“Being able to resist short-term temptations in favor of long-term payoffs is the secret not just to wealth but to civilization itself. It took singular willpower for the first farmers to go out and plant seeds instead of treating themselves to an immediate meal.” ~ Roy Baumeister & John Tierney

Self-control—the ability to delay gratification, concentrate on a task, resist a temptation, or control emotions—is key to success at work and in life. The good news is that we can improve our willpower.

Recent studies show that a leader’s behavior can boost other people’s level of self-control. When leaders create a culture of reliability, trust and mutual accountability, people are more likely to exercise self-control. Read on to learn more.

Self-Control Matters!

In 1970, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted what’s become known as the “marshmallow experiment.” The subjects were four-year-olds from the campus nursery school. Each child was given a marshmallow and a choice: they could eat the marshmallow immediately or they could wait 15 minutes and receive a second marshmallow.

Most of the children tried to wait. And most failed. Only about a third were able to control themselves long enough to receive the second marshmallow.

Here’s a charming reenactment of the famous experiment.

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When researchers followed up years later, they found the four-year-olds with the most self-control (those who waited the full 15 minutes) had grown up to become more healthy, happy and successful young adults. They scored higher on tests of aptitude, were more popular at school and at work, earned higher salaries, had a lower body-mass index, and fewer problems with drugs and alcohol.

Pretty amazing outcomes to predict based on the behavior of four-year-olds during 15 minutes!

Leader Behavior Matters!

In an interesting twist on the original experiment, researchers found in 2011 that children’s ability to maintain self-control is dependent upon being in a trusted environment. Here’s where the leader’s behavior matters.

Children assigned to an “unreliable” experimenter who failed to keep their promises (i.e. a poor leader) showed low self-control—they ate the marshmallow. In contrast, children in a reliable environment were able to hold out four times longer.

This makes sense. In an “unreliable” environment in which long-term gains are uncertain or rare, the best strategy is to grab the immediate rewards.

What are the implications for the workplace? For one, we know that a leader’s behavior has a major influence on whether or not others perceive the environment to be safe, reliable, and fair. When leaders fail to build trust in their team, they may be predisposing others to maximize short-term gains at the expense of long-term rewards.

A question for self-reflection: “Am I doing all I can to build an environment of trust in my workplace?”

Here’s a video explanation of the 2011 research conducted at the University of Rochester.

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