How Bossing People Around Backfires

Psychological resistance explains why you want the forbidden donut–and why you hate it when someone tells you what to do.

How Bossing People Around Backfires

Ever notice how when someone tells you what to do you feel less like doing it? There’s an actual term for the feeling of bossiness resentment: psychological reactance, a phenomena common to toddlers, teenagers, and other people who don’t like to be told what to do.


If you have ever been a child, you may be familiar with the process: 2-year-olds told not to play with a toy find it more exciting, and warning labels can have a perverse affect (remember when R movies sounded so cool and mysterious?). As well, the affect can be found in consumer behavior: a Florida ban on phosphate-laden detergent caused an upsurge in purchases, though phosphates had no effect on cleaning effectiveness. People wanted what was taken from them.

When reactance–which research suggests is more prevalent in older and younger populations–occurs, three stages happen:

  1. You want “it” more than before
  2. You resist
  3. You resent the freedom-restricter

Over at Good Sense, Sherman Lee finds a “direct correlation” between how often someone told him what to do and his productivity.

Lots of freedom, lots of productivity

When the author was given free rein to decide which projects to take on, he “wrote tons of code” quickly because it was fun–the self-determination motivated him to push himself. Challenge accepted.

Mediocre freedom yielded mediocre productivity

When stakeholders needed checkpoints, Sherman writes that “my mind wanted to take a break.” He admits that “they may have been on the right path,” but he was against it mentally–their changes were “a drag.” Motivation lagging.

Little freedom, low productivity

Sherman’s part of a scrum team: Managers broke the workload into user stories, stories broken into tasks, tasks distributed to engineers.


“I was told exactly what to work on and even the day I was going to work on it,” he writes, and as a result “it felt like a chore to write code.”

That’s a ton of psychological resistance–and it’s an enemy of productivity.

Bosses: How do you navigate psychological resistance with your direct reports? Let us know in the comments.

The Psychology Of How Being Told What To Do Impacts Our Productivity

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Matt Anderson]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.