Knowledge Worker: Lewin Meets Skinner

By Fred Nickols, CPT

The Navy trained me as a classroom instructor, a writer of programmed instructional materials, and an instructional systems specialist. It also trained me as an internal organization development (OD) consultant. I put all that training to good use, especially when I was part of the Navy’s Human Resources Management Project, where my blend of instructional technology and organization development proved very valuable in the design and delivery of a large-scale, organization-wide intervention known as the Command Action Planning System (CAPS). 

Human performance technology (HPT), OD, and instructional technology are all change oriented, and I have long been an advocate for collaboration between and among the practitioners of these change-oriented disciplines. In this month’s column, I will lay out one small piece of the larger foundation on which such collaboration might rest. It integrates Kurt Lewin’s force-field analysis and B.F. Skinner’s reinforcement theory. The diagram in Figure 1 provides our starting point.

Figure 1. Force-Field Analysis and Reinforcement Theory  -->

Force-field analysis is an outgrowth of Kurt Lewin’s force-field theory (see Lippitt, 1973).  It Asserts, among other things, that most stable situations are profitably viewed as existing in a field of forces, the effects of which are such that a homeostatic balance exists. Some of these forces can be viewed as “driving forces” and some can be viewed as “restraining forces.” They tend to offset or balance one another and, thus, a form of dynamic stability exists. Lewin’s theory also suggests that to effect change, the balance of these forces must be altered. It cautions against simply increasing the driving forces (because there will be push-back or offsetting increases in the restraining forces and that push-back can lead to a vicious cycle that serves no purpose except to heighten tensions). The preferred strategy is one of reducing or eliminating various restraining forces. Instead of attempting to overwhelm the opposing forces, you focus on undercutting them.

Reinforcement theory, per B.F. Skinner, suggests that behavior is shaped by its consequences.  Skinner (1965) defined positive reinforcement as adding a positive consequence, and negative reinforcement as removing a negative consequence (p. 73). He also defined two forms of punishment: (1) positive punishment—adding a negative consequence, and (2) negative punishment—taking away a positive consequence (p. 185).

As the diagram above Figure 1 shows, Skinner’s four kinds of consequences fit neatly into the force-field analysis framework. Doing so suggests some basic strategies when attempting to change peoples’ behavior. But doing so has to take into account whether you are dealing with problems of omission (people are not doing what they should be doing) or problems of commission (people are doing things they should not be doing). These call for different strategies; indeed, they are the mirror-image of one another (see Table 1).

Table 1:  Change Strategies by Problem Type

Type of Problem

Type of change

Required Impact on Driving Forces

Required Impact on Restraining Forces










Because the anticipated driving and restraining forces exist only in the minds and imaginations of those whose behavior has been targeted for change, it is extremely difficult for others to independently manipulate these driving and restraining forces. Instead, would-be change agents, whether OD practitioners, instructional technologists, or performance improvement specialists, must deal with the perceptions and expectations of the people whose behavior is the target of change.

Are there additional links between and among HPT, OD, and instructional technology? Of course, there are. Consider, for example, systems theory in all its many incarnations, including so-called “hard” and “soft” systems. Even training is common ground for all three disciplines. There are more, especially between HPT and OD. So I will continue to pursue and call for collaboration between and among the various practitioners. I hope you will give it some thought, too.


This month’s column draws on an article I published in Performance & Instruction many years ago. It was titled “Changing Behavior,” and I used the pen name Peter W. Taylor. The late Joe Harless was so enamored of its integration of reinforcement theory and force-field analysis that he wrote the non-existent Peter Taylor a nice, complimentary note. I probably should have published it under my own name. Those who are interested can find an updated version of it at


Lippitt, G.L. (1973). Visualizing change. Fairfax: NTL Learning Resources Corporation.

Nickols, F.W. (1993). Changing behavior. Performance & Instruction, 32( 9), 1-5. 

Skinner, B.F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: Free Press.

Fred Nickols, CPT, is a writer and consultant, a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted at or via his website at Read his posts on LinkedIn at and follow him on Twitter at More than 150 free articles, papers, and book chapters pertaining to human behavior and performance, organization development, and change management can be found in the articles section of his website at