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The Organization Development Institute International, Latinamerica
Presidente: Eric Gaynor Butterfield


David Coghlan, Ph.D.

Trinity College

Dublin, Ireland



Lewin’ s place as the father figure of OD, both in terms of his personal influence and his theoretical work, is generally presented in terms of his work on action research, group dynamics, field theory and his stages of change. Rarely is his work on re-education cited. Yet it is clear that much of what he understood to be central to the complex process of re-education is critical to the process of change and underlies the philosophical principles and the practice of OD. This article presents Lewin’s generally neglected paper on re-education in terms of OD theory and practice so as to enable OD practitioners to build on and use Lewin’s work.


Lewin’s contribution to the theory and practice of planned change and organization development has been well documented and described (French & Bell 1990, Burke 1994). This contribution is catalogued primarily in terms of field theory, group dynamics, the T-group, the three stages of change and action research. His famous Iowa experiments led to his conceptualization that people change when they experience the need for change (unfreezing), move to a new standard of behavior and values (moving) and stabilize the change in normative behavior (refreezing). He further asserts that change occurs given conditions which emphasize reduction of those forces restraining change, rather than an increase in the forces driving change (Lewin 1966): Lewin’s work inspired and directly initiated the creation of an approach to learning about groups, participation in groups, interpersonal relations and change through action research, through the T-group and its development into laboratory learning, which is a primary antecedent of organization development. One particular paper of Lewin’s, written with Paul Grabbe in 1945, has received relatively little attention, apart from Benne’s exposition which reflected on it in the light of the T-group and laboratory learning (Benne 1969). In this paper, Lewin formulates ten general observations about the process of re-education (Lewin 1973). They grew out of his attempts to reflect on work he was engaged in with Alcoholics Anonymous and other training programs.

Given that change involves an unfreezing from presently held views in order to change to new ones, a focus on change as a process of re-education which involves unlearning in order to relearn is useful for OD practitioners. In many consulting experiences, I have found that a core element of what I was facilitating was a form of re-education - from an individual focus to a team focus, abandonment of a fearful attitude towards technology in order to allow retraining and utilization of new technology, to cite two examples. In experiences such as these, the OD consultant is grappling with a complex field of perception, attitude, values, feelings and behaviors in an individual. In addition to what may be going on in an individual with respect to a change, there is the element of group membership and the culture which has formed in the group with which an individual may identify. Organization development, through its grounding in a normative re-educative philosophy of change, has traditionally worked with both the re-educative and group norm elements of change (Chin & Benne 1969). As Lewin’s paper articulates the dynamics of re-education in a way that his papers on change do not, a re-visiting of some of the philosophical foundations for the theory and practice of OD in terms of re-education is useful for OD practitioners at a time when OD is under review.



1. “The processes governing the acquisition of the normal and abnormal are fundamentally alike” (Lewin 1973, p. 57).

Lewin is repudiating the false distinction between so-called education for the normal and therapy for the abnormal. He pioneered the experiential workshop in which learning occurs through participation and reflection on the “here and now” events of the group. While the T-group is no longer used as an OD intervention, several of its key features remain significant for the practice of OD. The first element is action-research whereby the change process is a cycle of intervention, understanding the effects of that intervention, planning further interventions, and so on. The second element is the role of the OD consultant, working as a process consultant to facilitate self-understanding, learning and action by the client. The process consultation model is directly derived from the role performed by the T-group trainer (Schem 1990). The third element, echoing Lewin’s own point, is that the change model is fundamentally the .ame - that individuals have to experience the need for change, create the conditions for change, make the change and ensure it survives no matter what kind of change is under consideration (Schein & Bennis 1965, Schein 1987a, Wheelan 1990, Rashford & Coghlan 1994).


2. “The re-educative process has to fulfil a task which is essentially equivalent to a change in culture” (Lewin 1973, p. 59).

Lewin contends that effective re-educatiOn involves acquiring values and new thinking to match changes in conduct and behavior (the integration of these he defines as “culture”). There are three elements in this re-educative process: thought structures, values and beliefs, and behavior. He emphasizes that the three elements require different approaches and that a change agent must understand how they are different. Re-education cannot be merely a rational process; knowledge of itself is of little avail in changing outlook and conduct. In the Iowa experiments where attempts to change meat-eating habits through both a lecture approach and a participative group discussion approach were used, findings indicated that the lecture approach failed, whereas the participative group discussion approach effected the necessary change (Lewin 1966).

In situations of organizational change, exhortations and explanations do not suffice for people to change. The development of OD has been built around the experience that the process of change in organizations typically involves working with the informal organization as much as the formal, dealing with attitudinal and emotional as well as cognitive issues and taking account of how individuals, teams, the interdepartmental group and the organization form four inter-related and inter-dependent levels (Rashford & Coghlan 1994). Organization development is fundamentally an experiential approach to helping change take place, built on the scientific model of action research (Schein 1989).

