The Impact of Self-Control, and Lack Thereof

Saying that self-control is a positive character trait is, for most of us, an exercise in stating the obvious. Scientists, psychologists and philosophers have been extoling the virtues of self-control for… well, forever. Plato claimed that our very existence as humans consists of a constant struggle between our desires and our rationality, with self-control maintaining the balance. Marcus Aurelius wrote that, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Benjamin Franklin urged parents to “Educate your children to self-control… and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.”

The actual scientific study of self-control only began about 25 years ago. Since then, hundreds of studies have supported what generation after generation has known to be true: our level of self-discipline has a direct impact on how happy, productive, and successful we are. Research shows that people with higher levels of self-control eat healthier, exercise more, are less susceptible to substance abuse, and are more likely to build relationships that are positive and supporting.

Professionally, leaders who possess a high level of self-control are more likely to inspire others to do great work and take on new challenges. Hiring people who possess high levels of self-discipline and drive will have a direct impact on our organization’s performance. Again, most of us will automatically nod our heads in agreement with obvious statements like these. So, why are there times when even the most self-disciplined among us seem to lose it? And what is the impact?

As it turns out, self-control is a finite cognitive resource that, if not regularly replenished, can disappear from time to time. Just as our physical strength is limited and able to be depleted by physical activity, our ability to self-regulate is always in limited supply.

For example, one study found that service employees who spend their days smiling during customer interactions whether they feel like it or not, are less able to exercise self-control in difficult conversations held late in the day.

Just as with physical strength, self-control is a “muscle” that can be built. But, none of us are self-control superheroes. Recognizing this, how does that impact our expectations for ourselves and those we lead? What are the consequences if we place demands on our people that deplete their ability to exert self-control in important situations?

Various studies have shown that when self-control resources are low, people are more likely to be rude to others, lie, steal, cheat, and engage in overtly risky behavior. One study found a direct correlation between lack of sleep and unethical behaviors within a variety of work settings. Most of us know this to be true from direct experience. Explaining regrettable behavior with the words, “I’m sorry. I was just tired.”, is almost commonplace.

Another study shows that our level of feeling physically and mentally refreshed when we wake up in the morning has a direct impact on job performance. When there is simply not enough energy available to us to exert self-control, we tend to spend less time on difficult tasks, exert less effort even on easy tasks, and are easily distracted. In other words, allowing ourselves and our employees to become exhausted practically guarantees an inability to be productive.

Yet another interesting result of depleted self-control is that we are less likely to speak up if we see a problem, less likely to extend a helping hand to a co-worker, and more likely to skip out on opportunities to volunteer even for causes we strongly believe in.

If contributing the effective and ethical nature of our organization is important to us, it’s clear that maintaining the ability towards self-control is vitally important. So, how do we do that?

Adequate sleep is the most obvious contributor. We don’t really need a study to tell us that sleep has amazing restorative effects on self-control. A room filled with exhausted, sleep deprived people is like walking through a mine field. Likewise, expecting ourselves and our employees to work super long hours is almost always counterproductive.

Second, we must not expect those in customer service positions to operate like robots. A 2005 study of physicians indicated that doctors who could put themselves in their patients’ shoes and empathize with them were less likely to experience a depletion in self-control, had a higher level of job satisfaction, and were less susceptible to burnout. In other words, faking an emotional response is exhausting. And yet, being cheerful, polite and helpful to customers is, of course, a reasonable requirement of any customer service position. Knowing this, perhaps customer service training should include an emphasis in empathy and genuine understanding.

Knowing that self-control is a limited resource, how does your current lifestyle and work environment measure up? Are you able to refill the tank when the supply is low? Are you providing the same benefit to your staff?

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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