The psychology of how being told what to do impacts our productivity


I recently sat down with Erik Lukas of Geronimo. He’s one of the most laid back productive entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. In getting to know him I figured out how he came to be that way.

Erik never had a traditional job. So he’s never had someone tell him what to do. He successfully broke into the highly competitive beverages industry without any previous experience. I pondered about how he accomplished that:

Had someone told me the amount of work it would take to launch a beverage product I probably would not have done it. There’s a lot we figured out along the way — how to bottle drinks, how to get distribution, how to partner with other beverage companies, etc. On top of that everything took longer than expected.

He was successful because nobody ever told him what to do. Nobody ever told him it was impossible. That’s a powerful thing.

If you’re working at a regular job or ever have, you know what it’s like when your boss tells you what to do. You no longer want to do it. You get psychological reactance and you no longer feel like completing the task you normally would have done on your own.

Reactance is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives.

Reactance can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended, and also increases resistance to persuasion. People using reverse psychology are playing on at least an informal awareness of reactance, attempting to influence someone to choose the opposite of what they request.

Looking back on my own career I realized that my productivity had a direct correlation with how often someone tried to tell me what to do. Let’s look at some different levels of productivity where productivity is the amount of time I was making progress while in the office.

Complete Freedom

High productivity.

There was always a list of 5-10 small, medium and large projects that needed to be completed. My boss told me to decide for myself which one I wanted to do and to use any technology I wanted. Wow! I got to choose my own destiny and lead the entire project to completion. He was completely trusting and never told me how I should do things.

Challenge accepted. That type of freedom really motivated me. I wrote tons of code in short amounts of time because it was fun. I pushed myself because it was up to me to determine the success.

Limited Freedom

Medium Productivity.

These are times when an entire project was assigned to me, but stakeholders needed checkpoints to review progress and make decisions. In the early stages of the project I was really productive. Defining product features, creating wireframes, developing prototypes and laying the foundation of the core product.

As time went on stakeholders wanted their hands in everything. The product was starting to come together. Stakeholders wanted to guide it in the right direction. They started requiring UI changes, integrations with different platforms, additional product features, etc. The vision, the product and priorities were starting to take a different shape.

When stakeholders told me what to do my mind wanted to take a break. What they want may have been the right path, but mentally I was against it. Integrating their changes was a drag and I lost motivation.

Not Much Freedom

Low Productivity.

I was part of a scrum team at a large company. Some product manager/project manager/engineering manager already broke the workload up into user stories. Those user stories were further broken down into tasks. The tasks were then evenly divided amongst all the engineers. Each engineer didn’t have much of a say in it.

This is how the majority of work is distributed at large companies (or in some similar form). I was told exactly what to work on and even the day I was going to work on it. It was the most unproductive time of my life. I spent an hour at the gym every day. Another hour eating lunch. Several hours surfing the internet. I was really bored sitting under the fluorescent lighting. It felt like a chore to write code.

Care to share what impacts your productivity?

Join the discussion on Hacker News.



  1. Women grow up being told what they must do and what women can’t do. I was told that women can’t play football or do maths, or even interrupt men when they were talking. Told we were naturally less logical. When i started getting into computers i was told i was a freak, fake etc. then the rape jokes and this is you porn started. Please don’t see computers as “male” without recognising this.

    1. Start a project on github. You’ll be anonymous. You succeed – you prove your point.

  2. In case anyone thinks that’s off topic, my point is that culturally girls ae still being trained as the support staff, criticised, micromanaged even down to what we are wearing, and get a heap of abuse if they try to excel, especially in technical fields. So when you see a little girl make sure she knows tech is for her too. Thanks.

    1. Hey Sara,

      I agree. That is a different type of psychological barrier that needs to be broken down. Can you explain how that type of treatment impacts your productivity? It must be mentally draining.

  3. If you work in an environment where you are always told what to do, you do what you’re told — and not one lick more. Once you realize your suggestions and approach are not valued, you hold them back. When what you are told to do is wrong, you still do it — hoping on some level that it will prove a point. As bad as this is for employees, it is even more poisonous for companies.

    1. What kind of incentive would cause you to do more than what you’re told?

  4. Really useful, I will consider this at work – I believe in employee engagement, and this really makes sense – thank you

    1. What’s your employee engagement like now? Would be interesting to see the before and after results.

      1. I am only on month in, but already with a few small changes in terms of working closely with each member of my team has lead to them understanding the budget, taking ownership of how they contribute and productivity is going well.

