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Define Your Path

The Teachings of Kurt Lewin: Are We a Product of Our Environment?

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Some consider Fredrick Taylor's development of scientific management to be the original application of intellectual analysis to the workplace. In other words, his ideas were the "brains" of early organization development (OD) efforts. While others may challenge this notion it does hold true because before that there had not been any focused efforts on improving the workplace. But OD is about more than just intellectual application. What makes OD different is not just its "brain" but its "heart". OD is not just about improving the workplace for the sake of improving it. OD is about doing so in a way that takes into account and enhances the dignity and value of the people in that workplace. To understand the antecedents of these core ideals we must look back to Kurt Lewin.

Lewin was a Prussian born social psychologist who was one of the first to formalize the study of group dynamics, which is a core concept of organization development. He is credited with the development of key concepts such as action research, force-field analysis and his three step change process (unfreezing, change, refreezing) (Cummings & Worley, 2015). In addition he pioneered work around what we now call sensitivity training, and helped cofound the National Training Laboratories (NTL). Even to this day the NTL remain a major influence on OD and its adjacent domains within the behavioral sciences.

As much as Lewin is known for the techniques he developed, it was his reason for doing so that is even more important for our understanding of OD's values. Lewin saw it as his mission to rid the world of ignorance, prejudice, and self-hate through the application of social science to the workplace (Weisbord, 2004). He did this by combining the scientific thinking (e.g., Taylor's scientific management) with democratic values. Up to this point these values were secondary or tertiary considerations, if they were considered at all. One of Lewin's key insights was that we can't just study a system, we also have to strive to change it for positive social impact. If not, there isn't much point to our efforts.

While the ideas of positive social impact and social justice are widely embraced today, at the time that Lewin was alive they were groundbreaking. Our modern understanding of concepts such as motivation, emotional intelligence, and diversity all owe a huge debt to Kurt Lewin and his work. He was the first one to recognize that how a person behaves is a function of both the person and their environment. More importantly, he recognized that each person may have a unique perception of that environment and a unique value to add. As OD professionals we have an obligation to not only be sensitive to these issues ourselves, but to also encourage that sensitivity in others.

I'm not going to pretend that I can do justice to Kurt Lewin in just a few paragraphs. His impact on OD and society as a whole has been too great, even if many parts of society doesn't realize it. Entire books have been written on his work and its influence on the modern workplace. I've even heard of graduate programs offering semester long seminars on Lewin's concepts. So while I will not presuppose that I can inclusively summarize his work here, I will simply say that without Kurt Lewin our modern world of work would be a much more heartless place.

References

Cummings, T.G. & Worley, C.G. (2015). Organization development & change, 10th eds. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning Weisbord, M. (2004). Productive workplaces revisited: Dignity, meaning and community in the 21st century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cummings, T.G. & Worley, C.G. (2015). Organization development & change, 10th eds. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning Moorehead, G. & Griffin, R. W. (1992). Organizational behavior: Managing people and organizations, 3rd eds. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at www.jimmybrownphd.com or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd