The managers I respect most have the ability to control their emotions, think clearly and remain focused regardless of the bedlam around them. I marvel at their patience when dealing with difficult people and I feel inadequate when I think of my occasional temper tantrums. I wonder if managerial self-control is an inherent personality trait or something that can be cultivated?
A recent article by Roy F. Baumeister in NewScientist magazine claims that willpower is not so much a moral quality as a muscle that can both tire and be strengthened. Controlling thoughts and emotions, restraining impulses and performing tasks and duties all draw from the same reserves of willpower. After you exert any sort of self-control you have less willpower for new demands. Cutting back effort conserves what remains.
Since willpower is used when making choices, daily decision-making also tires the muscle and impairs self-control. In the NewScientist article, the author recounts a study that examined the difficult decisions faced by parole judges. Early in the day, and after eating, judges were more likely to take the risky step of granting parole than later in the day, when their willpower was depleted from making choices, or before meals when they were hungry. It was easier just to keep the convicts locked up than summon the self-discipline to carefully weigh the pros and cons involved in granting parole.
In fact, there appears to be evidence that willpower is a kind of “energy” that is tied to levels of glucose used to carry energy from the digestive system to muscles and organs. Studies show that after exerting self-control, people perform better on the next self-control task when given a slug of glucose between tasks. This suggests why dieting is so hard. In order to resist tempting foods you need willpower. But to have willpower, you must eat. As you restrict food intake you diminish the psychological strength needed to succeed. Out comes the junk food.
What can you learn from this to become a better manager? First, armed with knowledge of willpower, you can schedule your tougher decisions and interactions for when you know you’ll be better equipped to tackle them. Second, like training for a marathon, you can gradually improve your willpower “muscles” by exercising them regularly. Third, if you’re trying to lose weight, stop smoking and manage a tough work situation all at the same time, remember that you only have so much willpower, so don’t let a little backsliding stop you from persevering.
When all else fails, take a tip from the willpower researchers. Stir some sugar into your coffee, grab a can of soda or snack on a few jellybeans. It won’t do much for your diet but it might just help you make a better decision when you really need to.