        I think by introducing a few of your observations may just help me take the team to the next level – I have always found management and freedom a tough balance to control, and it depends so much on the personalities you are managing.

        Employee engagement really helps me understand each member of my team, and when I make an effort to really understand them, what motivates them, they respond.

        So far so good:)

        1. That’s great that you’re actively looking to make your team better. I found that these types of discussions are motivating only temporarily. If it’s not something that’s embraced by everyone culturally you just go back to your old ways.

          1. Ha – yes, I know your right.

            I think my biggest challenge will be the environment my team works in – I may be able to influence them to a degree, but my team and I work within an office where aggressive management is the norm.

            It’s not going to be an easy ride lol😉

        2. It sounds like you’re going to have some fun experiments. Please share your progress!

  5. […] I came across The psychology of how being told what to do impacts our productivity from Good Sense. Here’s what Sherman had to […]

  6. Vastly disagree with the conclusion of the article. This author seems to think that anything he doesn’t control completely isn’t worth dealing with. He even admits that he prefers to reject good ideas that don’t originate from himself. I’m sure that he writes more lines of code on a solo project than he would in a larger organization, but there’s a big difference between making yourself feel important and actually achieving a common goal.

    1. Hey J,

      I’m not sure how you inferred that not having complete control means it’s not worth dealing with. There is however a correlation with not having complete control and productivity.

      The most code I’ve ever written was actually in a corporation with 10K employees. But that’s because you have stakeholders who want a billion different features.

  7. Interestingly, I ve found that my design team appreciates having their time blocked out for them – so they know which projects to work on when (we stick to 3 – 4 hour blocks per project). All of them have commented that it’s easier and helpful because they dont have to sort out all the details of management and can get right into their design work (which they have a lot of freedom to work on). I find (and they have said) it makes them more productive. Your theory is good, but it feels a bit like the idea of too many choices. There needs to be some freedom within some overall constraints or it can become overwhelming. (kind of like someone handing you a blank canvas and say “design me a website” with no other context available, vs understanding about the needs, goals, and users. Even those are a “constraint” and you need SOMETHING, because your design won’t exist in a vacuum.) Anyway I ve tangented a bit, and my point was merely to say that some high-level constraint can also clear the way for increased productivity.

    1. Agreed. High-level constraints are good so you have a general direction to work in. Your job as a manager is shield your team from all the crap so they can do their best work. Problems start to arise when you become a hovering art director.

  8. “Reactance is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives.”

    This article is coming at a really interesting time for me. I’m at a private company where historically, we’ve limited the rules and regulations for exactly this reason – it’s delivered us highly productive results (and profits). Lately, however, we’ve uncovered individuals here and there who (IMHO) have taken advantage of the laissez-faire environment. We’re talking what looks to be flat-out stealing. I’m left with debate on two sides: we need to change and buckle down some policies vs. if we buckle down, get ready for lower productivity.

    Now it’s convincing others that “high-level constraints”, as you called it above, can really pave the way for increased productivity. Because I have a group of folks who aren’t convinced.

    1. Can you have an open and honest discussion with the people taking advantage? Maybe they’re ready to move on from the company. I wouldn’t consider it stealing. It’s more like standard practice at a corporate job. Most people can’t be productive the entire time between 9-5. And you can’t really decide when you’re inspired to work. Sometimes it’s 7am. Sometimes it’s 11pm.

      I have a good solution for convincing others. Rather than choosing to do things one way or another, can you experiment with both? It’s a good way to see what works for you and your team.

  9. The description of being in a Scrum Team you have given is about as far from what doing Scrum Properly actually is. They sound like the changed the name of their meetings called the team “A Scrum Team” and expected high performance whilst maintaining all of the behaviours from the previous process. In Scrum the development team are empowered to decide the “How” of the stories because they have the understanding to make the stories work at their best and the Product Owner decides the “Scope”. This is clearly not what happened to you. Had you actually been in a team that adheres to Scrum properly then I think your article would have rated the levels of freedom highly. The problem here is that you have been told you are in a Scrum Team and accepted that as true and have never found out what Scrum actually is, then you have used it as an example of the exact thing Scrum does well removes. I think therefore you have allowed yourself to be controlled by remaining ignorant and therefore unable to challenge counter productive behaviour so its kind of your own fault that you were unproductive under those circumstances.

