Psychological Reactance Is the Enemy of Change

Two overlapping outstretched hands seen from the front indicating refusal to accept someone compelling an action..

As society advances socially and technologically, change is inevitable. Whether it is adoption of innovation in an organization or the acceptance of norms and laws for the broader society, change depends on the attitudes and behaviors of people. They must be convinced that the change is needed and worthwhile. Changing hearts and minds of people affected by change can be a slow and difficult process. It is ineffective to impose change on people through coercion because it makes people defensive and resistant because psychological reactance is the enemy of change. This is why prohibition laws are so often ineffective and why people resist organizational change.

What Is Psychological Reactance

Self-determination theory tells us that autonomy is one of the three basic human needs. People need to feel in control of their own lives. When someone is coerced into believing something, or behaving in a certain way, it threatens their sense of autonomy. Their response is to resist the attempt to control them. Often it results in psychological reactance, which means that the person engages in the opposite of what someone is trying to get them to do. If someone is trying to make them stop doing something, they double-down and do it even more. If someone is trying to make them agree to a position, they disagree. The more they are pressured, the more strongly they disagree. People’s attitudes can become increasingly polarized the more they feel pressured to feel the opposite. This can be seen in organizations where employees resist management’s attempts to get them to change behavior, and it can be seen in the broader society as people on both sides of the political spectrum attack one another in increasingly harsh tones. This tactic is counterproductive as it drives the other side to double-down as they experience reactance.

Compliance Versus Acceptance

There is an important distinction between compliance (forcing someone to do something) and acceptance (convincing people to do something). Successful compliance requires three things:

  • Coercive Ability: This can occur in an organization when a supervisor has the ability to discipline and fire. Demanding someone do something when backed up with threats of “do this if your want to keep your job” is a coercive strategy. In today’s social media world, people have the ability to attack others online in ways that can be uncomfortable at best and damaging to career and reputation at worst.
  • Surveillance: Successful coercion requires that you monitor your target to be sure they comply. If you are unable to determine if orders are followed, there is a good chance they will not be. A coercive supervisor might gain compliance when they are present, but employees might do just the opposite when the supervisor is not around.
  • Willingness to Enforce: Just because a supervisor has the power does not mean they are willing to use it. Threatening to fire a noncompliant employee is one thing, but following through is far from easy. Most supervisors are reluctant to fire people because it is go down a path that is difficult emotionally and requires a great deal of effort to follow legal and organizational requirements.

Acceptance means convincing someone that what you are suggesting is in their best interest or is the right thing to do. In the workplace you might explain why a new mode of working will make a job easier, or allow the person to be more productive. To achieve it, however, requires neither coercive ability nor surveillance because the person has internalized the value of what you have suggested they do.

Psychological Reactance Is the Enemy of Change

When someone feels they are being compelled to do something against their will, there is a good chance that reactance will be activated. This leads to them resisting the change both actively by doing the exact opposite, and passively by ignoring the demand. Employees are likely to respond to coercion by engaging in behaviors that allow them to feel in control. Those behaviors can be counterproductive to the employee and the organization. They include:

  • Arguing back to the supervisor and refusing to comply.
  • Avoiding the supervisor so they don’t see them failing to comply.
  • Becoming disengaged at work and losing motivation.
  • Performing counterproductive work behavior to assert personal control. This can mean acting out and engaging in destructive acts to protest how they are treated.
  • Showing signs of stress and burnout.

Avoiding Psychological Reactance

The best way to avoid reactance is to focus on acceptance rather than compliance. Treat employees as valuable team members by allowing input and including them in decisions. Convince rather than compel by providing explanation, information, and careful analysis. When people are involved in a decision and are informed about the reason for change, they are more likely to accept it. Of course, it is not possible to use a democratic process for all decisions. Some change might be necessitated by outside factors, such as new laws and regulations. In those cases, employees should be kept informed about the reason for change and be allowed to express opinions even if only to vent feelings about it. Building an organizational climate of empowerment and open discussion will make it less likely that psychological reactance will be triggered when change is necessary.

Photo by Josie Stephens from Pexels.

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