If any part of the core cognitive structure is to change in more than minor incremental ways, the system must first experience enough disequilibrium to force a coping process that goes beyond just reinforcing the assumptions that are already in place. Lewin called the creation of such disequilibrium unfreezing, or creating a motivation to change. Unfreezing, as I have subsequently analyzed it, is composed of three very different processes, each of which must be present to a certain degree for the system to develop any motivation to change: (1) enough disconfirming data to cause serious discomfort and disequilibrium; (2) the connection of the disconfirming data to important goals and ideals, causing anxiety and/or guilt; and (3) enough psychological safety, in the sense of being able to see a possibility of solving the problem and learning something new without loss of identity or integrity (Schein, 1980, 2009b).
Transformative change implies that the person or group that is the target of change must unlearn something as well as learning something new. Most of the difficulties of such change have to do with the unlearning because what we have learned has become embedded in various routines and may have become part of our personal and group identity. The key to understanding “resistance to change” is to recognize that some behavior that has become dysfunctional for us may, nevertheless, be difficult to give up and replace because it serves other positive functions. Psychotherapists call this “secondary gain” as an explanation of why we sometimes continue to live with our neurotic behavior.
Disconfirmation is any information that shows the organization that some of its goals are not being met or that some of its processes are not accomplishing what they are supposed to: sales are off, customer complaints are up, products with quality problems are returned more frequently, managers and employees are quitting in greater numbers than usual, employees are sick or absent more and more, and so on. Disconfirming information can be economic, political, social, or personal—as when a charismatic leader chides a group for not living up to its own ideals and thereby induces guilt. Scandals or embarrassing leaks of information are often the most powerful kind of disconfirmation. However, the information is usually only symptomatic. It does not automatically tell the organization what the underlying problem might be, but it creates disequilibrium in pointing out that something is wrong somewhere. It makes members of the organization uncomfortable and anxious—a state that we can think of as survival anxiety in that it implies that unless we change, something bad will happen to the individual, the group, and/or the organization.
Survival anxiety does not, by itself, automatically produce a motivation to change because members of the organization can deny the validity of the information or rationalize that it is irrelevant. For example, if employee turnover suddenly increases, leaders or organization members can say, “It is only the bad people who are leaving, the ones we don’t want anyway.” Or if sales are down, it is possible to say, “This is only a reflection of a minor recession.”
What makes this level of denial and repression likely is the fact that the prospect of learning new ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and behaving also creates anxiety—what we can think of as learning anxiety, a feeling that “I cannot learn new behaviors or adopt new attitudes without losing a feeling of self-esteem or group membership.” The reduction of this learning anxiety is the third and most important component of unfreezing—the creation of psychological safety. The learner must come to feel that the new way of being is possible and achievable, and that the learning process itself will not be too anxiety provoking or demeaning.
For example, in the case of Amoco, the new reward and control system required engineers to change their self-image from being members of an organization to being self-employed consultants who now had to sell their services. The Amoco engineers simply could not imagine how they could function as freelance consultants; they had no skills along those lines. In the case of the Alpha Power Company, the electrical workers had to change their self-image from being employees who heroically kept power and heat on to being responsible stewards of the environment, preventing and cleaning up spills produced by their trucks or transformers. The new rules required them to report incidents that might be embarrassing to their group, and even to report on each other if they observed environmentally irresponsible behavior in fellow workers. But they were in a panic because they did not know how to diagnose environmentally dangerous conditions—how to determine, for example, whether a spill required a simple mop-up or was full of dangerous chemicals such as PCBs, or whether a basement was merely dusty or was filled with asbestos dust.
Sometimes disconfirming data have existed for a long time but because of a lack of psychological safety, the organization has avoided anxiety or guilt by denying the data’s relevance, validity, or even its existence. It is our capacity both as individuals and as organizations to deny or even repress disconfirming data that makes whistle blowing or scandals such powerful change motivators. The failure to pay attention to disconfirming data occurs at two levels—leaders who are in a position to act deny or repress the data for personal psychological reasons, and/or the information is available in various parts of the organization but is suppressed in various ways. In the analysis of accidents, it is routinely found that some employees had observed various hazards and did not report them, were not listened to, or were actually encouraged to suppress their observations (Gerstein, 2008; Perin, 2005). The organizational dynamic is to deny information because to accept it would compromise the ability to achieve other values or goals, or would damage the self-esteem or face of the organization itself.
Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition