by Andrew O’Connell
Believe it or not, the mere thought of you can make your employees do a lousy job.
In fact, if your employees consider you a controlling person, even an unconscious thought of you can have a negative effect on their performance. If, for example, they were to happen to subliminally see, out of the corner of their eyes, your name flash for 60 milliseconds, you could expect them to start working less hard. Even if they didn’t intend to slack off.
Obviously it’s not too likely that they’ll see a subliminal flash of your name, but students participating in a psychological experiment did see such a flash — not of your name (of course) but of the name of a “significant other” (a boss, a mom, a dad) whom they perceived as controlling and who wanted them to work hard. Researchers found that the subjects, having been subliminally exposed to these names, unconsciously did the opposite of work hard. Specifically, they did relatively poor work on a complex anagram task that they were given.
I say all this to make the point that people deeply value their freedom, so much so that even an unconscious memory of a controlling person stimulates a behavioral reaction.
“We love our freedom to choose,” Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke, told me.
The psychological mechanism that connects the love of freedom and the behavioral response is known as reactance. It’s a concept that was described by Jack Brehm back in 1966, and though it didn’t get much notice for a few decades, recently it has become an active area of psychological research with many implications for business.
The study on significant others was done by a team at Duke — Tanya L. Chartrand, Amy N. Dalton, and Fitzsimons — who wanted to see whether reactance, usually thought of as a conscious effect, could be unconscious too. Their findings show that indeed it can. The researchers suggest that in certain circumstances, “reactance becomes automatized.”
Not everyone reacts strongly against perceived autonomy threats. The researchers found that people with an ingrained sense that others are trying to control them tend to have the most intense negative reactions to unconscious thoughts of significant others. Not only do these highly reactant individuals love their freedom, they’ll also “do anything to protect it,” Fitzsimons says. In organizations, that gets them into trouble sometimes.
In a 2007 paper, the researchers say that perhaps highly reactant individuals could be helped by their organizations to “learn to identify the situations that trigger reactance and plan in advance how to respond.”
That’s a good idea, but don’t managers also have a responsibility not to become the controlling significant other in their subordinates’ lives? I realize that idea might sound naïve, but it’s clear from the Duke study that if you’re a controlling figure, your direct reports will respond, to a greater or lesser degree (depending on their inherent reactance levels), by letting their performance slip, by screwing up, by undermining your efforts, and/or by doing the opposite of what you want.
It’s all too easy, once people become managers, for them to forget how deeply their employees value freedom and autonomy, and the extent to which some of them, at least, will react to any infringement of it, even unconsciously.