It all started with a client of mine whose leader had expressed frustration with her team members for being too relaxed and unprofessional. My client was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of a large healthcare company with over 600 team members. She worked closely with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who was a successful leader and had been with the organization for over 15 years.
One morning, the CEO became really frustrated with a few employees who were eating breakfast at their desks, which seemed to exacerbate the unprofessional work environment she was observing. She felt this was a time-waster and team members were losing productivity.
She lacked patience and decided to send an email to the entire company letting employees know they could no longer eat breakfast at their desks. Instead, team members had to eat before work or in the cafeteria. She did not inform her COO or the Human Resources (HR) department she would be sending this email.
Effects on productivity and company culture
What effect did the CEO’s actions have on employee productivity that week? Her intention was to increase productivity, but her impulsive actions resulted in a decrease in efficiency. Many employees were confused by her email, and HR was receiving calls for clarification, with employees wondering if protein bars or nuts were considered breakfast items. Other employees were pregnant or had health issues, would they be penalized if they had food at their desks? They felt they were being discriminated against.
Self-awareness and understanding
Was this leader self-aware enough to recognize her patterns of behavior that led her to act impulsively? Was she able to have difficult conversations? Did she recognize how her behaviors impacted others? The answer to all these questions was “no.” This leader was not self-aware and was not able to understand the negative impact of her actions.
A better response
What could this leader have done better? She could have had a conversation with those few employees she felt were not being productive instead of sending a group email.
Lack of control and impulsive behavior
Impulses such as the CEO described above can be perceived as a lack of control, maturity, or business savvy. This type of behavior often derails the offender as it can lead to termination or reduced opportunities for advancement.
How many of us have observed another team member engaging in an activity that we believe to be unproductive? Have you read an email, and immediately became defensive about the content or tone the sender was using? Then you impulsively decide to respond immediately and give your feedback via email, or even worse hit ‘reply all,’ and later regret what you said or wrote in that email. Unfortunately, you can’t take it back. It felt good in the short-term moment but left you with regret in the long-term.
With the use of email, Twitter, and texting, immediate gratification and ease of use prevents you from delaying or fully thinking about a response to another person’s communication. Research shows smart phones and other devices make us less assertive and cause us to “play small” and not stop to reflect how this impacts bigger life plans and goals.
What is the definition of impulse control?
Impulse control is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence (EI) and is defined as the degree to which a person can control the need for immediate gratification. It may be the most significant indicator of a person’s future success in the workplace or adaptation in society in terms of building and maintaining relationships with others.
The impact of a lack of impulse control in the workplace is generally significant whether it is a one-time occurrence or a pattern of behavior. When you act on an impulse that leads to a negative outcome, it can lead to serious consequences that are life changing and result in forming a negative reputation. On the other hand, when you have a positive outcome, it gets a different type of attention. It can look like you are brilliant, and your reputation is elevated as a leader and a managed risk taker.
What does research reveal about impulse control and life success?
For years parents have been testing their young children on impulse control based on the findings in The Stanford marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s, led by psychologist Walter Mischel. More recently, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have re-examined impulse control and America’s “culture of entitlement and instant gratification” in their book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Both research studies reveal impulse control is a key driver of better life outcomes as measured by better academic performance, higher SAT scores, upward mobility, and professional success.
Lack of impulse control and “monkey mind”
What prevents you from being present when you are engaging with another co-worker and not getting distracted? Is it emails, false deadlines, text messages, phone calls, web surfing, or interruptions? How can you not give into the power of temptation and stay more in the present moment?
When we lack impulse control, it takes us to a place we were not planning on going. We feel hijacked in the moment – our cognitive brain is no longer in control and our emotional brain is running the show.
On average, we have 60,000 thoughts a day (according to research by Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University) and only about 8-9 % are present-moment thinking. This is referred to as a “monkey-mind,” which can lead to impulsive behavior or emotional reactions when our emotional brain hijacks our thinking brain especially when we feel stress or triggered. This is called an amygdala hijack.
When the emotional part of your brain, your amygdala, is hijacked, your oxygen and blood flow move away from your thinking brain to your larger muscles, so you can react or get out of a dangerous situation. That is why you can’t tap into the best of your cognitive brain to see all variables and make a better rational decision.
The word “hijacked” is a strong word, but it feels sudden, unexpected, out of control, forceful, against your will, taking you someplace you were not planning on going. You feel more certain and things are more black and white. You are right, and the other person is wrong. You lose perspective to think clearly.
What does impulse control look like in the workplace?
As adults and business leaders, how can we improve our impulse control to engage better with team members and become more focused, productive and creative? Research findings reveal leaders who can manage strong emotions when feeling stress or pressure, while maintaining a healthy sense of humor, are more successful in building stronger relationships, being creative and meeting professional goals.
Developing self-awareness and building your own impulse control tools
The more self-aware you become about your own emotional triggers and how you manage your impulse control, the greater the chance to avoid inappropriate outbursts and poor decisions. Many times, you learn to control your impulsive behavior after an unfortunate event where you lost control and had to pay a big price. Hindsight is always 20/20. When you have a moment to look back at what you said or did, you have a better understanding of how you were triggered and how your actions impacted the situation in a negative way. You may take appropriate steps to limit the damage.
You cannot change another person or situation, but you can manage how you choose to react or respond to a situation. You can take charge of your impulse control. As a result, you can choose to “play big” and achieve more happiness, engagement and success in your personal and professional life.
Here are some specific tools you can utilize to improve impulse control:
- Stop and breathe before you react to a situation or send an email.
- Remember that instant gratification is short-lived and is about “playing small.” You want to “play big” and maintain a healthy sense of humor.
- Evaluate options – no response is sometimes the most powerful response.
- Listen to hear instead of listening to respond to someone. Become aware of distractions that are preventing you from listening.
- Don’t feel the need to respond to every email or text immediately.
- Leave 10-minutes earlier to an appointment to give yourself a buffer and practice mindfulness if you arrive early.
- Avoid over promising and under delivering and practice “present moment” thinking.
I encourage you to continue your journey toward self-awareness and practicing better impulse control. Take charge of your success in life and the workplace and build a positive leadership reputation. Remember this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey not a destination.”
By Bobi Seredich