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Reﬂections: Ethics and Organizational
Change – Time for a Return to Lewinian Values
Manchester Business School, University of Manc ...
Reﬂections: Ethics and Organizational
Change – Time for a Return to Lewinian Values
Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, UK AB ST RA CT Over the last 25 years, much of the debate on organizational change has been
dominated by the issue of power and politics. This has led to a decline in interest in Kurt Lewin’s
Planned approach to change, with its ethical basis and stress on democratic participation. Its
place has been taken by the Emergent approach, which focuses on use of power and politics to
bring about change. The Emergent approach was consistent with the free-market, winner-takes-
all spirit of the last 25 years. However, this article maintains that we are now entering a new era
where ethical and socially-responsible behaviour is becoming more important than prot
maximization and self-interest. To bring about this change in behavior, individuals, groups and
organizations will need to change their values. It will be argued that this can only be achieved if
those concerned are able to change of their own volition through the type of ethical and
participative change process advocated by Kurt Lewin. In order to make the case for a return to
a Lewinian approach to change, the article examines the precursors to and the essence of
Lewin’s Planned change. This is followed by an examination of Emergent change and its
implications for ethical and participatory change. The article concludes by arguing that the
rapidly changing, prot-maximising and highly-competitive environment of the last 25 years may
have been less than amenable to an ethically-based approach to change. However, in the next 25
years, the challenges of social responsibility and environmental sustainability are unlikely to be
met without returning to the type of ethically-based approach to change promoted by Kurt Lewin. K EY
WO RD S : Kurt Lewin, Planned change, Emergent change, ethics, values, social responsibility
The Oxford Dictionary of English (2006, p. 595) deﬁnes ethics as ‘moral prin-
ciples that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity’. In
Journal of Change Management
Vol. 9, No. 4, 359 – 381, December 2009
Correspondence Address: Bernard Burnes, Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Booth Street
West, Manchester M15 6PB, UK. Tel.: þ44 (0)161 2003494; Email: [email protected]
1469-7017 Print /1479-1811 Online /09 /040359 – 23 #2009 Taylor & Francis
organizational terms, ethics are beliefs about what is right or wrong, they provide a
basis for judging the appropriateness or not of behavior and they guide people in
their dealings with other individuals, groups and organizations (Joneset al., 2000).
Few would disagree with the comment by Gopalakrishnan et al.that:
Ethics has taken center stage in the management of organizations. The underlying
values of individuals, groups, and organizations have a signiﬁcant impact not only
on organizations but also on society as a whole . . .The bankruptcy of Enron and
Global Crossing, the dissolution of Arthur Andersen, and the indictment of senior
executives from these and other companies such as Health South and Worldcom /
MCI emphasize how a disregard for ethics in decision making can have profound
consequences at multiple levels. (Gopalakrishnan et al., 2008, p. 756)
To this list we can add the enormous raft of unethical and illegal behavior exposed
by the ‘credit crunch’, the most spectacular being the US$50bn fraud carried out
by Bernard L. Madoff at his hedge-fund business (Porter, 2008).
However, ethics are not just about ﬁnancial propriety. As Dunphy et al.(2007)
argue, environmental sustainability – the future of the planet – requires organiz-
ations to adopt a more ethical approach to managing their business. In particular,
they have to move from: . doing the minimum the law requires to doing the right thing in terms of the environment;
. downplaying public concerns to identifying and addressing those concerns;
. ignoring or ﬁghting environmental advocates to seeking to work with them.
Whilst it is easy to list types of ethical behavior, the ability of managers to
ensure such behaviors are carried out is often limited by other factors. Deresky
points out that:
Managers today are usually quite sensitive to issues of social responsibility and
ethical behavior because of pressure from the public, from interest groups, from
legal and government concerns, and from media coverage. It is less clear where
to draw the line between socially responsible behaviour and the corporation’s
other concerns, or between the conﬂicting expectations of ethical behaviour
among different countries. (Deresky, 2000, p. 56)
The difﬁculty of managers required to act ethically in the face of day-to-day press-
ures to meet deadlines and performance targets which may push them to act other-
wise, was highlighted in a recent article on organizational change in the UK public
sector (Burnes, 2009b). This showed that the UK government had adopted policies
which obliged its constituent parts to include users on an equal footing in service
change and improvement initiatives. However, the reality was that this was often
little more than window-dressing and that the service providers sometimes
manipulated and marginalized users in order to ensure that their own objectives
and views were paramount. Similarly, we can see that attempts to clean up
360 B. Burnes
Wall Street and other ﬁnancial markets after the excesses of the 1980s palpably
failed (Partnoy, 2003). Jailing the likes of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky and
adopting ethical codes did not prevent the continuation of fraud on a truly gigantic
scale (Porter, 2008; Sunderland, 2008). The spirit of the age was neatly summed
up by Gordon Gekko, the central character in Oliver Stone’s 1987 ﬁlmWall Street,
who stated that ‘greed, for want of a better word, is good’. Gekko may have left
Wall Street over 20 years ago but his ideology has proved far more enduring.
This should not come as a surprise given the strong relationship between an
organization’s ethics, that is the norms of behavior of an organization’s
members, and its culture. As Kotter and Heskett (1992, p. 141) observe:
‘Culture represents an interdependent set of values and ways of behaving that
are common in a community’. These values form the core, the foundation, of
an organization’s culture (Schein, 1985; Cummings and Worley, 2005). There-
fore, an organization’s ethics are embedded in its culture and its culture is reﬂected
in its ethics. Consequently, attempting to change the norms of behavior in an
organization by regulators compelling it to adopt an ‘ethical code’ or by replacing
a few people at the top is somewhat over-optimistic (Kabanoff et al., 1995; Scott,
1995; Fox-Wolfgramm et al., 1998; Amis et al., 2002). If we could change the
behavior of individuals, groups and organizations just by passing laws or appeal-
ing to their common decency, motorists would not speed, companies would not
exploit child labor and Bernard Madoff’s clients would not be wondering where
their money went.
