The physics of management

The physics of management

Donna J. Middaugh

The laws of physics reflect the connections between cause and effect in nature. Years of management experience in nursing have allowed the authors to recognize the relationships between what is observed in everyday management and the laws of physics–specifically, Newton’s three laws of motion and change.

A lighthearted look at the relationship between Newton’s laws of motion and the way change occurs in nursing is provided. In addition, Lewin’s Change Theory (Longest, Rakich, & Darr, 2001) is described as a useful tool to help managers produce meaningful, lasting change in their organizations.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

If something is not moving, it will stay where it is (All World Knowledge, 2003). Newton discovered this law when an apple fell on his head. If you push one of your staff (don’t really do this!) who is sitting around not doing anything, you will see that the staff member reacts (moves). If you do not push such people, they will stay where they are, not doing their job. This law also states that once moving at a steady speed, in a straight line, an object will continue moving … at a steady speed, in a straight line (Issac Newton’s Laws of Motion, 2003). So, once you get stagnant employees moving, they should (theoretically) keep moving! Hence, the first law is proved.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

An object will change velocity if it is pushed or pulled upon (Issac Newton’s Laws of Motion, 2003). Newton’s Second Law of Motion explains that if you apply force upon an object, it will accelerate in the direction that you push it. If you push twice as hard, it will accelerate twice as much. Here we can return to our stagnant staff member. Obviously, the key to the situation is to “push” (not literally) the staff member in the direction in which you want the person to move. Pushing twice as hard should move the staff members twice as fast! Whoa, we may be on to something here. Newton had another part to his second law: “If it has twice the mass, it only accelerates half as much.” If you are pushing equally on two objects, and one of the objects has five times more mass, it will only accelerate at one fifth the speed of the other. We may get into difficulty if we try “pushing” two employees at the same time, especially if one “outweighs” the other in power. We also have to keep in mind Newton’s Third Law of Motion.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion

For every force there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) force (Issac Newton’s Laws of Motion, 2003). Newton is telling us that if we push on an object, it will push on us just as hard. In other words, we can’t touch without being touched. The employee we “push” will exert some force back upon us. This force may be literal in physics or figurative in human behavior. We, therefore, must anticipate some reaction from the employee that may move us as well.

Change Theory

The trick to utilizing Newton’s laws of motion with employees is to understand another principle–that of change. Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), who is recognized as the founder of modern social psychology, has had a profound impact on organizational change (Schein, 2003). Lewin’s Change Theory involves three steps: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing (Longest et al., 2001). Though it seems peculiar to go from “pushing” employees to “freezing” them, let’s explore these combined concepts to create effective change in our organizations.

Once we recognize that we have employees who need to be “pushed” to change their behavior, we must prepare those employees who will participate in or be affected by the change. The first step is to make them aware of the impending change and reduce or minimize their resistance. We are actually starting the “unfreezing” process and also remembering Newton’s First Law and the stagnant employee. Lewin’s first step involves gathering data, accurately diagnosing the problem, deciding whether there is a need for change, and making others aware of the need for change (Marquis & Huston, 2000). We can use one of two basic approaches to unfreezing. A power approach involves announcing the change and directing (“pushing”) those involved to change. Using the approach of persuasion, we will gently “push” those involved by providing adequate information about the need for change and soliciting their participation. Longest et al. (2001) note that people are far more likely to be receptive to change and to help implement it when they understand the advantages of the change and are allowed to participate in its planning and implementation. Using persuasion and participation will aid our change through Newton’s Second Law. By involving those needing to change up-front, we may be able to diminish that “mass” that may hinder the move toward change.

Lewin’s second step in implementing change is introducing the actual change, or moving employees to a new level. Once we have effectively disrupted the status quo and the employees feel the need for change, we can move on. This step involves developing a plan, setting goals, setting target dates, identifying areas of support and resistance, and implementing the change (Marquis & Huston, 2000). Remembering Newton’s Third Law, we know that we can’t touch (push) without being touched ourselves. It is crucial to identify those who will be resistant and determine final strategies to overcome this extra “mass.” Changes in human behavior, attitudes, or values take time.

Longest et al. (2001) remind us that during this moving step, people affected by the change go through several distinct periods. During the first period of awareness, employees recognize that things are not going to be the same. They may then become somewhat disoriented after the change has been introduced. Employees begin to see a difference at this point in their jobs and may be confused about what is expected of them. This can lead to a loss of confidence in the change or in their enthusiasm for it. Although the change may have to be modified, managers need to recognize that this disorientation is normal. We should not give in to the “force” being applied back. Once their comfort level returns, employees will begin to re-establish a sense of normalcy. This is the vital reorientation period in the moving stage.

When the change has been implemented, the employees involved will begin to accept the change as part of the new equilibrium in the workplace. This begins Lewin’s third step of “refreezing.” The manager’s role is to stabilize and reinforce the new behaviors so that they become “frozen” or locked-in as routine. If a change is to be permanent, the manager has a duty to continually monitor the situation and ensure that the behaviors are integrated into everyday practice (Longest et al., 2001).


Managers should be vigilant for beginning signs of Newton’s Laws of Motion taking hold in their units.

* Be aware of employees who need a slight “push” to get them moving.

* Recognize that the “push” has to be in the right direction, because the employee will keep moving that way.

* Twice the “push” on employees may result in twice the movement, unless the employees have twice the “mass” or resistance, in which case, they will only accelerate half as much as desired.

* Finally, recognize that we can’t touch without being touched. After a successful change, that can be a very good thing for the heart.


All World Knowledge: Newton’s Laws. (2003). Retrieved February 4, 2003, from

Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion. (2003). Retrieved February 4, 2003, from

Longest, B.B., Rakich, J.S., & Darr, K. (2001). Managing health services organizations and systems (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Health Professions Press.

Marquis, B.L., & Huston, C.J. (2000). Leadership roles and management functions in nursing (3rd ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Schein, E.H. (2003). Kurt Lewin’s change theory in the field and in the classroom: Notes toward a model of managed learning. Retrieved February 27, 2003, from’s_change_theory.htm

Donna J. Middaugh, MSN, RN, is Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, College of Nursing, Little Rock, AR.

Mary G. Robertson, MSEdA, is Director of Admissions and Registrar, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, College of Nursing, Little Rock, AR.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Jannetti Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group