Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 15;   April 11, 2012: Reactance and Micromanagement

Reactance and Micromanagement

by

When we feel that our freedom at work is threatened, we sometimes experience urges to do what is forbidden, or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain some of the dynamics of micromanagement.
Demolished vehicles line Highway 80, also known as the "Highway of Death"

Demolished vehicles on Highway 80, also known as the "Highway of Death", the route of retreat used by Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait during the first Gulf War. It is now obvious to all that Iraq's commitment to its position in Kuwait was a high-risk position, given the limited capacity of the routes of retreat from Kuwait back into Iraq. Certainly it was obvious to Coalition military planners — and it should have been obvious to Iraqi planners — in advance of the outbreak of the war. Yet, Iraq did make the commitment.

Some now argue that Iraq's strategic choice here is an example of reactance. As proposed by Martin L. Fracker in his essay "Conquest and Cohesion: The Psychological Nature of War," President Bush's demand for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait may have thrown Saddam Hussein into a state of intense reactance in which he felt compelled to escalate his commitment to the occupation, despite its clear military risks. Fracker's essay is available in Magyar, Karl P., Challenge and Response: Anticipating U.S. Military Security Concerns, Air University Press, 1994. Available in PDF

Photo taken 18 April 1991 by Tech. Sgt. Joe Coleman, courtesy U.S. Department of Defense, available at Wikipedia.

Reactance, sometimes known as psychological reactance, is the response to a loss of behavioral freedom, or to the perception of threats to behavioral freedom. For example, when pressed to perform a task in a new way, we sometimes feel an urge to perform that task in the customary way, or perhaps, in any way at all that differs from the prescription. Some feel this urge even if the prescription is aligned with their customary approaches. They react to being required to follow direction, even if they usually do it that way on their own. As a second example, when we're directed not to do something, we sometimes experience a strong urge — at times, a compulsion — to do that very thing, even when we had no prior desire to do it.

The widespread understanding of the concept of "reverse psychology" is evidence that most of us understand reactance at a very visceral level.

Reactance theory was first developed by J. W. Brehm in 1966. Here are its basic elements:

  • People are free to choose from a range of free behaviors which are acts they can imagine doing, or refraining from doing.
  • People are likely to experience reactance in response to constraints on their ability to choose (or abstain from) free behaviors, or when they perceive threats to their freedom to choose.
  • The magnitude of reactance increases with the importance of the behavior.
  • Reactance is cumulative. Loss of a collection of free behaviors creates reactance more intense than the reactance associated with any one of the collection.
  • People can experience loss of a single free behavior as a threat to other free behaviors.

Reactance plays a role in a range of workplace phenomena. One of the more obvious is organizational change, where it might account for what many call resistance. But one of the more fascinating and paradoxical is the role of reactance in both the need to micromanage and the reaction to being micromanaged.

Reactance as micromanagement
Some managers experience the managerial role as a constraint on their freedom to perform the tasks that belong to their subordinates. In a state of One of the more paradoxical
manifestations of reactance is
its role in both the need to
micromanage and the reaction
to being micromanaged
reactance, they feel irrepressible urges to intervene in the work of their subordinates, because they — the managers — feel that only they can perform those tasks at the level required.
Reactance as a response to micromanagement
Most of us have strong negative responses to micromanagement. When we're micromanaged, we feel insulted, degraded, and even abused. Some of us are driven to anger, which can lead to behavior far less acceptable than the micromanagement itself. Certainly micromanagement is bad management, but almost as certainly, reactance is involved in the behavior exhibited by some of those who are micromanaged.

When next you observe a manager and a subordinate entwined in the dance of micromanagement, try to view the exchange with reactance mind. Go to top Top  Next issue: Reactance and Decision-Making  Next Issue

For more about psychological reactance, see Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control by Sharon S. Brehm and Jack W. Brehm. New York: Academic Press, 1981. Available from Amazon.

For more articles about reactance, see "Reactance and Decision-Making," Point Lookout for April 18, 2012, and "Cognitive Biases and Influence: II," Point Lookout for July 13, 2016.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenKGwGsCUmIbMChFeener@ChacuLvgAMqtHSYSIKHqoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Balancing on a knife edgeKnife-Edge Performers
Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance. Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?
An F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter test aircraft AA-1 undergoes flight testing over Fort Worth, TexasThe Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration
Much of what we call work is as futile and irrelevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend task duration.
Dry Falls, in Grand County, Washington StateImpasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945Suppressing Dissent: II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.

See also Workplace Politics and Organizational Change for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenAqvxrktAQHgSwRSWner@ChacHruPVcFNhpQCBeePoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.