It has been shown that for behavior change to be successful, those concerned
have to be able to adopt the changes of their own volition (Schein, 1996; Kegan
and Lahey, 2001; Bruch and Ghoshal, 2004; Sniehotta et al., 2005; Burnes,
2009a). Unfortunately, since the early 1980s, the management of change has
become focussed on approaches that emphasize the deployment of power and
politics in order to win compliance (Hendry, 1996; Collins, 1998). Instead of
attempting to change behavior by imposition and coercion, what is required is
an approach to change which promotes ethical behavior and allows those con-
cerned to change of their own free will. However, as this article will argue, this
will mean rejecting the Emergent approach to change which has dominated the
ﬁeld over the last two decades and returning to the ethically-based approach of
Kurt Lewin and the Organization Development (OD) movement. The article begins by examining the precursors to the development of an ethical
approach to change. It then brieﬂy describes the life and work of Kurt Lewin,
showing that his Planned approach to change was both ethically-based and effec-
tive. It also discusses how Lewin’s work was taken up and extended by the OD
movement. This is followed by an examination of Emergent change, arguing
not only that it lacks an ethical base but that it appears to promote unethical
behavior. The article concludes by arguing that the rapidly changing, proﬁt-
maximizing and highly competitive environment of the last 25 years may have
been less than amenable to an ethically-based approach to change. However, in
the next 25 years, the challenges of social responsibility and environmental
sustainability are unlikely to be met without returning to the type of ethically-
based approach to change promoted by Kurt Lewin.
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 361
The Precursors to Ethical Change
At a practical level, organizational change had been a preoccupation of employers
since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. However, in the eighteenth and nine-
teenth centuries, this was very much in terms of introducing technology and work
practices which allowed employers to exert greater control over the workforce in
order to extract the maximum effort from labor for the minimum pay (Pollard,
1965; Burnes, 1989). Indeed, one of the leading advocates of the factory
system, Ure (1835), neatly summed up the employers’ view of the purpose and
process of organizational change:
In the spirit of the Egyptian task-masters the operative printers dictate to the manu-
facturers the number and quality of apprentices to be admitted to the trade, the hours
of their own labour, and the wages to be paid to them. At length capitalists sought
deliverance from this intolerable bondage in the resources of science, and were spee-
dily re-instated in their legitimate rule, that of the head over the inferior members. . .
This . . .conﬁrms the great doctrine . . .that when capital enlists science in her
service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility. (Ure, 1835,
pp. 368 – 369)
In developing Scientiﬁc Management, one of Frederick Taylor’s key objectives was
to overcome this antagonism between employers and workers by, for the ﬁrst time,
developing an approach to change based on scientiﬁc objectivity, which offered
workers a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and applied equally to employers
and employees (Rose, 1988; Sheldrake, 1996). As Taylor put it:
The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for
the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employe ´
1911a, p. 1)
The man at the head of the business under scientiﬁc management is governed by
rules and laws . . .just as the workman is, and the standards which have been devel-
oped are equitable. (Taylor, 1911b, p. 189)
There have rightly been many criticisms of Taylor’s approach, particularly that it
was neither scientiﬁc nor effective (Littler, 1978; Locke, 1982; Rose, 1988).
However, in the context of ethics, there are two points that are pertinent. First,
Taylor was not seeking to provide an ethical approach to change. Rather his
was a pragmatic response to the issue of how to overcome workers’ resistance
to change. He found that arbitrary imposition was counterproductive and, there-
fore, sought to overcome resistance by an approach he portrayed as fair, neutral
and scientiﬁc. Second, in terms of volition, Taylor saw only a passive role for
workers. Their job was to carry out the instructions of managers and to perform
their work in the manner laid down and not deviate by one iota. Scientiﬁc Manage-
ment portrayed human beings as ‘greedy robots’: indifferent to fatigue, boredom,
loneliness and pain, driven solely by economic incentives (Rose, 1988). If workers
did not conform to this role, they would be sacked. Indeed, Taylor saw organiz-
ations as machines, with workers as the cogs, which, once set in motion,
362 B. Burnes
inexorably and efﬁciently pursue and achieve their pre-selected goals (Burnes,
2009a). To this end, he would have agreed with Josiah Wedgwood, one of the pio-
neers of the Industrial Revolution, who saw the purpose of work organization as
‘to make machines of men as cannot err’ (quoted in Tillett, 1970, p. 37). There-
fore, though Taylor believed workers should be treated fairly and that managers
and workers should be subject to the same rules, it was also an approach that
saw workers as less than human – mere cogs in the organizational machine.
Whilst in many respects this was an improvement on what went before, it can
hardly be seen as an ethical approach to change.In the 1930s, a very different approach to managing and changing organizations
began to emerge from the work of two of the early pioneers of the Human
Relations movement – Elton Mayo (1933) and Chester Barnard (1938). Unlike
Scientiﬁc Management, the Human Relations approach, as it became known,
sought to highlight the importance of human beings and human emotions. In
particular, as Burnes (2009a) notes, it argued that: . People are emotional rather than economic-rational beings. Human needs are
far more diverse and complex than the one-dimensional image painted by
Taylor and his supporters. People’s emotional and social needs can have
more inﬂuence on their behavior at work than ﬁnancial incentives.
. Organizations are cooperative, social systems rather than mechanical ones.
People seek to meet their emotional needs through the formation of informal
but inﬂuential workplace social groups.
