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When Our Brains Resist: This Simple Mental PushBack Test Shows Why We Crave Work Autonomy

Mental pushback: Take 5 minutes to do this simple test with colleagues and unlock one of the biggest secrets to employee motivation, engagement and retention

What is mental pushback? And how is it impacting employee engagement and motivation at work? There’s an incredibly simple test you can do right now with a few colleagues at work to understand one of the biggest secrets to employee behaviour.

DO THIS SIMPLE MENTAL PUSHBACK TEST

Take five minutes and try this with a few colleagues (or at home, and with anyone, really):

  • Ask the person to hold their hand up (just comfortably as if to wave)
  • Then reach out and push their hand back with yours
  • See how they react.
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Chances are that 9 times out of 10 (if not 100% of the time), their immediate reaction will be to resist at some point. It’s subconscious. Sometimes people are surprised for a fraction of a second, but at some point, the push-back reflex kicks in. You can even tell them that you’re going to push their hand before doing it. Normally, almost everyone resists.

Why? Because our bodies are designed to push back.

HARDWIRED TO PUSH BACK

It makes sense if you think about. From the day you’re born, your body develops to resist the force of gravity. Your skeleton, your muscles – every part of you is in some way designed to push back against all the forces (visible or not) that govern the world around us.

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In fact, it starts well before birth: Scientists have found that an important part of how all complex life grow from simple cells (the process called morphogenesis) is because those “stem” cells learn to push back against local mechanical forces. See the study here.

And a very important new way of thinking is that our brains have developed in a similar way. 

WHAT IS MENTAL PUSHBACK?

Pushback means when you get a response from an action, and it’s usually negative. For example: “We implemented the new X and Y systems and the pushback we got from the team was tremendous.”

Mental pushback is much the same, but it’s an almost automatic, subconscious reaction. It’s emotional: We want to grow but we resist change, we want to learn new things but we will instinctively push back against coercion. 

But it also seems to be an important part of how we grow and develop: We’re endlessly adaptable, and much of our personal growth is in response to external pressures. For example: “As long as you live under this roof, you’ll obey the rules” often leads to “fine, I’m moving out.” And a whole new chapter in life begins.

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WHY DO WE SEEM TO HAVE MENTAL PUSHBACK?

In essence, every one of us wants to be our own person. We have a need and desire to be who we are that’s just as strong as our need to belong. We want to be part of the whole (company, community, society etc.) as ourselves, not moulded into the image of someone else.

And that’s where the trouble comes in with employees and many of the traditional company structures: Advancement in most companies is based on whether you can model the abilities and behaviour of the person who did the work successfully before you. 

Think about it: The way to get a promotion is essentially in proving that you can do that person’s job just as well as they did. So, our default thinking in most companies and careers is person X  needs to be as close a replica as possible of person Y or better to qualify. (This leads to a whole whack of employee motivation, productivity, incivility and sabotage issues, which we’ll look at in a future post.)

We never openly admit it, but that’s the underlying (and unspoken) mechanics beneath many traditional company structures.

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HIDDEN MECHANICS: WHAT TRIGGERS MENTAL PUSHBACK AT COMPANIES?

When we come into a company, we come with the idea of wanting to be our own person inside this new space. And employers often emphasise this sentiment from the first contact – “we’re looking for the right person for the job.”

But, what often happens is that, from the moment you arrive, the underlying mechanics of “this is how we do things around here” come into play. When a new employee arrives we immediately tell them where to sit, what time to be where and what will happen if they don’t adhere to it. We tell them what to do and – very often – we tell them exactly how to do it, too. “Use this form and do it according to this template”, etc.

It seems natural. That’s just how companies are supposed to work, right?

Rules are often important. You certainly don’t want a physician who flouts basic medical concepts or an architect that disregards the laws of physics in their work. But, at the same time, you wouldn’t hire a lawyer just so you can tell them how to interpret the law, either. There’s a fine line between common sense and too much control.

What often happens is: We want you to deliver X. But to do that, you have to do it this way or this format etc. That “you have to” is very important because it’s what activates the mental pushback.

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HOW MENTAL PUSHBACK MANIFESTS

One of the most interesting things about mental pushback is that the trigger – “you have to” – is not just when someone else (a company, boss or colleague) tells you what to do or how to do it. It actually doesn’t matter who says it to you, the same thing happens even when you force yourself.

Even when you tell yourself, “I have to do this now,” you trigger your own mental pushback. So, it’s not about employees just pushing back at companies. We all push back against ourselves, our families, in our communities – every day. It seems to be a universal reflexive behaviour.

And mental pushback manifests as:

Procrastination

Putting it off for as long as possible – incredibly common in everyday life, at work, at home, everywhere.

Slovenly work

Doing just the bare minimum or – and you’ll recognise this one as very common in the workplace – intentionally doing something only as directed, to the letter. “Well Mr Manager, you just told me to get the delivery ready, you never said I had to send it or notify you when it’s prepped. So, if the goods are ruined now, it’s on you for not giving me proper instructions.”

Creative avoidance

Few people are as creative as a person who feels coerced into doing something. Because you “have to” write that email now, you suddenly start cleaning your desk instead (something you’ve never done in the last 10 years – ever).

Sound familiar?

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THE RESULT

For many people, mental pushback is a sign of internal tension. We can live with it for a while, but, ultimately, you’re going to look for a way to relieve that tension. Look for a new job at a different company – a new place where you can maybe really be yourself. And we’re often unable to identify the real reason why, which is why we make up easily excuses quantifiable excuses like: “Oh, I’m looking for more money” or “that company’s offices are closer to where I live”.

And, if you are met the same mechanics at the new company, the cycle repeats itself.

In fact, we’re seeing more and more people leaving an entire industry or field and changing career paths – a rising trend among the growing millennial workforce worldwide.

OK, SO WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

One of the prevailing schools of thought is that the world is simply changing. With the rise of technology, our work and the workforce is evolving. The ideas that worked in the workplace of the 20th century might not hold up in the 21st century.

But our science and understanding are improving, too. Just look at some of the counterintuitive results of studies on employee motivation.

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We at LifeXchange Solutions are extremely passionate and excited by the prospect of change in the workplace. Helping HR teams and companies navigate change through scientific research, tried-and-tested application and the latest in neuroscience and human behavioural studies is the reason we get up in the morning

So, if you have any questions, or just want to get some ideas or ask a question about mental pushback or any people-based concern in the workplace, we’d be super happy to have a coffee and chat about it.


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