As Schein (1992) points out, culture in organizations is not simply the visible or audible artifacts, nor even the stated values, but exists as basic assumptions which have been formed in the organization’s history, which have been handed on and which are out of consciousness because they have become taken for granted. The basic assumptions govern ways of thinking about particular issues and problems, ways of relating and behavior. So the process of changing culture in organizations is complex as it involves uncovering what the basic assumptions are held by the organization as a whole, by sub-groups within the organization and how these assumptions are manifested in thought processes and behavior.


3. “Even extensive first-hand experience does not automatically create correct concepts” (Lewin 1973, p. 60).

As Lewin points out, centuries of the experience of falling bodies did not create a theory of gravity. Experiencing alone does not create learning. He is challenging those who, while reacting against the intellectual-lecture approach, place the emphasis on experiencing only. For Lewin, learning involves a combination of (a) experience, (b) reflection on that experience, (c) a theoretical perspective to enable the generalization and grounding of this reflection and (d) experimentation in ongoing situations (Koib 1984). Lewin pioneered the notion of action-research as a form of social experimentation, whereby research was taken out of the laboratory and applied to every day problems and issues (Argyris, Putnam & Smith 1985, Schein 1987b, Argyris 1993).

I have already discussed how OD is the fruit of action research - a philosophy of how to be helpful to client systems by working with them to understand what is going on and how to help change happen. Each step in the change process, each intervention creates new information which must be understood to try to see wh th. next step might be and so on. The scientific base of OD is grounded in such an ongoing process of action, reflection on that action, creating hypotheses on the basis of an understanding out of that reflection and taking action to test those hypotheses (Schein 1989). Through OD, an organization is not only changing but also learning about change and learning to learn about change.


4. “Social action no less than physical action is steered by perception” (Lewin 1973, p.61).

The world in which we act is how we perceive it. Changes in knowledge, values and beliefs won’t result in changes in behavior unless it is grounded in changed perception of the self and situations. For Lewin, the primary task of re-education involves a change in the person’s social perception.

In the process of organizational change, an individual’s response is determined by that individual’s perception of the change and an assessment of its impact on him or her. Perception is formed by the amount of information available, the degree of psychological participation, the degree of control and the degree of trust in the change initiators (Lippitt 1973). For the process consultant, understanding the internal frame of reference of the individual is a prerequisite to working with the client system to assess the progress or otherwise of the change and to respond appropriately to the issues which are emerging at any given time (Schein 1987a, 1988, Coghlan 1993).


5. “As a rule the possession of correct knowledge does not suffice to rectify false perceptions” (Lewin 1973, p. 61).

While Lewin is clear that theory alone does not bring about change and comments that resistance to change is often seen only in emotional terms, he is not underestimating the difficulties in changing cognition. He comments that racial prejudice may persist, even with favorable experiences of members of another race.

Resistance to change typically has a cognitive and emotional component. Members of an organization may define the change problem and possible solutions differently to those promoting one particular form of solution. The change process may involve a series of collective bargaining as to what changes, where and at whose expense. At the same time, there may be many who are threatened by change, who are fearful and anxious and require a form of response which works within the frames of those emotional states (Coghlan 1993). In the cognitive domain, Argyris (1990) grounds resistance to change in the psychological structure of organizations as low in openness, trust, and risk taking, and high in conformity and mistrust, from which carefully built and brilliantly concealed defensive routines (what Argyris refers to as “fancy footwork”) are created. As managers propagate and build systems to maintain these defensive routines, the propensity to resist change is increased.


6. “Incorrect stereotypes (prejudices) are functionally equivalent to wrong concepts (theories)” (Lewin 1973, p.62).

Lewin is arguing, in respect to incorrect stereotyping, that experiencing as such is inadequate to change a person or group’s theory of the world. People move from a position of stereotyping when they involve themselves in a process of self-experimentation with regard to their own and alternatives ways of explaining the world.

Argyris’ work, as outlined previously, attempts to deal with this issue. By enabling managers to understand their own “theory-in-use”, that is, the assumptions governing their behavior, an OD consultant facilitates individuals to understand the effects of their action and reformulate the thinking processes which govern their actions (Schein 1987a, Argyris 1993). As Argyris argues forcibly, this is an experiential process and does not work by individuals simply wanting to do it. On the group level, Schein (1992) works in a process consultation mode to enable a group to uncover the cultural assumptions which govern its behavior and which are out of consciousness because they have been passed on from generation to generation and are taken for granted.


7. “Changes in sentiments do not necessarily follow changes in cognitive structures” (Lewin 1973, p.62).