. Organizations are composed of informal structures, rules and norms as well as
formal practices and procedures. These informal rules, patterns of behavior and
communication, norms and friendships are created by people to meet their own
Mayo (1933) drew his arguments partly from the ﬁndings of the Hawthorne studies
and to a large extent from his own views on how to achieve industrial harmony
(Rose, 1988; Sheldrake, 1996). He believed that industrial unrest did not arise
from any basic conﬂict between managers and workers, but from workers’ under-
lying psychological ﬂaws, which could be resolved by addressing their emotional
rather than economic needs (Gillespie, 1991). Mayo did not seek to advocate an
ethical approach to running and changing organizations per sebut, like Taylor,
was concerned with resolving industrial conﬂict and resistance to change. Barnard (1938) drew his arguments from his experience as an executive but also
from his extensive contacts with academics, especially Mayo and his colleagues at
the Harvard Business School. One of the key arguments in his book The Functions
of the Executive (1938) is the idea of organizations as cooperative systems:
managers cannot run their businesses effectively and efﬁciently without the
cooperation – the partnership – of workers. Barnard (1938) based much of his
case on the moral and ethical basis and role of leadership:
The distinguishing mark of the executive responsibility is that it requires not merely
conformance to a complex code of morals but also the creation of moral codes for Time for a Return to Lewinian Values
others. The most generally recognized aspect of this function is called securing,
creating, inspiring of ‘morale’ in an organization. This is the process of inculcating
points of view, fundamental attitudes, loyalties, to the organization or cooperative
system, and to the system of objective authority, that will result in subordinating
individual interests and the minor dictates of personal codes to the good of the
cooperative whole. This includes (also important) the establishment of the morality
standards of workmanship. (Barnard, 1938, p. 279)
There have been many critiques of the early Human Relations work (Rose, 1988;
Gillespie, 1991; Sheldrake, 1996). However, focusing solely on ethical
approaches to change, there are two points of note. First, unlike Scientiﬁc Man-
agement, Human Relations portrays people as having an active and, to an
extent, voluntary role to play in the life of the organization. Nevertheless, the
work of Mayo and Barnard is more about managing organizations in a steady
state rather than how to change organizations. In essence it is theory of stability
and not change. To borrow the terminology of Burns (1978) on leadership, the
work of Mayo and Barnard is concerned with transactional management and
not transformational leadership. Second, the ethical basis of Mayo and Barnard’s
approach is somewhat suspect. Mayo was concerned with achieving industrial
harmony, but his diagnosis of the cause of industrial unrest as being caused by
psychological ﬂaws in workers seems patronising, biased towards management
and ethically suspect (Rose, 1988; Gillespie, 1991). Though Barnard makes
much of the ethical and moral basis of management, his main aim appears to be
to get workers to obey managers and to work hard. As with Mayo, this seems a
biased and one-sided view of ethics. Therefore, while the early Human Relations
approach is much more acceptable in its treatment of workers, it still does not con-
stitute an ethical approach to change. However, towards the end of the 1930s, as
Kurt Lewin began to move his work out of the laboratory and into the real world,
and his focus from children to adults, he began to develop such an approach
(Burnes, 2004, 2007).
Kurt Lewin and Ethical Change
Lewin was the ﬁrst behavioral scientist to offer a theory-based, practical and
ethical approach to change (Burnes, 2009a). Though the popularity of Lewin’s
approach to change has declined somewhat in the last 30 years (Burnes, 2004),
few academics have received the level of praise and admiration that has been
heaped upon Kurt Lewin (Ash, 1992; Bargalet al, 1992; Tobach, 1994; Dent
and Goldberg, 1999; Dickens and Watkins, 1999). As Edgar Schein commented:
There is little question that the intellectual father of contemporary theories of
applied behavioural science, action research and planned change is Kurt Lewin.
His seminal work on leadership style and the experiments on planned change
which took place in World War II in an effort to change consumer behaviour
launched a whole generation of research in group dynamics and the implementation
of change programs. (Schein, 1988, p. 239)
For most of his adult life, Lewin’s main preoccupation was the resolution of social
conﬂict and, in particular, the problems of minority or disadvantaged groups.
Underpinning this preoccupation was a strong belief that only the permeation of
democratic values into all facets of society could prevent the worst extremes of
social conﬂict. As his wife wrote in the Preface to a volume of his collected
work published after his death:
Kurt Lewin was so constantly and predominantly preoccupied with the task of
advancing the conceptual representation of the social-psychological world, and at
the same time he was so ﬁlled with the urgent desire to use his theoretical insight
for the building of a better world, that it is difﬁcult to decide which of these two
sources of motivation ﬂowed with greater energy or vigour. (Lewin, 1948b)
To a large extent, his interests and beliefs stemmed from his background as a
German Jew. Lewin was born in 1890 and, for a Jew growing up in Germany,
at this time, ofﬁcially-approved anti-Semitism was a fact of life. Few Jews
could expect to achieve a responsible post in the civil service or universities.
Despite this, Lewin was awarded a doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1916
and went on to teach there. Though he was never awarded tenured status,
Lewin achieved a growing international reputation in the 1920s as a leader in
his ﬁeld (Lewin, 1992). However, with the rise of the Nazi Party, Lewin recog-
nized that the position of Jews in Germany was increasingly threatened. The elec-
tion of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 was the ﬁnal straw for him; he resigned from
the University and moved to America (Marrow, 1969).In America, Lewin found a job ﬁrst as a ‘refugee scholar’ at Cornell University
and then, from 1935 – 1945, at the University of Iowa. Here he was to embark on
an ambitious program of research which covered topics such as child-parent
relations, conﬂict in marriage, styles of leadership, worker motivation and
performance, conﬂict in industry, group problem-solving, communication and
attitude change, racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination and prejudice, inte-
gration-segregation, peace, war and poverty (Lewin, 1948a; Cartwright, 1952;
Marrow, 1969; Bargal et al., 1992).
