Nutshell: Don’t eat the marshmallow: the case for self-control

Written by
Future Talent Learning

01 Feb 2019

01 Feb 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

To become effective leaders, we must first conquer ourselves.

There exists a certain romantic ideology about the emotionally volatile but intellectually gifted leader. These pacesetting pioneers leave their teams in a state of constant anxiety, their peers excoriate them in the safety of the pub and their direct reports are often to be found in tears in the bathroom.

And yet. Their disregard for other people’s feelings in pursuit of their vision leads the company to achieve great things. Thankfully, this is all just a myth. Bosses like this are deeply awful to work with. And when they do succeed, they generally achieve things despite their emotional shortcomings, not because of them. That’s because they lack a critical leadership skill increasingly recognised as one that separates the leadership wheat from the chaff: the ability to recognise, manage and deploy our own emotions in the right way and at the right time. Not for nothing is emotional self-control a crucial Daniel Goleman EQ competence. That ability to regulate our emotions is the key to creating cultures at work that support and nurture wellbeing, creativity and performance.

Self-mastery and emotional intelligence

Research into the power of self-control has a long history. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel began a series of studies designed to test the concept of delayed gratification. In what have become known as the marshmallow experiments, children were offered the choice of one treat immediately or the chance to receive, after a 15-minute wait, two.

In follow-up studies, researchers found that those children who were able to exert enough self-control to wait for the larger reward tended to have better life outcomes as teenagers and then as adults. It seems that willpower – self-control, the ability to manage our immediate emotional response to a situation – is a vital life skill.

Despite subsequent criticisms of Mischel and his marshmallows, the experiment offers a fascinating insight into the power of self-control. It’s an attribute that has been lauded and critiqued by philosophers and psychologists throughout the ages, exploring how we master our emotions in the face of our impulses and desires. Indeed, for Sigmund Freud, the ability to exert at least some minimal amount of mastery over ourselves is the precondition for living in a civilised society.

For Goleman, emotional self-control involves “the ability to keep your disruptive emotions and impulses in check, to maintain your effectiveness under stressful or even hostile conditions.” It’s the quality that “liberates us from living like hostages to our impulses”. Strong words. But if we think about leadership through the lens of controlling these impulses, we move from simply being aware of our emotions – important as self-awareness is – to using our thoughts and emotions as positive tools to manage them. Goleman, for example, has identified that people who are skilled in self-control possess a number of traits we generally consider positive in our leaders: they are good at managing conflict and diffusing tense situations; they are thoughtful about how they influence others; they are able to take responsibility for their actions and have the capacity to adapt well to change.

To be clear, self-control is not about suppressing emotions. It’s about having the ability to see our emotions clearly and choose when or if to express them appropriately. Our emotions are all too frequently driven by biological impulses. When our brains detect a threat, what Goleman calls an “amygdala hijack” can take us straight to survival mode, when our 'fight-or-flight' impulses take over to the exclusion of all else. While we’re very rarely faced with physical threats these days, even more symbolic dangers can trigger the same impulses. We may feel frustrated by the behaviour of one of our team members in a meeting. We might feel challenged by some feedback we’d rather not have received from someone else’s boss. The result: a tendency to react emotionally in the moment in ways we tend to regret later.

While these impulses may be beyond our control, how we respond is not. That’s where self-control comes in. It’s about taking advantage of the gap between impulse and action. When our amygdala sends out that anger or panic signal, we have a window to handle it well – or not. With practice, and a healthy dose of self-awareness, it’s possible to identify and anticipate our own personal triggers, understanding when our destructive emotions are starting to build and an amygdala hijack is likely. Then we can intervene to control them. And when we’re in control, we can minimise negative feelings and retain our equilibrium.

Emotional contagion

Back to those nightmare leaders. It’s very likely that we’ve all had one, bosses who blow their top at the least provocation, moodily stalking the office, publicly berating underperformance or sending us passive-aggressive emails late at night. It’s not nice, and the chances are that the effects are felt long after any single outburst or incident. Hardly the kind of environment to foster much-needed collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Leaders who are especially unpredictable in their emotional responses, who become volatile as emotional pressures pile up, will naturally in turn throw their people off-balance, leaving them frightened to share difficult or challenging information. It makes us all much less likely to behave as we might wish

That’s because the effects of self-control (or lack thereof) are amplified for leaders, who have a responsibility not just for their own behaviours and actions, but also those of the people who work with them. The tone really does come from the top. There’s plenty of evidence that more positive attitudes at the top mean more positive attitudes throughout the organisation and, crucially, improved performance – with the reverse also true.

