A Force Field Analysis of an Incivility Problem

Force Field Analysis Process

One piece of the CREW Toolkit is Force Field Analysis.

The Toolkit presents Force Field Analysis as a means to address specific issues that arise in the course of a CREW project. It applies equally well to the broad question of addressing civility and respect at work.

Identify Something to Improve

Acknowledging a problem is not only a necessary first step, it’s also a powerful intervention in itself. When the manager of an IT sector of a government department proposed improving civility and respect as a crucial objective for the sector, employees were surprised. Although they grumbled to their friends about the disrespectful culture in the sector, they had never talked about it at an official gathering. This group was not unique in this way. Talking about relationships presents a tough challenge for many workgroups.

Identify a Goal

By identifying a goal, a group expresses hope. Everyone has problems; many problems seem intractable. By identifying a positive goal, the focus moves away from the group’s limitations to its ideals. The gap between a group’s stated ideals and the values the group lives can be discouraging. By identifying a goal of showing respect in every encounter among employees, the IT manager brought the focus to their future hopes rather than their present failings.

Identify Promoting and Restraining Forces

The next step is a group process to identify the forces that promote moving towards the goal and the forces that restrain the group to remain the same. In the same meeting in which the manager introduced the goal of improving civility, he led a brainstorming session on conflicting forces. One promoting force was that respect was consistent with both the sector’s stated values and the professional ideals of employees. One restraining force was a general reluctance to talk directly about relationships. When people felt offended, they tended to clam up about the incident until they were away from work. Then they complained to family and friends about the unpleasant culture at work. This pattern tended to keep things as they were. By identifying the forces inclining towards change and those resisting improvements, the workgroup would be better able to design an effective intervention.

Analyze the Forces

Once the group has identified the primary forces working in each direction the next step is to ask specific questions of these forces:

  1. What is their relative strength?
  2. Over which forces can the group exert control?
  3. Are there immediate actions that anyone can take to improve the balance of forces?

The IT members identified the resistance noted to discuss relationship issues as strong. It resonated with the group as a long standing feature of the sector. Members generally felt they lack any experience in talking about relationships. Despite their lack of experience, they were not opposed to developing that capability. The major force pushing towards improving civility was distress about the current level of encounters around the office. They were ready for a change. They were unsure how much control they could exert over their situation, but they acknowledged that their individual willingness to try out new ways of interacting would be a crucial factor over which they had control. They were not able to identify a quick fix for the problems initially.

The Benefits of Force Field Analysis in Problem Definition

Identifying a problem can be a significant intervention in itself. Defining an emotionally charged experience not only as a topic of conversation, but as an agenda item on a department meeting defuses some of that charge. Highly charged issue are more difficult to manage in any situation.

Secondly, putting a problem in the context of force field empowers the group. Doing so increases their understanding of their situation. It takes an ongoing problem from suggesting personal failings by group members to reflecting powerful group dynamics. Rather than blaming a problem on a few bullies or a few weak minded victims, the group defines the problems in terms of shared group dynamics.

A shared problem is a more solvable problem.


This post covers the problem definition and commitment part of the force field exercise. The next step uses the process to develop an action plan. Too often, planning remains too general to guide action. A plan that fits within the forces operating within a workgroup can take things to another level of real progress.

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