During the years of the Second World War, Lewin did much work for the Amer-
ican war effort. This included studies of the morale of front-line troops and
psychological warfare, and his famous studies aimed at persuading American
housewives to buy cheaper cuts of meat and to give their families more milk,
orange juice and cod liver oil (Lewin, 1943; Wheeler, 2008). He was also much
in demand as a speaker on minority and inter-group relations (Smith, 2001).
These activities chimed with one of his central preoccupations, which was how
Germany’s authoritarian and racist culture could be replaced with one imbued
with democratic values. He saw democracy, and the spread of democratic
values throughout society, as the central bastion against authoritarianism and despotism.
With the end of the War, Lewin established the Research Center for Group
Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The aim of the Center
was to investigate all aspects of group behavior, especially how it could be
changed. At the same time, he was also chief architect of the Commission on
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 365
Community Interrelations (CCI). Founded and funded by the American Jewish
Congress, its aim was the eradication of discrimination against all minority
groups. As Lewin wrote at the time:
We Jews will have to ﬁght for ourselves and we will do so strongly and with good
conscience. We also know that the ﬁght of the Jews is part of the ﬁght of all min-
orities for democratic equality of rights and opportunities. . .(quoted in Marrow,
1969, p. 175).
In addition, in 1946, the Connecticut State Inter-Racial Commission asked Lewin
to help train leaders and conduct research on the most effective means of combat-
ing racial and religious prejudice in communities. This led to the development of
sensitivity training and the creation, in 1947, of the now famous National Training
Laboratories (Highhouse, 2002). However, his huge workload took its toll on his
health, and on 11 February 1947 he died of a heart attack (Lewin, 1992).
Lewin’s Approach to Change
Lewin was a humanitarian who believed that only by resolving social conﬂict,
whether it be religious, racial, marital or industrial, could the human condition
be improved. He believed the key to resolving social conﬂict was to facilitate
learning and so enable individuals to understand and restructure their perceptions
of the world around them. For Lewin, change was less about achieving a particular
objective per se and more about individuals and groups learning about themselves,
and in so doing being prepared of their own volition to change their behavior. In
this he was much inﬂuenced by the Gestalt psychologists he had worked with in
Berlin (Smith, 2001). A unifying theme of much of his work is the view that ‘ . . . the group to which an individual belongs is the ground for his perceptions,
his feelings and his actions’ (Allport, 1948, p. vii). The year 1939 marked a turning point in Lewin’s work. It saw the publication of
the research he had conducted with Lippitt and White on the effects of autocratic
and democratic atmospheres on groups of children (Lewin et al., 1939; Lippitt and
White, 1960). Among other things, this work had shown that children operating
under a democratic atmosphere, one where they could make their own decisions,
were more productive, quarrelled less, and were friendlier to each other than those
operating under an autocratic one. For Lewin, it provided proof of his views about
the efﬁcacy of democratic participation in decision-making. 1939 also saw Lewin
moving his work from the laboratory to the real world, where he combined
research with action and began to put his beliefs into practice. The ﬁrst and argu-
ably most important aspect of this was his work with Alfred Marrow and the
Harwood Manufacturing Corporation. This work, which he continued until his
death in 1947, allowed Lewin the opportunity to apply his approach to group
decision-making in an industrial setting (Burnes, 2007). However, Lewin’s
move from the laboratory to the real world also involved him with a host of
other organizations and activities (see Table 1).
Lewin’s groundbreaking work led to the formulation of his Planned approach to
change, comprising four elements: Field Theory, Group Dynamics, Action
366 B. Burnes
Table 1.Lewin – key projects and events 1939 – 1947
Date Study /event Location Focus Concepts Citation
1938 /1939 Autocracy – democracy Iowa The effects of different lea dership
styles on children’s behavior Participation and group
1939 Employee turnover Harwood Employee retention Changin g supervisory
behaviour Marrow (1969)
1940 /1941 Group Decision-Making Harwood Democratic participat ion and
productivity Participation and group
decision-making Marrow (1969)
1941 Training in democratic leadership Iowa Improving leadership behaviors and
techniques Sensitivity training Bavelas and
1942 Food habits Iowa Changing the food-buying habits of housewivesParticipation and group
decision-making Lewin (1943)
1942? Self-management Harwood Increasing workers’ control over the pace of workGroup decision-making Marrow (1969)
1944 /1945 Leadership training Harwood Improving the interperso nal skills and
effectiveness of supervisors Role play French (1945)
1944 /1945 Commission on Community
Interrelations (CCI) New York The problems and conﬂicts of group
and community life Action research Marrow (1969)
1945 Research Center for Group Dynamics MIT Understanding and changing group
behavior Action research Marrow (1969)
1946 Changing Stereotypes Harwood Changing attitudes to ol der workers Information gathering,
discussion and reﬂection Marrow (1957,
1946 Connecticut State Inter-
Racial Commission New Britain,
Connecticut Leadership training Sensitivity training
play Marrow (1969)
1947 National training laboratory Bethel, Maine Leadershi p training T-groups (sensitivity
training/role play) Marrow (1967,
1947 Overcoming resistance to change Harwood The impact of different approaches to
change on productivity Participative change
ﬁeld analysis Coch and
Source : Adapted from Burnes (2007).
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 367
Research and the 3-Step model of change (Unfreezing-Moving-Refreezing).
Though these are often treated as separate themes of his work, Lewin saw them
as a uniﬁed whole with each element supporting and reinforcing the others and
all of them necessary to understand and bring about Planned change, whether it
be at the level of the individual, group, organization or even society (Bargal
and Bar, 1992; Kippenberger, 1998a, 1998b; Smith, 2001). As Allport (1948,
p. ix) states: ‘All of his concepts, whatever root-metaphor they employ, comprise
a single well-integrated system.’Lewin was primarily interested in resolving social conﬂict through behavioral
change, whether this be within organizations or in the wider society. He identiﬁed
three requirements for successful change:
1. That those involved be free to make their own decisions without manipulation
2. That they be helped, by a neutral facilitator, to understand how their behavior is formed, motivated and maintained. The key tools for this were Field Theory
and Group Dynamics.
