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

Reactance and Micromanagement


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.

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