Business Psychology

Article No. 345
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Blind in One Eye

Research reveals the causes of a problem we share with our employees.

Have you ever tried to change something in the jobs of your employees? For example, change a procedure or eliminate it? If so, then you've most likely noticed that they react, sometimes positively and sometimes with resistance. Sometimes, they refuse to change.

Why? Sometimes we think it's age. Younger people seem more willing to change. Older people seem more resistant, but that seems to be a harsh judgment against getting a little older. We're all getting a little older, including us owners. Are we all doomed to be left behind by changes we refuse to adopt?

Markus Baer, from Washington University in St. Louis studies reactions to change, and he recently completed a study that sheds light on this problem. Baer wondered if psychological ownership played a role, and he found that it does.

Psychological ownership is a mental state in which we feel like something belongs to us. Our clothes, cars, toys, and houses obviously belong to us. We own them, and they become an extension of ourselves. Our clothes reflect our moods. Our cars and houses reflect our aspirations. Our toys reflect our interests. Baer pointed out that psychological ownership often extends to non-material things like jobs. When people derive satisfaction and a feeling of usefulness because of their jobs, then it is likely, he says, that they will develop a sense of psychological ownership of them, too, and that can be good and bad.

When people develop psychological ownership of their jobs, they'll increase their commitment and effort. They'll feel responsible for their jobs and be concerned that their work gets completed. However, they may also mark and defend their jobs, withhold critical information, and resist others' efforts to contribute to them. It was this resistance to useful contributions that Baer hoped to reproduce and study in his experiments.

Working with 102 people, Baer was able to stimulate a sense of psychological ownership in half of them and prevent it in the other half. Next, he introduced three changes to all of the people using two approaches to do so. The first he called subtractive change: he eliminated three things. The second he called additive change: he added three things. Finally, he noted how the people reacted to the change efforts, and he found marked differences. Psychological ownership had a striking effect.

When confronted with subtractive change, people who felt psychological ownership were much less likely to adopt the changes than those who did not experience this feeling of ownership. When confronted with additive change, people who felt psychological ownership were much more likely to adopt the changes.

Adding and subtracting . . . it made all the difference. Baer wanted to know why, so he continued his studies.

When all the data was in, Baer found that when people feel ownership and face subtractive change, they feel a sense of loss, a sense of diminishing the self, and it hurts. They shun it. When they face additive change, they feel a sense of enhancement, a feeling of getting bigger and better. It feels good, and they embrace it. In both cases, for people feeling ownership, the effect is exaggerated. Too many subtractive changes are rejected, and too many additive changes are embraced.

Business owners can use these findings to guide their efforts to introduce change: make it additive. If you really want to eliminate something, add something that makes it impossible to do what you want to eliminate. That should accomplish your purpose. But business owners should also be aware that these findings apply to them, too, and in thinking this over, I have to say that my apple tree provides a suitable analogy.

I visit my apple tree three times a year. In late February, before the sap begins to run, I prune the tree. In late April, after little apples begin to appear, I thin the apples - one apple every eight inches along a branch. In early September, I harvest apples.

In February, I'm struck with the great effort the tree has made to send out new branches. The tree throws out branches everywhere, and it creates a tangled mess. In April, I remove a dozen apples for each one I allow to grow. Again, the tree tries to produce thousands of apples, and that far exceeds its ability. Finally, in September, I harvest fat, ripe apples, and I'm reminded that limiting and focusing the tree's resources produces this fine harvest.

We need to do the same with our businesses, and you need to be aware that your tendency will be to embrace the tangled mess of too many things to do and shun the pruning and thinning that will allow your business to focus its efforts and produce fine fruit. Baer calls it being "blind in one eye." Beware.

Reference: Baer, Markus and Graham Brown (2012) Blind in one eye: How psychological ownership of ideas affects the types of suggestions people adopt. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 118, 60-71.

© Management Resources

See Also:
A Test for Resisting Change
Giving Instructions

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