May The Force (Field) Be With You

Thermopylae. Gettysburg. Iwo Jima. The “Cold War.”

These are four sobering examples of power being met head-on by power, resulting in staggering losses and resource depletion on both sides.

On a more local and, thankfully, less lethal scale, the potential for two or more opinionated, entrenched people or groups to butt heads (See Figure 1) exists on many levels and in many venues.

For example, a municipal parks and recreation department director wants to build an aquatic center, but a vocal minority of taxpayers opposes it. A regional sports complex developer wants to convert an old family farm into soccer and baseball fields, but environmentalists and preservation groups converge on the zoning board meeting. These examples contain the ingredients for outcomes in which even the “winning” side loses. Isn’t there a better way?

The Model

In the aftermath of World War II, a psychologist named Kurt Lewin developed a simple but elegant model called “Force-Field Analysis” that promoted the idea of converting opponents into allies, rather than seeking to eliminate them by exercising sheer power (See Figure 2). For every conversion, not only is a negative force removed, it is transformed into a positive one--doubling the effect--while at the same time conserving energy (i.e., resources).

Combining Force-Field Analysis with the more familiar SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis demonstrates the practical effects of Lewin’s scheme.

Figure 3 shows representative positive and negative forces facing-off on either side of the force field, as depicted in Figures 1 and 2. Added to those are the four elements of SWOT, and an upward-sloped trend line. The horizontal axis displays the passing of time, from the beginning point (your organization’s founding, or the birth of an idea or an initiative) to the present. The present and the future are bisected by the force field.

The vertical axis represents “amount” (money, resources, participation), and the trend line depicts the level of success, and how quickly success is being achieved (or not). If you are completely successful immediately, the trend line shoots straight up, or nearly so. More typically, the slope will be more gradual. Note that the trend line only records past performance. The future remains unknown, although three general outcomes are possible: continued success, stagnation or decline.

The trend line is built on your strengths, on what you do best: the greater your strengths, the steeper the slope. However, according to the Force-Field model, you also have weaknesses that counteract strengths, and they adversely affect the ability to achieve perfection. That negative force depresses the trend line slope to some degree, so the area above the trend line represents opportunities that are not yet accessible.

Making It Work

The ambiguity comprising the future is expressed as threats, which work in tandem with weaknesses against the opportunities. So how do you convert a negative into a positive?

The idea is to create a “win-win” arrangement through some form of collaboration, rather than seeking only compromise, which often produces a “win-mild lose” outcome. An honest appraisal of your own position, followed by an “unbiased” examination of your opponent’s perspective, can provide a basic understanding on which an open discussion can take place.

From understanding, a commonality can be built--shared perspectives. These commonalities can be emphasized in the solution. If the opposition is personality-driven, however, this process may prove difficult. Attention then can turn to the individual “force” issues.

In the examples above, if opposition to the aquatic center is actually about raising taxes, perhaps the taxpayer group can “campaign” on behalf of the parks department to recruit sponsors or donors to offset the need for a levy. In the farm versus playfields case, the developer might donate part of the land toward--and operating support for--a “historic” demonstration farm, surrounded by up-to-date facilities designed to resemble the old homestead and outbuildings.

In a world of antagonism and cut-throat competition, creating opportunities to convert “enemies” into “friends” is a trend almost everyone can support.

Work cited:

Lewin, Kurt. “Defining the Field at a Given Time." Psychological Review 50 (1943): 292-310.

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at