19 Jul 2017

Leadership Takes Self-Control. Here’s What We Know About It

Philosophers and psychologists have been discussing the importance of self-control for ages. Plato, for example, argued that the human experience is a constant struggle between our desire and rationality, and that self-control is needed to achieve our ideal form. Likewise, Freud suggested that self-control is the essence of a civilized life.

The scientific study of self-control started about 25 years ago in the fields of criminology and psychology. Since then, hundreds of studies have shown the positive effects that come from possessing self-discipline. For instance, people with higher levels of self-control eat healthier, are less likely to engage in substance abuse, perform better at school, and build high-quality friendships. At work, leaders with higher levels of self-control display more effective leadership styles – they are more likely to inspire and intellectually challenge their followers, instead of being abusive or micromanaging. But what happens when people lack self-control at work?

We conducted a comprehensive review of research findings on employee self-control in a forthcoming paper in the Academy of Management Annals. Analyzing more than 120 management papers, we found that there are three main reasons why people occasionally lose self-control: 1) self-control is a finite cognitive resource; 2) different types of self-control tap the same pool of self-control resources; and 3) exerting self-control can negatively affect future self-control if it is not replenished. Think of self-control as analogous to physical strength: Our physical strength is limited, various tasks (e.g., football, basketball, walking, etc.) deplete it, and continued exertion can negatively affect future physical strength if it’s not restored.


For example, our own research has found that service employees in leadership positions who have to force a smile in customer interactions (thereby exercising self-control to suppress their true feelings) are later less able to regulate their interactions with their subordinates – they lie and are more rude to them.

Our review identified a few consequences that are consistently linked to having lower self-control at work:


Increased unethical/deviant behavior: Studies have found that when self-control resources are low, nurses are more likely to be rude to patients, tax accountants are more likely to engage in fraud, and employees in general engage in various forms of unethical behavior, such as lying to their supervisors, stealing office supplies, and so on.

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