In Lewin’s view, the individual’s real and total involvement in the change process is a significant factor in confronting this issue. Change in how a person feels about any situation is integrally linked to that individual’s degree of involvement. Thus, active involvement entails attitudinal, affective, cognitive and behavioral aspects of that person.

One of the main tenets of OD over the years has been that involvement reduces resistance. This tenet is grounded in Lewin’s Iowa experiments, the humanistic psychology tradition which has influenced the development of OD and in numerous research findings. Internalization of change values, in contrast with mere compliance, requires attitudinal, cognitive and behavioral congruence (Kelman 1969).


8. “A change in action-ideology, a real acceptance of a changed set of facts and values, a change in the perceived social world - all three are but different expressions of the same process” (Lewin 1973, p.64).

Lewin is making the point that changes in values, perception and behavior form an integrated pattern for the individual - what he calls a change in culture. Since action is guided by perception, a change in behavior presupposes that new facts and values are perceived and that these values are not merely aspired to, but are acted upon (what he refers to as action-ideology). The re-educative process needs to support this integration of perception, values and behavior and not create a tension between new and old values for the individual. The manner in which change is introduced is critical. If a new set of values and beliefs is autocratically enforced, loyalty to the old values and hostility to the new tend to be created. How then can the acceptance of a new system of values be brought about if the person is likely to be hostile to the new values and be attached to the old values? For Lewin, voluntary attendance, freedom of expression in voicing opinions and disagreement, avoidance of pressure are key issues.

In OD, resistance to change is a positive force and must be taken seriously (Nevis 1987, Coghlan 1993). It is an opportunity for the change agents to gain a further insight into the force field, to see that there are areas which they possibly had not anticipated and to understand that the change process is indeed complex. In short, the experience of changing generates its own learning about the organization and about the process of change itself.


9. “Acceptance of the new set of values and beliefs cannot usually be brought about item by item” (Lewin 1973, p.66).

In Lewin’s view, methods and procedures to change convictions item by item are of little avail; they don’t lead to a change of thought, values and behavior. Arguments proceeding logically from one point to another tend to drive the individual into a corner and so be more resistant. While step-by-step methods are important they must be conceived as steps in gradual change from defensiveness to openness rather than a conversion one point at a time. Accordingly, the approach to re-education needs overall planning. A value system is a system with its own integrity. If it is to perform its function of helping people maintain their identity then its integrity must be maintained.

Organization development’s focus on systemic change and the system ramifications of any intervention encourages the formulation of an integrated approach to planned organizational change. Such an approach attempts to take account of how in a system everything is related and everything is affected. Accordingly, diagnosis of what kind of change is required in what parts of the organization in order to move the organization to a desired future and how that change process involves a complex movement across four organizational levels requires an integrated systemic approach (Beckhard & Harris 1987, Beckhard & Pritchard 1992, Rashford & Coghlan 1994).


10. “The individual accepts the new system of values and beliefs by accepting belongingness to a group” (Lewin 1973 p.67).

Lewin’s assertion is that the chances of re-education are increased within the group context, whereby an individual’s identification with a group coincides with the group’s acceptance of new values and beliefs.

One of Lewin’s close associates, Cartwright, has drawn together much of the research on how groups function in relation to change (Cartwright 1989). As a source of influence on their members, groups are a significant medium of change. The chances of change seem to be increased when a group’s members have a strong sense of belonging to the same group. The more attractive the group is to its members the greater the influence the group can exert over its members. In attempts to change attitudes, values and behavior the more relevant the values, attitudes and behaviors are to the basis of attraction to the group the greater influence the group can exert on them, as instanced when a union executive seeks support for action on issues of conditions of employment. The greater the prestige of a group member in the eyes of other members the greater the influence he/she can exert. Efforts to change individuals/sub-parts of a group, which if successful would result in making them deviate from the group norms, will encounter resistance.

Lewin’s point in this regard has been the basis for much of the subsequent work done on the role of culture in regard to change and on the role of groups and teams as key leverage points for change in organization development (French & Bell 1990, Schein 1992, Coghlan 1994).



As organization development is constantly being reviewed as it moves through its fourth decade towards a new century, a re-articulation of the conceptual roots on which it is based and on which its values are formed is both valuable and useful for OD practitioners. Lewin’s place as the father figure of OD, both in terms of his personal influence and his theoretical work, is without question. At the same time, his theoretical influence is generally restricted to his work on action research, group dynamics, field theory and his stages of change. Rarely is his work on re-education cited. Yet it is clear that much of what he understood to be central to the complex process of re-education underlies the philosophical principles and the practice of OD and ought to be more readily known and utilized by OD practitioners. As change continues to pervade all aspects of life and we continually have to unlearn what ceases to work or be useful, particularly as OD practitioners, an understanding of the process of re-education as a core element of changing is essential.




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