The one formula every leader should know

It’s been a best-kept secret for more than 80 years

No. Not this one. 

I love it when seemingly disparate posts come together in a surprising way and culminate in an “a-ha” moment. 

What do posts about a behavior change model, DEI program, self-engagement, and change management have in common? The answer: 

Lewin’s Equation

Kurt Lewin, a Jewish psychologist who immigrated from Germany to the US in 1933 as antisemitism was rising in Europe, first presented his formula in his 1936 book Principles of Topological Psychology: 

Lewin suggested that behavior (B) is determined by two key elements: the person (P) and the environment (E). 

The variables in the equation (P,E), can be replaced with the specific, unique situations and personal characteristic. 

The equation is even more powerful when written in a dynamic form: 

A change in behavior is a result of a change in the person and/or a change in the environment. Or put more prescriptively: to change behavior, we need to change the person and/or change the environment. This is where nuance comes in: some behaviors will be more sensitive to changes in the person, while others will be more sensitive to changes in the environment. And, of course, both person and environment can change and be changed in multiple ways. 

To see the powerful explanatory power of Lewin’s equation, here are the key insights from each post, articulated using it: 

  • Getting personal about change — offers an expansion, or decomposition of Lewin’s equation. It breaks down P into “confidence and skill building” and “understanding and conviction”. And it breaks down E into “role modeling” and “reinforcement mechanisms”. 
  • D.R.I.V.E and prism — offers a slightly different decomposition. It breaks down P into “individual capabilities” and “(de)motivators”. And it breaks down E into “feedback” and “contextual triggers”.
  • Self-engagement — argues that traditional employee engagement efforts are not as effective as they could be, because they focus solely on changing the environment (ΔE), completely ignoring the opportunity to help people change (ΔP). 
  • Bias Interrupters —argues that many DEI efforts are not as effective as they could be, because they focus solely on helping people change (ΔP), completely ignoring the opportunity to change the environment (ΔE).

While I noted some of the similarities between the first two posts in D.R.I.V.E, the equation helps organize the patterns a lot more clearly. 

The focus reversal (from ΔE to ΔP) in engagement efforts vs. DEI efforts was a big “a-ha” insight to me and enabled me to capture the approach to improve both under a single thesis. 

There’s no leadership role in which behavior change is not a large and critical part of the role. Lewin’s equation should be part of any Leadership 101 textbook or training. 

The one formula every leader should know

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