Research by management professor Sigal Barsade has charted a significant “ripple effect” of emotional contagion – the transfer of moods between people in a group – in workplace dynamics. Barsade allocated participants into simulated teams, with leaders either in a bad mood or a positive one. Over the course of working together, the members of those teams caught whichever mood the leader was in. With downbeat, negative leadership, team performance suffered. In contrast, positive emotional contagion meant improved co-operation, decreased conflict and increased performance.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee are clear that a leader must “first attend to the impact of his mood and behaviors before moving on to his wide panoply of other critical responsibilities”. As with Barsade’s ripple effect, the authors suggest that moods that start at the top tend to move the fastest because everyone watches the boss, actively looking for emotional cues to follow. Depressed or ruthless bosses create toxic, low-trust environments staffed by negative underachievers who are wary of contributing new ideas or taking risks. In contrast, upbeat, inspirational leaders nurture and cultivate positive people prepared for even the toughest challenges through high levels of trust and cultures of learning.

The article offers a five-step process that can help us to “re-wire” our brains towards more emotionally intelligent behaviours:

  1. Who do you want to be? We need to envision ourselves as highly successful leaders.
  2. Who are you now? Then take an honest look at where you are against that benchmark right now.
  3. How do you get from here to there? Develop strategies to close the gap between the two.
  4. How do you make change stick? Unsurprisingly, this – once again – is about practice, developing that muscle memory to build optimum levels of emotional self-control.
  5. Who can help you? Mastering self-control can be hard. Where possible, we need to identify support networks who can help us along the journey.

That doesn’t mean that, as leaders, we always have to be in a good mood, or relentlessly positive, whatever the circumstances. But we do need to think about how our moods might impact others and how they should be in tune with the situations in which we find ourselves (what Goleman calls dynamic resonance). Optimism is one thing: being defiantly upbeat while making people redundant is quite another.

And, as no-one is likely to confront a moody boss with his or her unacceptable behaviour, it’s up to us to look out for and control our moods ourselves. Goleman again: “An emotionally intelligent leader can monitor his or her moods through self-awareness, change them for the better through self-management, understand their impact through empathy, and act in ways that boost others’ moods through relationship management.” With a healthy dose of EQ, we can take an honest look at ourselves and work on keeping ourselves on an even keel.

Psychological safety

The extraordinary impact of emotional contagion – for good as well as for ill – is highlighted in a piece of research undertaken by Google’s People Operations team (HR to you and me) in 2015. The team spent two years looking at what made their teams successful. Of the five key dynamics that set successful teams apart, their number one factor was psychological safety: the safer team members felt, the more likely they were to admit mistakes, to partner, to take on new roles – and to create together an impressively successful team.

Pioneer of psychological safety Amy Edmondson defines such safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. And like emotional contagion, it’s not just a matter of being 'nice'. Creating work environments in which people feel comfortable taking risks is a key to innovation. For Google, providing a safe environment has become a competitive advantage. High levels of psychological safety mean that people are less likely to leave the company more likely to contribute a range of ideas, generate more revenue and rated as effective twice as often by their managers.

Edmondson describes as “fearless” organisations that provide such psychological safety. That safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able to speak up, share information and be candid, even when things go wrong. These enabling and learning cultures are the fuel that powers success – and it’s for us as leaders to lead from the front, setting clear expectations and purpose; inviting active participation so that people feel empowered to contribute and responding productively when people do speak up.

Simon Sinek similarly exhorts us to create “circles of safety” that build trust and co-operation. We may not be able to control events outside our organisations, but we can control the conditions inside them. And it’s leaders who set the tone. For Sinek, leadership is a “choice, not a rank”; yes, we may need to provide discipline from time to time, but real leadership is not built on authority alone. Instead, it’s about bringing people inside those circles of safety, providing the opportunities and education to help them build the confidence they need to make the most of opportunities that will drive performance.

Unpredictable bosses: take note. Impulsive behaviours – a lack of self-control, a blindness to the need for psychological safety – are likely to have far-reaching, negative consequences for our people and our performance. In 2017, a team of researchers reviewed a range of findings on employee self-control. They concluded that leaders with low self-control were a particular problem, more likely to verbally abuse their people, to form weak relationships with them and to lack charisma. Scholars have estimated that the cost to US companies of this kind of negative and abusive behaviour is in excess of $20bn a year. In contrast, leaders with high levels of self-control “display more effective leaderships styles… and are more likely to inspire and intellectually challenge their followers”.

The perils of ego depletion: how to build self-control

As a psychologist and former hostage negotiator, George Kohlrieser knows a lot about operating under pressure. He has studied thousands of C-suite executives and board members, concluding that the very best share one notable quality: they stay calm and cool in a crisis, managing their own emotions, which creates an aura of safety and calm in those around them. They don’t spread fear, anger or tension.

So how can we be sure that we build the self-control we need as leaders?

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has spent many years researching the term he coined: ego depletion. Baumeister believes that our ability to self-regulate is limited; exerting self-control in one area will use up energy for regulating ourselves elsewhere. He likens ego depletion to the tiredness that comes from physically exerting a muscle. The corollary to this is that, like a muscle, self-control can be built and strengthened over time.


