Why businesses should foster self-control among employees


Employees with low self-control exert less effort at work and become distracted more easily. Photograph: Getty Images

Employees with low self-control exert less effort at work and become distracted more easily. Photograph: Getty Images


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

Recently, studies have found that people with higher levels of self-control eat more healthily, perform better at school and build high-quality friendships. At work, leaders with higher levels of self-control display more effective leadership styles. But what happens when people lack self-control at work?

We conducted a comprehensive review of research findings on employee self-control, and identified a few consequences that are consistently linked to having lower self-control at work.

1. Increased unethical/deviant behaviour:

Studies have found that when self-control resources are low, nurses are more likely to be rude to patients and tax accountants are more likely to engage in fraud.

2. Decreased pro-social behaviour:

Depleted self-control makes employees less likely to speak up if they see problems at work, less likely to help fellow employees and less likely to engage in corporate volunteerism.

Below-average self-control can lead employees to spend less time on difficult tasks, exert less effort at work, be more distracted and generally perform worse.

4. Negative leadership styles:

Leaders with lower self-control often exhibit counterproductive leadership styles, such as verbally abusing their employees.

How to maintain self-control

Helping employees maintain self-control is an important task if organisations want to be more effective and ethical. Fortunately, we’ve identified three key factors that can help leaders foster self-control among employees.

First, sleep appears to have a significant restorative effect on self-control. One study found that leaders who had minimal interruptions to sleep were much more likely to exercise their self-control than their counterparts who did not sleep well. Organisations should be mindful about how long work hours can impact employee behaviour and well-being.

Second, “service with a smile” might not always pay, even if it pleases customers in the short term. Companies should consider training employees to tap into the emotions they display. For example, one study showed that physicians who engaged in perspective taking and felt genuine empathy toward their patients did not experience reduced self-control and its associated negative behaviours such as burnout.

Third, creating the right environment may help prevent some of the negative behaviours associated with lower self-control. For example, displaying the company’s code of conduct where employees can see it makes them less tempted to behave unethically.

– Copyright Harvard Business Review

Kai Chi “Sam” Yam is an assistant professor of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore. Huiwen Lian is an associate professor of management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Lance Ferris is an associate professor of management at Michigan State University. Douglas Brown is a professor of industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Waterloo.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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