Rex Lai is one of that rare and wonderful breed: a union organizer with the chops to turn practice into theory. His words below are all the more valuable because the practice Rex is drawing from as a veteran organizer with SEIU has been immensely successful. Academia schmacademia — as Kurt Lewin once said: “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory”. Longstoryshort: Rex brings together Kurt Lewin’s “Field Theory of Change”, Richard Beckhard’s “Change Equation”, and Marshall Ganz’s “Breaking the Belief Barriers” organizing process. And if that’s too abstract for you, try this: he combines the thoughts of two of the founding fathers of organization development with the USA’s (arguably) premier union organizing guru. This is an article on organizing for change, and we hope it will help you understand why in the past some things haven’t worked out, but just might next time.

Change Theories Embedded in Union Organizing:
Theoretical & Applied Organizing (the TAO)

(Part 1 in a series on organization development and organizing)

by Rex Lai, MSOD


“Organizing is both an art and a science”
— George Hardy, (former President SEIU healthcare399)

Understanding that union organizing is fundamentally a change process allows us to make some interesting connections with change theories.

Individuals band together so as to accomplish things they can’t accomplish on their own. The resulting campaigns take on a life of their own.  If we think of campaigns in this way, as organisms, we can start to notice symptoms of sickness and health.  If we think of campaigns as new systems in formation, we can approach them almost as a diagnostician would.  We can look for early signs of infection; intervene during moments of risk; predict and prevent adverse conditions; and seek ways to adapt for healthy growth.

Throughout the organizing process, worker organization develops out of an existing system (based on a company, network, corporation, etc). This process involves a cast of characters. From our point of view, workers are at the center, but there is also involvement from union staff, management, family, community members and other stakeholders.

Organization development is all about change within organizations. This might mean corporate restructuring, or a shift from a servicing model to an organizing model, or partnerships and affiliations. If we systematically break down this organizing process, we find a roadmap for those of us who cannot organize solely by instinct, intuition, and experience.

Field Theory

“There is nothing as practical as a good theory”
— Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin is considered a founding father in the field of organization development.  The main thrust of Lewin’s “field theory” is that there are fields surrounding any given social system.  These may be physical, emotional, or cognitive (and many more).  They are both independent and interdependent. Taken together, they create a sort of unique field or force.  Any social system that appears stable, Lewin describes as being “in a quasi-stationary equilibrium” (Lewin, 1947).  What he means is that there are forces at work that keep the system in the state it is in. They may not be immediately apparent, but they are there. Some are driving forces, others are restraining forces. It is their sum total that keeps the system in seeming stability, even though there is dynamic flux between the forces.

Figure 1 below is a visual representation of this field theory.  The green circle signifies the “current state” – which in this discussion we will designate as the unorganized, non-union workplace.  The blue circle represents the “desired state” – a state which workers need to designate for themselves. In getting from one state to another, they will need to become an organized workplace.

Figure 1: Adapted from Kurt Lewin: Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change, Human Relations 1: 5-41, 1947

The red arrows represent forces that are driving the current state towards the desired state. The blue arrows represent restraining forces that are acting against the driving forces, and keeping the current state in “quasi-static equilibrium”.

It is worth mentioning that driving forces can be different in direction and magnitude.  It is perhaps helpful to think of driving forces and restraining forces as vectors (ie forces with speed and direction).  Each of the red arrows (driving forces) has a blue arrow (restraining forces) of equal size and acting in the opposite direction.  It is helpful to think of each driving force as being connected in tension with its opposite restraining force.

For now, an example might be useful. Let’s consider a company that’s the only game in town, with pay slightly above the minimum wage.  Rumors of a buyout fuel uncertainty, which prompts the call to form a union.  Wanting this union to have some measure of protection through collective bargaining may be the dominant climate at the moment – a fertile field of driving forces.  Co-workers among different departments start to meet and talk together for the first time.  A “desired state” starts to emerge. Union staff get called in. More meetings occur, leading to an increased awareness of contract language and job security issues.  Individual confidence grows; collective commitment soars.  Movement is happening, as the workforce gets closer to entering an organized, union state.

Then the company’s management brings in a union avoidance consultant. They hold mandatory meetings where it is implied that a union would drive the company out of business.  This has a chilling effect.  Movement stops. The group is stuck again in a quasi-static equilibrium.  The initial desire for job security (as a driving force) now has an opposite restraining force.  Now, when someone says “job security”, workers think “keep the company going!”

Change as “unfreezing – movement – freezing”

The above example illustrates the change process described by Lewin.  One sees movement by first unfreezing a system.  This can happen through a combination of increased driving forces and decreased restraining forces.  After movement, a new set of forces needs to be at balance for stabilization and freezing.  While the simplest way to describe the process is linear and upward, the reality is that the change process is more like a spiraling, iterative cycle. As circumstances change, new forces – driving and/or restraining – emerge.

