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Getting proactive about reactance


A young man walks along a stylized red graph line, considering the peaks and valleys ahead.

Photograph The COVID-19 pandemic has been a case study in human contrarianism. In staggering numbers, people refused—and still refuse—to comply with mask and vaccine mandates. Some bridled at being sent home to work and at their kids being sent home from school. When everyone was summoned back, some bridled at that, too. It’s an ongoing, large-scale lesson in reactance, a concept with which any leader charged with trying to enact change should have at least a passing acquaintance.

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The theory of psychological reactance originates in the 1960s with Jack Brehm, who developed it when he was a professor at Duke University. Brehm said that humans are negatively aroused when they perceive a threat to their freedom. What constitutes a threat to freedom? That’s your call. If you think a mask mandate restricts your freedom, Brehm’s theory suggests that reactance will not only increase your desire not to wear a mask but may also prompt you to refuse to wear a mask, even to the point that you get yourself dragged off a plane.

I ran across reactance in a recently published book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas, Corporate change initiatives often fail because leaders focus their attention on attracting people to their cause, while neglecting the frictions that work against change.

A lot of leaders become leaders because of their charisma and their ability to sell a vision,” Schonthal explained to me during a video interview with both authors. “But you have to balance the ability to sell a vision with a willingness to clear away some of the friction and actually help employees get started on the path to that vision.”

“Leaders aren’t thinking about the barriers to action,” Nordgren added. “Shifting your focus to friction requires moving away from the idea and thinking about the audience. Taking that perspective requires empathy, it requires understanding the context, and it requires more effort and attention.”

The efforts involved in negotiating the return to offices are germane to the way in which friction in general and reactance in particular can torpedo change. “The mistake that a lot of companies are making is thinking that they can simply pay people a little more—for parking or Ubers or lunches—to make the idea of coming into the office more attractive,” Schonthal said. “I don’t think they appreciate that this isn’t an incentive issue. It’s a reactance issue. They’ve given people the autonomy to work at home, and now they are going to take it away. The companies that are winning people over are the ones that are having conversations about preserving some degree of autonomy.”

As the return-to-work conundrum suggests, reactance isn’t triggered The natural inclination in such cases is to respond to reactance So how should leaders manage reactance? Nordgren and Schonthal suggested several tactics.

Ask, don’t tell. “Executives often feel an obligation to lead change rather than engaging in conversations about it,” said Schonthal. “Sometimes just being open to talking with the people you’re trying to change can go a long way to disarming their reaction to being changed.”

“This is a fundamental principle of behavior change,” added Nordgren. “People are more profoundly persuaded Start with yes. “Another bad habit leaders sometimes have is starting conversations at the point of conflict,” said Nordgren. “So, maybe you and I agree that we need to cut costs, but we disagree about where those costs should be cut. I should start at the area of alignment—we both agree that cost-cutting is vital.”

By asking “yes” questions, leaders can use areas of agreement to defuse reactance. “If I’m trying to convince the members of my department to hire a neuroscientist and I know they are likely to disagree, I’m going to ask questions that elicit a shared understanding, like ‘I’ve been thinking about who would make a good hire, and it seems that someone who can keep the department on the cutting edge and help differentiate it would be valuable. Do you agree?’” explained Nordgren. “The more I can get them to say ‘yes,’ the more they will feel that this is our idea.”

Offer people the chance to codesign the change. “If you’re trying to do something that is transformational inside an organization, include the people who are going to be affected “This doesn’t mean everyone needs to have equal control or that they’re involved in each and every stage, but the more that people can be given voice in the process, the better,” added Nordgren. “Leaders might groan at this because it adds steps and time, but if they don’t give people a role in designing a change, they are raising the chances that the change never takes place.”


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