3. By learning about their own behavior, they could change it by utilising Action Research and the 3-Step model of change.
From Lewin to OD
After his death, Lewin’s work on Planned change became the core of Organization
Development (OD) (Burnes, 2004, 2007; Cummings and Worley, 2005). Accord-
ing to French and Bell:
Organization development is a unique organizational improvement strategy that
emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. . . .[It] has evolved into an integrated fra-
mework of theories and practices capable of solving or helping to solve most of the
important problems confronting the human side of organizations. Organization
development is about people andorganizations and people inorganizations and
how they function. OD is also about planned change, that is getting individuals,
teams and organizations to function better. Planned change involves common
sense, hard work applied diligently over time, a systematic, goal-oriented approach,
and valid knowledge about organizational dynamics and how to change them. Valid
knowledge derives from the behavioral sciences such as psychology, social psychol-
ogy, sociology, anthropology, systems theory, and the practice of management.
(French and Bell, 1995, p. 1 – 2)
OD not only took on Lewin’s approach to change, it also embraced his belief
in democratic participation. Underpinning OD is a set of values, assumptions
and ethics that emphasise its humanistic orientation and its commitment to
organizational effectiveness. These values have been articulated by many
writers over the years (Conner, 1977; Warwick and Thompson, 1980; French
and Bell, 1999; Gellerman et al, 1990). One of the earliest attempts was
by French and Bell (1973), who proposed that four core values underpinned
368 B. Burnes
1. The belief that the needs and aspirations of human beings provide the primereasons for the existence of organizations within society.
2. Change agents believe that organizational prioritisation is a legitimate part of organizational culture.
3. Change agents are committed to increased organizational effectiveness.
4. OD places a high value on the democratization of organizations through power equalization.
In a survey of OD practitioners, Hurley et al.(1992) found these values were
clearly reﬂected in the ﬁve main approaches they used in their work:
1. Empowering employees to act.
2. Creating openness in communications.
3. Facilitating ownership of the change process and its outcomes.
4. The promotion of a culture of collaboration.
5. The promotion of continuous learning.
Within the OD ﬁeld, there are a number of major theorists and practitioners who
have contributed their own models and techniques to its advancement (Argyris,
1962; Beckhard, 1969; French and Bell, 1973; Blake and Mouton, 1976).
However, despite this, there is general agreement that the OD movement grew
out of, and became the standard bearer for, Kurt Lewin’s pioneering work on
behavioral science in general, and his development of Planned change in parti-
cular (Cummings and Worley, 1997; Burnes, 2007). Up to the 1970s, OD tended to focus on group issues in organizations, and
sought to promote Lewin’s humanistic and democratic approach to change in
the values it espoused (Conner, 1977; Warwick and Thompson, 1980; Gellerman
et al. , 1990). However, with oil shocks of the 1970s, the economic turmoil of the
1980s, and the rise of Japanese competitiveness, organizations became less inter-
ested in group-based change and more concerned with transformational change
(Burnes, 2009a). As French and Bell (1995) noted, this resulted in a major broad-
ening of scope within the OD ﬁeld. Instead of focussing mainly on group-based
incremental change, it began to embrace more fundamental, organization-wide
transformation initiatives (Cummings and Huse, 1989; Cummings and Worley, 2005).
Therefore, in the last 20 – 30 years, OD has moved considerably from its roots in
group-based Planned change and now takes a far more organization- and system-
wide perspective on change. However, this has created something of a dilemma
for proponents of OD. As Krell (1981) pointed out, much of what can be con-
ceived of as traditional OD (Planned change) had become accepted practice in
many organizations by the early 1980s. Even some of the newer approaches,
such as job design and self-managed work teams, had become mainstream prac-
tices in many organizations (Beer and Walton, 1987). By and large, these tried-
and-tested approaches still tend to focus on the group level rather than on the
wider organization level. They have also been shown to be very effective at
achieving successful change (Macy and Izumi, 1993; Robertson et al., 1993;
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 369
Woodmanet al., 2008). However, the more organization-wide transformational
approaches, which are seen as crucial to maintaining OD’s relevance for organiz-
ations, are less clear, less well-developed and less well-accepted (French and Bell,
1995; Cummings and Worley, 1997). In addition, the more that OD becomes
focused on macro issues, the less it can keep in touch with and involve all the indi-
viduals affected by its change programs and the less able it is to promote its core
humanist and democratic values. Indeed, quite a number of the leading supporters
of OD have begun to argue that it has lost its sense of direction and purpose to the
extent that it is no longer clear what constitutes OD (Worley and Feyerhern, 2003;
Bradford and Burke, 2004; Greiner and Cummings, 2004). This does not mean
that the same writers have abandoned OD or do not see a positive future for it.
They do appear though to recognize that the more it moves away from its Lewi-
nian roots in participative, group-based behavior change and adopts more direc-
tive, organization-wide approaches to change, the more difﬁcult it is to deﬁne
what is distinctive about OD. Or to put it another way, if OD loses its ethical
values, can it any longer call itself OD?
However, it is not just the newer forms of OD which have been criticized.
