Help With Change: Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze

By | April 7, 2017

Change Can Be Difficult

Change can be difficult. Difficult for the person or group that needs to change, and difficult for the person or people bringing about the change, or who need to make the change a success.

These difficult changes can be on a personal level such as alcoholism, or smoking; or in the workplace: changes in workforce or benefits, or changes in process, culture or behaviours. In all of these situations there is potential for difficulties, friction or upset.

Models of Change Can Help

One way to start dealing better with change is to try to step back from the messy details of any one change and think about more general principles instead. These ‘models’ of change can help separate out the emotions, the positives, the negatives, the winners and the losers of a particular situation and help us see more clearly what is going on.

Help with change: Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze

One of the first formal models of change was developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1950s and later refined by Edgar Schein, and is still used to day to help understand and manage change.

Lewin and Schein identified that in any period of change three things need to happen for a successful change:

  • Unfreeze: Acknowledge that change is needed.
  • Change: Transition to the desired activity or behaviour
  • Re-freeze. Accept the new world, and keep it

In many cases, each of these steps can take  a long time, particularly if feelings are strong, or the stakes are high.  The descriptions below are generally geared towards changing somebody’s behaviour or attitude, although hopefully you can see that with a little tweaking the same kind of approach could be applied to a range of different types of personal and work changes.

1. Unfreeze

Also known as ‘preparing for change’, this stage is all about creating the motivation and readiness to change. The unfreezing process is itself made up of three components:

a) Disconfirmation. This is the initial acknowledgment or observation that something is not right or needs to change. This could be a self-realisation, or be provided externally by a friend, or colleague. The further away this disconfirmation is from the world view of the person who needs to change, the more difficult this stage is likely to be – if they think everything is fine, they might not see the problem, or react defensively.

b) A feeling of guilt or anxiety. Even if the person or group recognises that there is something ‘wrong’, the disconfirmation is unlikely to result in change unless it somehow triggers guilt or anxiety. Triggering these reactions might sound like quite a draconian appraoch, but what it is really asking is whether ‘wrong’ situation violate the person’s goals or values? With health issues, the person may not have understood how not changing would negatively affect the lives or them or their families. At work the person may need to be told what the negative consequences of them not changing might be. The feeling of guilt or anxiety helps create the impetus to actually make some change.

c) Feeling psychological support or safety.  Here the challenge is how to communicate the need for change, instil guilt and anxiety while make sure the person still feels worthwhile, maintains face and self-esteem. Without this third element, the first two are likely to result in defensive reactions and a conscious resistance to change.

2. Change

Here change means the internal transition that needs to happen to those involved in the change. If the disconfirmation during the unfreezing process provided showed ‘what’ needed to change, the actual transformation is more about the the ‘how’.

There can be a lot to take on and internalise during this process, and any change will be most effective if the person or group changing can as far as possible make the change in their own way.This could involve encouraging people to look for role models, or to read widely and seek information from a range of sources.

This transformation process is a personal journey that can take some time, but is likely to be better than simply trying to force a badly-fitting solution.

3. Refreeze

The refreezing stage is also known as ‘reinforcing change and aims to avoid us reverting back to old ways when we are away from the spotlight – a classic example might be promising to our doctor that we would do lots of exercise, going to the gym for a few weeks, but eventually giving up.

Two big factors in the refreezing process are the personal attitudes and feelings of the person or group changing, and the relationships they have with others.

Relationships can support or undermine the change. For example, if someone is trying to lose weight, a friend can either help by taking up exercise at the same time, or hinder by continuing to buy unhealthy food. In some case the process of change may need to be extended to those relationships.

It can be tempting to play as ‘doctor’ to diagnose problems and propose solutions. The danger here, however is that the person changing appears to initially accept enthusiastically, but then stop after the session, or the support is removed. This approach can be counter productive, however, as the new situation will only truly take if it fits the person’s world view and personality. The person changing has to want to change, on their own terms, for reasons that fit within their own value system.

Taking Things Further

The three-step process of changing is crude, but also applicable to many different situations. Just by recognising that people behave differently during different stages of the change process, you will be able to manage and deal with the change better.

How you successfully work through each step will of course change depending on the specific circumstances. Factors that may contribute include: Is it one person, a group or an organisation? How large and diverse is the wider stakeholder group? How enthusiastic are senior people in this change? What has the historic relationship been?

Further refinements to the unfreeze-change-refreeze model have been thought up to help it better fit a range of circumstances. You can read about some of these other models here.