst. Moreover, a lack of prayer, systematic diagnosis and problem solving in the changing phase will result in a weak change plan. Finally, a lack of attention to consensus building and maintenance of enthusiasm in the third stage may result in the change being reversed soon after it is implemented.

This metaphor of unfreezing, changing and refreezing is useful in that it illuminates the distinct phases of the change process. Nevertheless, one should not overlook the fact that the status quo is not a static affair (as the image of “freezing” may lead us to believe) but a live and dynamic process. The status quo in an organization is “quasi-stationary” – like a river that continuously moves but still keeps a recognizable form. In leading change, the organizational structures, the people themselves and the outside world all need to be considered in their complex and dynamic interplay with each other.
How Change is Achieved:

Change is achieved by two types of actions:

1. Increasing the driving forces toward change. For example, by setting forth vision, or by increasing incentives, etc.

2. Reducing the restraining forces that create resistance to change. For example, by reducing fear of failure or economic loss, or by converting or removing opponents, etc.

If the restraining forces are weak, it may be sufficient merely to increase the positive, driving forces. However, when restraining forces are strong, a dual approach is usually best. Unless restraining forces can be reduced, an increase in driving forces will create an intense conflict over the change, and continuing resistance will make it more difficult to complete the unfreezing phase.

The next Leadership Letter will describe how people react to change.

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