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Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and ChangeKurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change


Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)

German-born American psychologist (pictured right).

Founder of modern social psychology that explains how our behaviour is affected by other people.

A big influence on our understanding of change management .


His most famous book is…

Field Theory in Social Science (1951).


What did he say about psychology, leadership and change?


1. LeadershipKurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change

In a research study with Ronald Lippitt (pictured right) and Ralph White, he identified three leadership styles whose effectiveness depended on people’s situation (see also point 2):


a) authoritarian

(telling people what to do)

This is best when:

  • there is little time for consultation, or
  • the leader has the most knowledge.

 Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change

b) democratic

(people participate in decision making)


  • improves motivation, decision making and creativity.
  • is normally the most effective leadership style.


c) laissez-faire

(people are allowed to make decisions with little or no guidance from the leader).

This is most effective when people are highly knowledgeable.

But laissez-faire often leads to:

  • poorly defined roles.
  • low motivation.


2. Social psychology

This says that people are affected by:

  • their own behaviour.
  • their situation (including interactions with organizations and other people).
  • society’s values and beliefs.

Lewin explained this in what is now known as Lewin’s Equation.

So he emphasized the importance of:

Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change


a) groups 

How people interact in them (e.g. pressure to conform)

This later became known as group dynamics - see point 4 below.

 Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change

b) conflict 

People's situation can only be improved by:

  • resolving conflict between them.
  • changing people's views (of each other and the world around them).

 Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change

3. Change management

Lewin’s “force field analysis” says that:

For any change to occur, “driving forces” (factors driving change) must exceed “restraining forces” (factors supporting the no change position or status quo).

Lewin believed change happens in three stages:


Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change

a) unfreezing 

Overcoming resistance to change through:

  • rejecting complacency
  • dissatisfaction with the present situation. 
  • questioning attitudes and prejudices. 
  • participation by people affected by the change.

Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change 

b) moving

Changing what needs to be changed based on:

  • learning from past successes, failures and problems.
  • an evaluation of all relevant factors

 Kurt Lewin - Psychology, Leadership and Change

c) freezing 

Making the change permanent in people’s minds through:

  • effective interpersonal relationships (making the change easier to implement).
  • positive attitudes towards the change (because it's beneficial and consistent with people's beliefs).


4. Group dynamics

Lewin coined this term to describe the importance of groups in change and resolving conflict.


Key quote on relationships

We all need each other.


Key quote on learning

Learning is more effective when it is an active rather than a passive process.

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.


Key quote on success

A successful individual typically sets his next goal somewhat, but not too much, above his last achievement.

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