Lewin’s work has also come under considerable ﬁre (Dawson, 1994; Hatch,
1997; Wooten and White, 1999; Beer and Nohria, 2000). Weick (2000) states
that the main drawbacks of Planned change were seen as:
. . . a high probability of relapse; uneven diffusion among units; large short-term
losses that are difﬁcult to recover; less suitability for opportunity-driven than for
threat-driven alterations; unanticipated consequences due to limited foresight; temp-
tations towards hypocrisy (when people talk the talk of revolution but walk the talk
of resistance); adoption of best practices that work best elsewhere because of a
different context; ignorance among top management regarding key contingencies
and capabilities at the front line; and lags in implementation that make the change
outdated before it is even ﬁnished. (Weick, 2000, pp. 226 – 227)
Similarly, Buchanan and Storey maintain that the main criticism of those who
advocate Planned change is:
. . . their attempt to impose an order and a linear sequence to processes that are in
reality messy and untidy, and which unfold in an iterative fashion with much back-
tracking and omission. (Buchanan and Storey, 1997, p. 127)
Perhaps the most vociferous and scathing critics of Planned change were Kanter
et al. (1992) who argued that:
Lewin’s model was a simple one, with organizational change involving three stages;
unfreezing, changing and refreezing . . .This quaintly linear and static conception –
the organization as an ice cube – is so wildly inappropriate that it is difﬁcult to
see why it has not only survived but prospered. . . .Sufﬁce it to say here, ﬁrst,
that organizations are never frozen, much less refrozen, but are ﬂuid entities with
many ‘personalities’. Second, to the extent that there are stages, they overlap and
interpenetrate one another in important ways. (Kanter et al., 1992, p. 10)
In examining the criticisms of Lewin’s work, Burnes (2004, 2009a) has pointed
out that there is tendency to misunderstand Lewin’s concept of Planned change
and also to confuse it with later developments within OD. Burnes (2004, 2009a)
argues that, despite the criticisms, the core of Lewin’s work – his participative
approach to behavioural change – has proved remarkably robust. This is a view
shared by Hendry who maintains:
Scratch any account of creating and managing change and the idea that change is a
three-stage process which necessarily begins with a process of unfreezing will not be
far below the surface. (Hendry, 1996, p. 624)
In turn, Hendry’s view is supported by the work of Elrod and Tippett (2002), who
reviewed a wide range of change models. They found that most approaches to
organizational change were strikingly similar to Lewin’s 3-Step model. When
they extended their research to other forms of human and organizational
change, Elrod and Tippett found that:
Models of the change process, as perceived by diverse and seemingly unrelated dis-
ciplines [such as bereavement theory, personal transition theory, creative processes,
cultural revolutions and scientiﬁc revolutions]. . .follow Lewin’s . . .three-phase
model of change . . .(Elrod and Tippett, 2002, p. 273)
However, in the face of the criticisms of Lewin and OD, other approaches to
change have been proposed.
Emergent Approach to Change
From the 1980s onwards, in response to the criticisms of Planned changes and OD,
many alternative approaches to change have been offered. Kanter et al.(1992)
offered two complementary approaches: the Bold Strokeapproach – rapid
overall change; and the Long Marchapproach – incremental change leading to
transformation over an extended period of time. In a similar vein, Beer and
Nohria (2000) identify two basic archetypes or theories of change: Theory E –
the main objective of this approach is to improve an organizations short-term
ﬁnancial performance through initiatives such as downsizing; and Theory O –
the main objective of this is to improve an organization’s long-term ﬁnancial pos-
ition by the slow incremental development of its human resources. Stace and
Dunphy (2001) identify four approaches to change: Co-operative, Collaborative,
Directive and Coercive. For Peters (1989), rapid, disruptive and continuous
change is the only appropriate form of change there is. Not to be outdone,
Kotter (1996) put forward his ‘eight steps to successful change’. One could extend this list almost ad innitum.However, despite the plethora of
new approaches to change, the generally accepted view is that Emergent change
has taken over the mantle of Planned change as the dominant approach (Mintzberg
and Westley, 1992; Weick and Quinn, 1999; Beer and Nohria, 2000; Pettigrew
et al. , 2001; By, 2005; Caldwell, 2006; Burnes, 2009a). The Emergent approach
starts from the assumption that change is not a linear process or a one-off isolated
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 371
event but is a continuous, open-ended, cumulative and unpredictable process of
aligning and re-aligning an organization to its changing environment (Orlikowski,
1996; Falconer, 2002). Weick (2000) comments as follows on studies of Emergent change:
The recurring story is one of autonomous initiatives that bubble up internally; con-
tinuous emergent change; steady learning from both failure and success; strategy
implementation that is replaced by strategy making; the appearance of innovations
that are unplanned, unforeseen and unexpected; and small actions that have surpris-
ingly large consequences. (Weick, 2000, p. 225)
In a similar vein, Caldwell (2006, p. 77) refers to Emergent change as ‘. . .a long-
term complex and incremental process of shaping how change unfolds over time.’
This is why the advocates of Emergent change argue that it needs to be viewed
holistically and contextually (Mintzberg and Westley, 1992). Most importantly,
proponents of Emergent change view organizations as power systems and, conse-
quently, see change as a political process whereby different groups in an organiz-
ation struggle to protect or enhance their own interests (Huczynski and Buchanan,
2001; Orlikowski and Yates, 2006; By et al., 2008).
Consequently, Dawson (1994) states that:
In managing these transitions practitioners need to be aware of: the importance of
power politics within organizations as a determinant of the speed, direction and
character of change; the enabling and constraining properties of the type and
scale of change being introduced; and the inﬂuence of the internal and external
context on the pathways and outcomes of change on new work arrangement. . . .