Lewin’s field theory provides for a planned change approach… a conceptual model to help us engineer change towards a desired state and outcome.

However, life happens.  Even with a carefully planned approach, a triggering event can send the system into a dynamic flux with new driving and restraining forces.  The company-wide mandatory meeting described in the above example is called a “captive audience meeting.”  If not properly managed by organizers, they can be devastatingly effective.

For this reason, organizing plans need to be not only proactively planned and implemented, but also adaptive and constructively reactive to changing circumstances.  Field theory requires organizers to be able to see the field, recognize what is happening, and respond accordingly.  Planned and emergent designs of campaigns are necessary.

Minimizing restraining forces

Increased driving forces often create a directly proportional increase in restraining forces.  Unless we constructively manage resistance to change (ie restraining forces), the overall change effort will stay static.

Lewin argues that the most effective change occurs not from INCREASING DRIVING FORCES but from DECREASING RESTRAINING FORCES.

This is a crucial point to consider; a fundamental matter in any change effort.

Field as a totality of forces

If there is an overall climate of fear in a workplace (restraining field), an effective organizer needs to attend to this with appropriate strategy and tactics, if any change is to take place.  let’s consider another example. An organizer has a good one-on-one conversation with a worker. The worker signs a membership card and agrees to talk to co-workers. They set up a time for follow-up meeting.  The organizer feels great:  the transformational change process just happened in the space of one conversation.  However, the meeting time comes and the worker is a no-show.  The organizer tries to reach the person but cannot.  The organizer comes to realise that he/she is being avoided.  Finally, contact is made and the worker tells the organizer not to contact them ever again.  What just happened?

It’s a familiar scenario. The organizer underestimates the powerful restraining field in the workplace.  Good organizers will always “inoculate” – a reframing technique to prepare workers for the management’s typical reflexive response to organizing efforts.  However, even if a good inoculation conversation has happened – and at the time the worker may cognitively understand the management response and be armed with facts – they are sometimes ill-equipped to handle the emotive field of fear, anxiety, projection and vitriol in the workplace.  So what can organizers do?

The lesson here is that the organizer needs to figure out how to maximize the impact on the existing field. To answer the question, let’s explore another theory…

Change formula

Richard Beckhard is one of the grandfathers in the field of organization development.  His work has laid some of the foundations for managing change.  The formula below, known as the Change Formula, was first introduced by Beckhard and Reuben Harris in their 1987 work “Organizational transitions: managing complex change” (they attribute David Gleicher as the original source):

D x V x F > R

D is Dissatisfaction with the current situation (WHY is this change necessary?)
V is Vision of what is possible in the future (WHERE are we going?)
F is First Steps that are achievable towards the vision (HOW do we get there?)
R is Resistance to change

The combination of D, V, and F must be greater than R.

Focus on Resistance

The change formula is elegant in its simplicity.  It is intuitive and it makes common sense.  What was groundbreaking about this theory at the time was that it got those involved in organizational change to recognize and respect resistance.

Before this theory, change efforts amounted to power-oriented, command-and-control approaches.  Many change efforts never succeeded because of this one-dimensional thinking.  A recognition and focus on resistance was nothing less than a paradigm shift.  A huge amount of research, practice and literature shifted to considering resistance – understanding it, in order to manage it.

From our point of view, the most important point to be made is that resistance always happens. It is just there.  Resistance should be EXPECTED. It should also be RESPECTED. It is a natural reaction from self-regulating systems seeking to maintain stability.  Understanding the varying forms of resistance makes change agents much more effective.

Parts & wholes: the hanging mobile metaphor

Another key principle of Beckhard’s change formula is that none of these elements can be taken and managed alone. It is the total that determines the overall success of the change effort.  For example, just having dissatisfaction (D) is useless unless it is linked to a shared vision (V), which involves an ideal, desired state.

Vision is like the North Star – a guiding light of where we want to go, allowing us to constantly correct our course.

Practical first steps (F) become the bridge that connects the current state (D) to the desired state (V).  Without this, organizational inertia will dominate, and no change will occur.

As we take first steps, there may be some success and initial movement.  However, soon resistance (R) will soon appear.  This is natural.  This is to be expected.  Change agents need to attend to this resistance by embracing and engaging with it.

The change formula helps us break down elements of change so that there is simultaneously a focus on the parts and on the whole.  A good metaphor is that of the hanging mobile.  As anyone who has played with one knows, there are different centers of gravity that balance a complex, dynamic system.  When you knock one arm of a mobile, all the others – above, below, side by side – start swinging in reaction. Centers of gravity shift until stability is found again.  This is the nature of self-regulating systems seeking quasi-stationary equilibrium.
If we integrate the change formula with force field theory, we see that driving forces match up with the D, V, and F of the change formula. Furthermore, restraining forces match up with R.