    1. The problem is that everyone has a different definition of scrum. No two teams run it the same way.

      1. You are most definitely right about Scrum being different from team to team.

        But actually Scrum is quite prescriptive and for good reason and if one of these definitions deviates too wildly then calling it Scrum would be wrong.

        There are some things in Scrum without which, it ceases to become Scrum at all. Scrum has a light weight framework that includes a set of ceremonies, artefacts and roles. The responsibilities attached to these roles is fundamental to making Scrum work, a departure from them means that calling it Scrum would be inaccurate to say the least. One such corner stone would be a self-empowered development team who is in control of how each piece of work is to be tackled. Having someone dictating how problems are to be solved to the Scrum Team immediately makes it something different. The only way that would be consider okay is if the Development team actually appointed that person to the role of technical decision maker. They would have made a self-powered decision and would be free to not only follow that, but change it if it didn’t work. I didn’t seem like this was the case at all in the scenario you describe.

        Certainly Scrum done well is never the same in two instances, but its not fair to say that Scrum done in a way that ignores its core ethos’ is Scrum at all. The lack of freedom in the environment you were in, was certainly not Scrum. It was project Management re-branded as Scrum.

        Using a Rugby analogy, no two referees will interpret the laws of the game in exactly the same way, but the difference between their interpretations is minor and the is certainly a point exists at which every referee would agree the law has been broken.

        In my opinion, having worked with large corporations who want to stay in touch with the competition but can’t quite release the their need to control, whilst its fair to say there are different detailled definitions of what Scrum is, it is quite easy to tell when the framework has been mutilated to a point where it is no longer Scrum. I think that is what you experienced.

        I hope this helps.

        1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a team that runs scrum the way you describe it.

          1. I don’t think I actually described the way a Scrum Team run, simply that there is a definition. I suggest you read Henrik Kinberg – Scrum and XP from the trenches. Its a nice bio of a functioning Scrum Team. Also, and this is not meant to sound cutting, but because you haven’t heard of a Scrum Team function based on the tiny example that I gave, does show that you could do worse then read up a bit on what Scrum actually is.

        2. It’s possible that scrum ideal is so bad that nobody does it right.

          1. Yes, that is possible, but just for clarity, what do you think that ideal is?

          2. Christina · ·

            I beg to differ! The scrum ideal works beautifully if it’s done the right way. I have been on a scrum team for two years, which worked like a well oiled machine in almost every aspect.

          3. Can you share what made it work so well?

          4. There are very few factors that make or break a scrum team in my personal opinion. They are whether or not you have a good scrum master (NOT Project Manager) who can coach the team, whether your team has the understanding that they are a ‘development team’, they are all in it together to get the story/sprint DONE, and retrospectives, for me are the most important meeting. This is the meeting that you have where you can really build your team, what are the problem how do you fix them? what do you want to improve, tbh, there are a lot more factors which fit into my ‘ideal’ but these are just some of them…and one things which i see a lot of – many companies or team think by just adding a post it onto a board and having a stand up makes you a scrum team….very wrong, it’s about how the team can overcome the concept of them and us, work together, and make potentially shippable good working software.

          5. You nailed it. Most companies want to use scrum just to say they use scrum. It’s a political development process integration. They don’t try to cultivate a team that works well together.

  10. I can’t talk for Christina, but in my experience, having a team that was given complete autonomy on how to solve the problems presented by a business was very important.

    The protection given to make sure that they were working at a pace that didn’t burn them out and allowed them maintain very high quality whilst improving their skills as developers and people was highly motivating.

    That discussions were frank and the teams opinions were respected by business people and that this success was recognised by the people involved in the project and the wider business because the product was great.

    Finally, the relationships within the whole team were based around open communication, honesty, trust and respect. Frankly being in a Scrum Team has been the only environment where I have seen people truly happy and truly flourish at work and as a consequence, good products were built.

    I would say that it was an excellent balance between freedom and responsibility. You description of Scrum is just control, which is not Scrum.

  11. […] And, to round out that discussion, being told what to do makes you less productive. Can’t argue with that. I’d be really productive about watching Tombstone if it wasn’t for these “deliverables.” […]

  12. […] gets hammered home in an excellent blog post where Good Sense looks at how trust and autonomy and freedom promotes productivity and creative […]

  13. […] experience is called psychological reactance, and it kicks in whenever we have too much on our plate or feel heavily […]

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: