5.1 Theoretical Approach to Change

Change Theories

There are several change theories that nurse leaders may adopt when implementing change. Two traditional change theories are known as Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze Model and Lippitt’s Seven-Step Change Theory (Ana & Hendricks-Jackson, 2017).

Lewin’s Change Model

Kurt Lewin, the father of social psychology, introduced the classic three-step model of change known as Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze Model that requires prior learning to be rejected and replaced. Lewin’s model has three major concepts: driving forces, restraining forces, and equilibrium. Driving forces are those that push in a direction and cause change to occur. They facilitate change because they push the person in a desired direction. They cause a shift in the equilibrium towards change. Restraining forces are those forces that counter the driving forces. They hinder change because they push the person in the opposite direction. They cause a shift in the equilibrium that opposes change. Equilibrium is a state of being where driving forces equal restraining forces, and no change occurs. It can be raised or lowered by changes that occur between the driving and restraining forces (Ana & Hendricks-Jackson, 2017; Nursing Theory, n.d.)).

  • Step 1: Unfreeze the status quo. Unfreezing is the process of altering behavior to agitate the equilibrium of the current state. This step is necessary if resistance is to be overcome and conformity achieved. Unfreezing can be achieved by increasing the driving forces that direct behavior away from the existing situation or status quo while decreasing the restraining forces that negatively affect the movement from the existing equilibrium. Nurse leaders can initiate activities that can assist in the unfreezing step, such as motivating participants by preparing them for change, building trust and recognition for the need to change, and encouraging active participation in recognizing problems and brainstorming solutions within a group (Kritsonis, 2005).
  • Step 2: Change. Change is the process of moving to a new equilibrium. Nurse leaders can implement actions that assist in movement to a new equilibrium by persuading employees to agree that the status quo is not beneficial to them; encouraging them to view the problem from a fresh perspective; working together to search for new, relevant information; and connecting the views of the group to well-respected, powerful leaders who also support the change (Kritsonis, 2005).
  • Step 3: Refreeze. Refreezing refers to attaining equilibrium with the newly desired behaviors. This step must take place after the change has been implemented for it to be sustained over time. If this step does not occur, it is very likely the change will be short-lived and employees will revert to the old equilibrium. Refreezing integrates new values into community values and traditions. Nursing leaders can reinforce new patterns of behavior and institutionalize them by adopting new policies and procedures (Kritsonis, 2005).

Example Using Lewin’s Change Theory

Sue, a new nurse working in a medical-surgical unit, identifies that bedside handoff reports are not currently being used during shift reports.

Step 1: Unfreeze: Sue recognizes a change is needed for improved patient safety and discusses the concern with Jason, the nurse manager. Current evidence-based practice is shared regarding bedside handoff reports between shifts for patient safety (AHRQ, n.d.). Jason initiates activities such as scheduling unit meetings to discuss evidence-based practice and the need to incorporate bedside handoff reports.

Step 2: Change: Jason gains support from the Director of Nursing to implement organizational change and plans staff education about bedside report checklists and the manner in which they are performed.

Step 3: Refreeze: Jason adopts bedside handoff reports in a new unit policy and monitors staff for effectiveness.

Lippitt’s Seven-Step Change Theory

Lippitt’s Seven-Step Change Theory expands on Lewin’s change theory by focusing on the role of the change agent. A change agent is anyone who has the skill and power to stimulate, facilitate, and coordinate the change effort. Change agents can be internal, such as nurse managers or employees appointed to oversee the change process, or external, such as an outside consulting firm. External change agents are not bound by organizational culture, politics, or traditions, so they bring a different perspective to the situation and challenge the status quo. However, this can also be a disadvantage because external change agents lack an understanding of the agency’s history, operating procedures, and personnel (Lunenburg, 2010). The seven-step model includes the following steps (Ana & Hendricks-Jackson, 2017):

  • Step 1: Diagnose the problem. Examine possible consequences, determine who will be affected by the change, identify essential management personnel who will be responsible for fixing the problem, collect data from those who will be affected by the change, and ensure those affected by the change will be committed to its success.
  • Step 2: Evaluate motivation and capability for change. Identify financial and human resources capacity and organizational structure.
  • Step 3: Assess the change agent’s motivation and resources, experience, stamina, and dedication.
  • Step 4: Select progressive change objectives. Define the change process and develop action plans and accompanying strategies.
  • Step 5: Explain the role of the change agent to all employees and ensure the expectations are clear. 
  • Step 6: Maintain change. Facilitate feedback, enhance communication, and coordinate the effects of change.
  • Step 7: Gradually terminate the helping relationship of the change agent.

Example Using Lippitt’s Seven-Step Change Theory

Refer to the previous example of using Lewin’s change theory on a medical-surgical unit to implement bedside handoff reporting. Jason, the nurse manager, expands on the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze Model by implementing additional steps based on Lippitt’s Seven-Step Change Theory:

  • Jason collects data from team members affected by the changes and ensures their commitment to success.
  • Early adopters are identified as change agents on the unit who are committed to improving patient safety by implementing evidence-based practices such as bedside handoff reporting.
  • Action plans (including staff education and mentoring), timelines, and expectations are clearly communicated to team members as progressive change objectives. Early adopters are trained as “super-users” to provide staff education and mentor other nurses in using bedside handoff checklists across all shifts.
  • Jason facilitates feedback and encourages two-way communication about challenges as change is implemented on the unit. Positive reinforcement is provided as team members effectively incorporate change.
  • Bedside handoff reporting is implemented as a unit policy, and all team members are held accountable for performing accurate bedside handoff reporting.

Learn More

Read more about additional change theories in the Current Theories of Change Management pdf.

Watch the videoLewin’s 3-Stage Model of Change: Unfreezing, Changing & Refreezing” (8:06) by Education-Portal.com for more about Lewin’s change model.

Watch the video “Rogers Diffusion of Innovation” (3:15) by Kendal Pho, Yuri Dorovskikh, and Natalia Lara (Digital Pixels) for more about Rogers’ theory of innovation.

Change Management

Change management is the process of making changes in a deliberate, planned, and systematic manner (Ana & Hendricks-Jackson, 2017). It is important for nurse leaders and nurse managers to remember a few key points about change management (Ana & Hendricks-Jackson, 2017):

  • Employees will react differently to change, no matter how important or advantageous the change is purported to be.
  • Basic needs will influence reaction to change, such as the need to be part of the change process, the need to be able to express oneself openly and honestly, and the need to feel that one has some control over the impact of change.
  • Change often results in a feeling of loss due to changes in established routines. Employees may react with shock, anger, and resistance, but ideally will eventually accept and adopt change.
  • Change must be managed realistically, without false hopes and expectations, yet with enthusiasm for the future. Employees should be provided information honestly and allowed to ask questions and express concerns.

Next: 5.2 Conflict Management



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Leading Change in Health Systems: Strategies for RN-BSN Students Copyright © 2023 by Kathy Andresen DNP, MPH, RN, CNE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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