(Dawson, 1994, p. 180 – 182)
In a similar vein, Pugh comments that:
Organizations are political and occupational systems as well as rational resource
allocation ones. Every reaction to a change proposal must be interpreted not only
in terms of rational arguments of what is best for the ﬁrm . . .The reaction must
also be understood in relation to the occupational system . . .and the political
system (how will it affect the power, status, prestige of the group?). (Pugh, 1993,
Therefore, from the Emergent perspective, successful change is less dependent on
detailed plans and projections than on reaching an understanding of the intricacy
of the issues concerned, including the central role played by power and politics in
initiating and managing change, and in identifying the range of available options
(Pettigrew, 1997). Just as power is central to their conception of change, so for proponents of the
Emergent perspective, the change agent is the prime mover – the person who
makes the change happen – and their ability to understand and wield power are
core skills (Weick and Quinn, 1999). As Dawson maintains:
372 B. Burnes
. . .the role of the change agent is identiﬁed as a central element in the power plays
and political manoeuvring of individuals and groups during programmes of change.
(Dawson, 2003, p. 25)
Buchanan and Boddy draw particular attention to the change agent’s need to:
. . . support the ‘public performance’ of rationally considered and logically phased
and visibly participative change with ‘backstage activity’ in the recruitment and
maintenance of support and in seeking and blocking resistance. . . .‘Backstaging’
is concerned with the exercise of ‘power skills’, with ‘intervening in political and
cultural systems’, with inﬂuencing and negotiating and selling, and with ‘managing
meaning’. (Buchanan and Boddy, 1992, p. 27)
The role description of the change agent which comes out of the Emergent per-
spective is of an individual who is a highly-skilled and well-trained political oper-
ator who has, not only, an indepth knowledge of change processes and tools, but
also the personal qualities and experience to use them both in the open and,
especially, behind the scenes. What the role description does not appear to
contain is any mention of ethics or morality: rather the reverse. The change
agent’s role is to get the job done, come what may. If Lewin’s view of change
can be summarized as ‘the end reﬂects the means’, then the summary of the Emer-
gent view would be ‘the end justiﬁes the means’.
Emergent Change: What about Ethics?
One of the notable aspects of the Emergent approach is that its proponents do not
appear to consider the issue of ethics. Their view seems to be that it is an immu-
table fact of life that organizations are composed of warring factions and, there-
fore, for change to be successful, its proponents must utilize politics and power
to achieve their ends (Buchanan and Boddy, 1992; Hardy, 1996; Hatch, 1997; Mintzberg et al., 1998; Dawson, 2004; Caldwell, 2006; Orlikowski and Yates,
2006). This view is neatly summed up by Pfeffer (1992) who states that:
Computers don’t get built, cities don’t get rebuilt, and diseases don’t get fought
unless advocates for change learn how to develop and use power effectively.
(Pfeffer, 1992, pp. 337 – 338)
If one accepts that politics dominates organizational life and that change is a battle
between those who have power and those who want it, it is only a small step to
arguing that ‘might is right’, that is those who have the power have the right to
impose their change on the rest of the organization, regardless of how those on
the receiving end feel about it. Typical examples of this are cases where managers
promote or block restructuring depending on how it affects them and their part of
the organization. A prominent example of this was the on – off merger of SmithK-
line Beecham and Glaxo. In 1998, the two companies announced that they planned
to merge and form the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. However, the
merger was quickly called off owing to a rumored clash between SmithKline’s
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 373
Chief Executive, Jan Leschley, and Glaxo’s Chairman, Sir Richard Sykes, over
who would run the merged company (Buckingham and Finch, 1999). It was
only when Leschley and Sykes both announced their retirements that the
merger proceeded. However, it is in the area of bonuses in the ﬁnancial sector
where the most prominent abuse of power seems to have occurred (Leigh,
2009; Wintour and Treanor, 2009). The self-proclaimed ‘masters of the universe’
used their position to award themselves millions and, in some cases, billions of
dollars for creating and trading complex, and ultimately worthless, ﬁnancial pro-
ducts which few, if any, understood and that caused the worst global ﬁnancial
crisis since the 1930s (Kay, 2008; Ashley, 2009; Clark, 2009; Toynbee, 2009;
Treanor, 2009). Obviously, the proponents of Emergent change do not necessarily
support such abuses of power. However, they do see power and politics as a fact of
organizational life, which must be accepted and exploited if change is to be
achieved (Pfeffer, 1992). Indeed, as Buchanan and Badham note, the advice
seems to be that:
If all else fails, use dirty tricks such as coercion, undermining the expertise of others,
playing one group off against another, and get others to ‘ﬁre the bullet’. (Buchanan
and Badham, 1999, p. 29)
From this perspective, ethical change is not an issue because power and politics
preclude such considerations.It seems contradictory that proponents of Emergent change maintain that most
aspects of organizational behavior can be changed but not those connected with
power and politics.
In the UK and most other Western economies, the rise of neo-liberalism in the late
1970s marked the end of the post-1945 approach to politics and economics, which
had tended to stress common good above individual gain and state regulation
above market forces (Marlow, 1996). The 1980s saw a rising crescendo of
voices calling for the rolling back of the state through privatisations and deregula-
tion (Doherty and Horne, 2002). Industries which had previously been either
state-owned or tightly regulated, such as telecommunications, energy and ﬁnan-
cial services, were thrown open to market competition (Harvey, 2007). State
regulation was, in effect, replaced by free market competition; the main criterion
as to whether an organization was doing the right thing was its proﬁt margin – the
market would decide what was right and what was wrong (Klein, 2001; Stiglitz,
2007). As mentioned earlier, the creed of the age seemed to be summed up in
Gordon Gekko’s words: ‘greed, for want of a better word, is good’. Coupled to
this was the rise of globalization where competition moved from the national to
the international arena and where previously closed markets, especially Russia
and China, suddenly became open for business (Jones, 1995; Deresky, 2000).