Figure 2: Adapted from Gleicher's Formula (Beckhard, R. and Harris, R.T. (1987), Organizational transitions: Managing complex change, 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley)

Bear in mind that it is the totality of multiple and opposing forces that is represented in blue and red.  The purple dashed line connects these driving and restraining forces. It is a mutual and interdependent connection, with the potential for compression and tension at any time.

Change efforts and organizing campaigns that focus on driving forces, with little regard for restraining forces, will not be particularly effective.  There is often too much emphasis on this one side of a two-sided equation.  I argue that more focus on managing resistance will lead to greater success in organizing.

Marshall Ganz’s AHUYS framework

Many in the USA regard Marshall Ganz as the organizing guru of this generation.  He spent many years organizing with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers.  Later, he took his organizing experience and applied it to teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He has written extensively on organizing, and offers many organizing workshops. He was also  one of the principal architects of “Camp Obama” – the largest and most successful national training program for citizen engagement.
Ganz developed a course on organizing that speaks to a number of issues, including leadership, strategy, tactics, values, action, and social networks, among others.  In this discussion we will focus on his motivation framework.  How do people transform themselves from being organized to unorganized?  He calls this process “breaking the belief barriers” (Ganz, 2006).

In discussion this, he emphasizes the importance of creating “emotional dialogue”; one which challenges the old set of emotions and values (current state as unorganized, non-union) in order to create a new set of emotions and values (desired state as an organized, union workplace).  In Ganz’s words:

“…decisions are ultimately based on values and if we cannot experience emotion, we cannot experience the values that orient us to our world.  So our readiness to deliberate, our readiness to deliberate successfully, and our ability to act on our decisions rest on how we feel” (Ganz, 2006, pg. 50).

This cascading change occurs in individuals, groups, and the organization simultaneously.

The figure below links the idea of “belief barriers” to that of social fields as driving or restraining forces.

The left hand side of the chart are the driving forces that create the field for the desired state.  They are represented as psychological states that embody the AHUYS framework (Anger, Hope, Urgency, Yes you can, Solidarity).  On the right hand side of the chart are all the restraining forces that create the current state of an unorganized, non-union workplace.  These are the psychological polarities of the AHUYS and represent AFISI (Apathy, Fear, Inertia, Self-Doubt, and Isolation).

These are not simple, opposing entities. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it is easier to see them as not psychological opposites, but as extreme ends (polarities or opposite sides).  They are connected and interdependent with one another, with obvious tension.  Try to visualize the dashes between each driving and restraining force as a rope – taught and filled with tension – but connected.  Any individual, group, or organization can be anywhere in between, but the potential for swinging in the opposite direction always exists.

Figure 3: Adapted from Ganz, M. (2006). Organizing: People, power and change. Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.

Ganz describes the necessary pre-conditions for motivation that move workers and inspire action.  He argues that this affective information is part physiological, part cognitive, and part behavioral (Ganz, 2006).
Some unions have adapted his work into a framework for organizing.  For example, SEIU uses what it calls “an AHUY rap” to construct conversations between organizers and workers.  (In my opinion, this is an underutilization of the framework).

These psychological states make up the field – the totality of forces – from the cognitive, the affective, and the behavioral.  Ganz suggests that cognition (what we think about things), affect (how we feel about things), and action (what we do about things) are interrelated and interdependent on each other (Ganz, 2006).

The restraining forces are what Ganz refers to as the “belief barriers”. Only the psychological opposite of these belief barriers (AHUYS) can overcome inaction.  By mobilizing the driving forces, organizers can challenge that which “inhibits action” (belief barriers) to promote emotive fields that “facilitate action” (Ganz, 2006, pg. 51).

In part 2 of this series, we will begin by introducing the visual framework of TAO as the integration of the 3 theories mentioned above. This will serve as the theoretical foundation of TAO. I will also introduce the design principles that go with successful organizing.

“That’s great Rex, but how does this help win organizing campaigns?”

From these design principles, I will weave in practical applications that any unionist can use to organize more effectively. I promise—there will be good anecdotes that will emphasize each design principle and will make for an interesting read. Until then—Cheers!

About the author

Rex Lai, MSOD, is an organization/community development consultant who previously had more than 15 years experience working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He currently works in management and training capacities in the private, public, and not-for-profit sector, where his work focuses on helping organizations and communities discover their potential to make positive change. Rex is certified to administer and interpret the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), and has developed expertise in campaign advocacy, community organizing, and political consulting.  He earned his B.S. in Civil/Environmental engineering from the University of Illinois, and received his Master of Science degree in Organization Development from American University/NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences. His TAO system is registered as trademark pending.


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