Has this ever happened to you? You are looking for some important piece of information on the Internet and smack in the middle of the search you are bombarded with an annoying, flashy pop-up advertisement on your screen blocking your view of whatever you were trying to read? To get back at the perpetrator of this outrage, you make a mental note of the product and brand being promoted in the pop-up ad and promise yourself that you will never buy it. Now, imagine that instead of that pesky pop-up ad, it is a directive that you have issued to the people you manage. The consequences could be disastrous if you are a manager trying to get your employees do something and they respond to your direction by going out of their way to do the opposite.

Such a reaction occurs whenever we sense a threat to our freedom to choose. At a very fundamental level, we want to be in control of our circumstances and we value our sense of autonomy and freedom. When another person’s action is perceived as placing a restriction on our freedom of choice, we tend to move into a motivational state that drives us to act in a way that reaffirms our freedom. Referred to as psychological reactance, this state creates in us a desire to do the opposite of what is being proposed, or at the very minimum, further entrenches us in our initial position.

Several studies have demonstrated the effect of reactance on choice behaviour. In a classic real life manifestation of this phenomenon, residents of a city in Florida were prohibited from buying detergents with phosphates, for environmental reasons. In response, they hoarded large quantities of phosphate detergent and travelled to neighbouring towns to buy it after the ban took effect. Sales and usage of phosphate detergents actually rose to levels higher than before the ban. Even people who had not used phosphate detergents before were interested in buying it after the ban was announced. Residents claimed phosphate detergents were superior; in reality, phosphates had no real effect whatsoever on the detergent’s cleaning power!

When you manage people, you are trying to influence their behaviour in a fashion that you believe is in the best interest of the organization. To avoid psychological reactance, however, you must frame your suggestion so it does not come across as constraining freedom of choice. Any reader with a teenager in the household can readily relate to this issue. Often, teenagers want to defy a directive not so much because they are against it, but simply to express their budding sense of individuality and freedom. Many of these actions are symbolic of a rebellion against being constrained or controlled.

The same thing can happen in an organizational setting. If a manager’s recommendation is seen as placing an unfair constraint on the freedom to choose, subordinates are more likely to invent ways to subvert it—and they will not usually overtly defy you as your child might. Rather, they will find underhanded ways to sabotage the effort and gain satisfaction from feeling they were able to do what they wanted. You will feel frustrated and may force additional changes, fuelling a declining cycle of non-performance.

Psychological reactance is the same reason censorship rarely works. Several studies have shown that the act of censoring something makes it appear more desirable to people. People expend more effort at obtaining the censored item.

The challenge for managers is to make a case in support of any recommendation so that it is seen as fair and necessary, and is adopted by volition, not force. In other words, you run the risk of generating resistance if you try to force people into adopting a line of action. A true leader lays out the array of alternatives available, makes a case in favour of the chosen alternative and then helps people develop a psychological ownership in that alternative. Building a collaborative enterprise through persuasion is certainly a better route than coercive leadership.

Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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