Don't eat the marshmallow: the case for self-control

By Clare Grist Taylor

To become an effective leader, you must first conquer yourself.

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.

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.

Self-mastery and emotional intelligence

The experiment offers a powerful 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. 

Self-control is also a fundamental tenet of the concept of emotional intelligence championed by Daniel Goleman. According to 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 confict 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. 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 and psychological safety

It’s very likely that we’ve had one. Those nightmare 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 cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased performance. 

It’s interesting that this emotional contagion manifests itself in groups, as well as individuals. In 2015, Google’s People Operations team (HR to you and me) 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, and to take on new roles. 

Pioneer of psychological safety, Amy Edmonson, 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 are rated as effective twice as often by their managers.

Unpredictable bosses: take note. Impulsive behaviours – that lack of self-control – not only reflect on us personally, but 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. 

The perils of ego depletion and building 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 can 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. 

Be aware, too, of 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 from work, eating well and regular exercise all have a positive effect. Meditation and relaxation techniques work well for some people too. 

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. 

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 twenty-first century workplace. 

To find out more about the Transformational Leadership Programme visit Future Talent Learning or contact us at



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