So, while we may have a lesser or greater innate ability to manage our impulses, it’s certainly possible to develop that self-control muscle. Above all, it’s about minding that gap between those triggers and how we react. Mark Brackett from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, calls these meta-moments, and advocates a four-step process to help us go beyond our first impulse:

  1. Sense the shift
    You are activated, caught off guard, or have an impulse to say or do something you might regret. You feel a shift in your thinking or body or both.
  2. Stop or pause
    Step back and breathe. Breathe again.
  3. See your best self
    Think of adjectives or an image that helps you visualise your best self. Think about your reputation. How do you want to be seen, talked about, and experienced? What would you do if someone you respect were watching you?
  4. Strategise and act
    Reach into your toolkit of healthy responses – positive self-talk and reframing are two good options – and choose the path that will close the gap between your triggered self and your emerging best self.

The more we practise the art of waiting, of using that moment to pay attention to and acknowledge our inner signals, the better we’ll get at more rational and less emotional responses. Never send an email in anger. Think carefully about addressing a tricky performance issue if our minds are elsewhere. Give ourselves enough time to make important decisions, even if the clock is ticking.


Homer’s hero, Odysseus, becomes a modern-day self-management hero in the work of author and journalist Daniel Akst. In his book, We Have Met the Enemy, Akst invokes the story of Odysseus and Homer’s shipwreck-inducing Sirens to explain the concept of precommitments. Odysseus has the self-awareness to realise that it will be nigh on impossible for him, and his crewmates, to resist the beautiful song of the Sirens that would lure them to their doom. Instead of relying merely on willpower that could fail him, he decides to take action to protect him from a future, ego-depleted, version of himself. By plugging all of his sailors’ ears with beeswax and ordering them to tie him to the mast of their ship, Odysseus is able to overcome the latest in the series of fiendish challenges Homer puts in the way of his safe return home.

The stakes might not be so high in the average work setting, but the idea of a precommitment – anticipating those moments of ego depletion and setting ourselves up in advance to resist impulse or failure – can be a useful self-management tactic. It’s especially powerful if we can involve others in our future-facing pacts. Our present self might know that having to create lengthy management reports will sap our energy and make our future self much more likely to be really rude to Dave in Accounts when he chases us for the nth time the day the report is due. But by making a precommitment, for example, asking a colleague to remind future us that Dave is only doing his job is a simple way to bind us (metaphorically if not, Odysseus-like, literally) to resist our first impulse and behave with the courtesy for which present us would want to be known.

Give us a break

Like Baumeister, Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, agrees that we need regularly to replenish our reserves of self-regulation; for Schwartz, “Energy is the fuel for self-control”. Instead of seeing self-control in terms of grit, persevering under pressure or toughing it out, it’s a matter of better managing the self-regulation reservoir we have available to us. That means being aware of – and tackling – the things that diminish self-control, such as being overtired or feeling overwhelmed.

Low blood sugar or dehydration can have a negative effect, and alcohol and other substances certainly won’t help. Getting enough sleep, taking breaks at and from work, eating well and regular exercise will all boost energy. Meditation and relaxation techniques, or established rituals and routines, work well for some people too. A 2014 study coined the phrase “bedtime procrastination” for those all-too-familiar times when we know we should go to bed and sleep, but, ironically, feel too tired to leave the sofa. Working flat out during the day and arriving home over-exhausted is not a great resilience- or energy-boosting strategy.

Research also suggests that we need to master the art of “micro-breaks” during the day itself – and that those breaks needs to be the right type of breaks too. Total relaxation, switching off our brains and daydreaming or stretching, or social interaction help to create the buffers we need to keep going. Cognitive breaks, checking social media, offer much less respite. How long a break we take can be less important than what we do with that time.

When and where we take a break also matters. Perhaps counter-intuitively, taking breaks earlier in the working day can have more effect. And we shouldn’t ignore the power of simply going outside. Even a five-minute walk on that patch of rough ground by the office can make a difference when it comes to recharging our batteries and our ability to exercise self-control.

Imagine a scenario at work when things haven’t gone as well as they might. Perhaps our team has screwed up and we’ve lost an important client. Our knee-jerk reaction might be bawl out the people involved, slam doors or bang on tables. But is this likely to get the results we need, to get to the root of the problem or improve performance next time around?

Pausing to reflect before acting in a situation like this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge or tackle less than optimal performance. Nor does it make us look weak. Good self-control will help us to bring the team back together, explore the reasons for the problem and plan for what happens next. Chances are it’ll lay the groundwork for the psychological safety that will improve the chances of success next time round.

Workplace therapist Brandon Smith offers a very simple test for all of us: how do we feel after we’ve spent time with our boss? Do we leave feeling energised and ready for the fray or do we try to keep interaction to the bare minimum lest it leave us feeling demotivated and demoralised for the rest of the day? And how might our own teams feel after spending time with us? If we’re not confident we can answer positively, then we need to find out and work on our “re-wiring”. Perhaps the last word should go to Plato, one of the ancient philosophers who understood so readily the power of self-control: “The first and best victory is to conquer self.” It’s a mantra that still has plenty of resonance for leaders in the average workplace.

Test your understanding

  • Identify why emotional contagion is a particular issue for leaders.
  • Outline what Amy Edmondson describes as 'psychological safety'.
  • Explain what Mark Brackett means by a meta-moment.


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