However, this not only gave a boost to international trade, it also led to a surge
in unethical behaviors such as bribery, child labor, pollution and the over-exploi-
tation of natural resources (Lines, 2002; Partnoy, 2003; Dunphy et al., 2007; Leigh
374 B. Burnes
and Evans, 2007; Hickman, 2008; Hittet al, 2009). In effect, it was a return to the
social-Darwinist, laissez-faire capitalism of the nineteenth century – survival of
the ﬁttest as judged by the market (Hawkins, 1997). Yet, the self-interest and market supremacy of the last 25 years now seems to be
waning. We now appear to be entering a new era whose creed might be summed
up as ‘ethical behaviour, for want of better phrase, is good’. There are four main
reasons for the advent of this new era. The ﬁrst is the credit crunch which has
exposed the ﬂaws of untrammelled and unregulated capitalism, with the result
that governments across the world are beginning to take action to make ﬁnancial
institutions take economic and social responsibility seriously (Porter, 2008;
Elliott, 2009; Lane, 2009; Sunderland, 2009a, 2009b). The second is the rising
tide of environmental awareness, especially in the USA and China, which has
led to the realization that action must be taken now to safeguard the future of
the planet (Dunphy et al., 2007; Goldenberg, 2009; Thomas and Chomitz,
2009). The third is the decision by some private organizations, such as the drug
giant GlaxoSmithKline, to break with the mantra of ‘proﬁt ﬁrst’ and become
more socially responsible and cooperative in their approach to business (Bosely,
2009). Last but not least is the election of President Barack Obama, with his
message of change, his attack on unrestrained capitalism and his call for personal,
social, economic and environmental responsibility (Obama, 2008, 2009). It is one thing to wish to promote ethical behavior, but it is another thing to
achieve it. As mentioned earlier in this article, there have been previous attempts
over the last 25 years to clean up the ﬁnancial markets and to promote social and
environmental responsibility by the imposition of legal measures and codes of
conduct. By and large, as our current parlous state shows, these have failed. It
has been argued in this article that that behavioral change, whether at the individ-
ual, group or organizational level, cannot be achieved by imposition, trickery or
manipulation. Instead, it requires people to change of their own volition. There-
fore, if the new era of ethical behavior is to become reality, we need an approach
to change which is itself ethically based. Over the past 60 years or so, two approaches have dominated the change ﬁeld.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, the Planned approach was in the ascendancy but
since then the Emergent approach appears to have overtaken it (Weick and
Quinn, 1999; Beer and Nohria, 2000). With its emphasis on power and politics
and its apparent acceptance that ‘might is right’, the Emergent approach seems
to have ﬁtted in well with the spirit of the last 25 years. However, in an era
where ethical behavior within and by organizations is becoming increasingly
important, the time now seems propitious for a return to the type of ethically-
based approach to change advocated by Kurt Lewin. Lewin’s view of human nature and its malleability was very much different
from that of the Emergent school. He believed and demonstrated that successful
behavioral change could be achieved, but only through a democratic – participative
learning process where people changed of their own volition rather than by coer-
cion or manipulation (Lewin, 1947; Burnes, 2007; Wheeler, 2008). As others have
shown subsequently, free will is enormously important in achieving change and
this is unlikely to be present if those concerned feel that they have been tricked
or forced to change (Festinger, 1957; Bennett, 1983; Schein, 1996; Elrod and
Time for a Return to Lewinian Values 375
Tippett, 2002; Makin and Cox, 2004). Therefore, rather than accepting organiz-
ations and society as they are, or seeing certain behaviors as immutable,
Lewin’s approach was designed to allow those concerned to bring such behaviors
out into the open, challenge and change them. He did not take the view that we can
change everything except those aspects of human behavior concerned with power
and politics. Instead, he saw challenging and changing human behavior, especially
in its more unacceptable forms such as racism, as being the fundamental challenge
we face in society and organizations. Consequently, unlike the Emergent school,
Lewin offers us an optimistic view of human nature and the ability of human
beings to create better organizations and build a better world. Furthermore,
there is much evidence of the success of Lewin’s approach in achieving sustained
behavior change (Macy and Izumi, 1993; Robertsonet al., 1993; Woodman et al.,
Though it may surprise some of Lewin’s critics, several of the newer and more
radical perspectives on organizations and change appear to offer support to his
view of democratic participation and organizational change. For example, there
are those in the postmodern-social constructionist camp who argue that a more
open and democratic approach to change is both preferable and achievable. As
In a socially constructed world, responsibility for environmental conditions lies with
those who do the constructing. . . .This suggests at least two competing scenarios for
organizational change. First, organization change can be a vehicle of domination for
those who conspire to enact the world for others . . .An alternative use of social con-
structionism is to create a democracy of enactment in which the process is made
open and available to all . . .such that we create opportunities for freedom and inno-
vation rather than simply for further domination. (Hatch, 1997, pp. 367 – 368)
Similarly, Wooten and White (1999) argue that the core values of OD – equality,
empowerment, consensus-building and horizontal relationships – are ones that are
particularly relevant to the post-modern organization.
From the complexity perspective there is an even more emphatic call for greater
democracy and power equalization in all aspects of organizational life (Kiel, 1994;
Bechtold, 1997; Jenner, 1998). The rationale for this claim is based on the need for
complex organizations to be continuously adapting to changing circumstances
and, in particular, developing new order-generating rules which allow them to
operate at the edge of chaos (Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997). Consequently,
unless employees have the freedom to act as they see ﬁt, self-organization will
be blocked, and organizations will die because they will not be able to achieve
continuous and beneﬁcial innovation (Burnes, 2005).
The world is changing and organizations must also change if they are to survive.
However, in seeking to replace unethical behavior with ethical behavior, organiz-
ations may be condemning themselves to failure unless they also seek to adopt an
ethical approach to change. As argued here, Kurt Lewin developed such an
approach – Planned change – and it has a successful track record stretching
back to the 1940s. Therefore, in order to move forward, organizations will need
to embrace the democratic-participatory values promoted by Lewin.
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