Imagine 643 four-year-olds sitting alone in a room, each with a single marshmallow in front of them. A psychologist tells each child that he is going to leave the room for 15 minutes, and gives them a choice: eat the marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes until his return and if the marshmallow is uneaten receive a second. In other words, a 100% return on investment a quarter of an hour. Not bad for a sacrifice of a mere 15 minutes. For a four-year-old, however, waiting 15 minutes to eat something they like is something akin to an adult waiting three or four hours for a cup of coffee: a very long time.
Most of the children struggled to resist the marshmallow immediately, and held out for an average of less than three minutes. One out of three, however, successfully held on until the researcher returned a few minutes later. These children understood the most important factor in achieving success in life: self-discipline. The ability to delay gratification. Sacrifice now to get more later.
Where Are They Now?
That brilliant experiment was designed by Dr. Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. Around 1981, Dr. Mischel sent out questionnaires to all the parents and teachers of the 643 children that participated in the study, who were then in high school. He asked about different traits, such as their ability to think ahead, solve problems and get along with others. He also asked for their SAT scores.
The results showed that the children who ate the marshmallow quickly seemed more likely to have behavioral problems at school and at home. They had difficulty dealing with stress, exhibited short attention spans, and were not very good at making and keeping friends.
Those who were able to wait the 15 minutes had SAT scores that, on average, were 213 points higher than the ones who could not. They also were better adjusted to life, had higher grades and better relationships with their teachers and peers, and had well-defined goals for the future.
An Additional Experiment
In another experiment measuring the results of self-discipline, researchers in New Zealand tracked children from the moment they were born until they turned 32. The children with high self-control grew up into adults who, in general, had better physical health, including lower rates of being overweight, fewer sexually transmitted diseases and better dental health. (It seems that if you have self-discipline, you will floss and brush your teeth regularly.)
Those with poor self-discipline also tended to end up financially challenged. They held lower-paying jobs, had little or no money in the bank and were less likely to own their own homes.
Taking all of this information into account, there is no doubt that in business and in life, successful leaders or managers have qualities that followers do not.
So what do we know about leadership, when it is defined in terms of the ability to build and maintain a successful team? And how does it relate to the marshmallow study?
Effective leaders tend to be resilient and handle stress well. They are good at promoting a vision, and they are able to translate that shared vision into reality. They are problem-solvers, set high goals and persist until a goal is achieved. In other words, they are “marshmallow resisters.” They have self-discipline and are able to focus on their objective.
About 60% of those currently in leadership positions in companies throughout America will not make it. They will be demoted, fired or laterally promoted to a position in which they cannot do harm. Why? Because they simply cannot build a team. These “marshmallow eaters” are not able to set an example and are often late and/or disorganized.
Bad management is the No. 1 cause of employee dissatisfaction. Managers that lack self-discipline have great difficulty in keeping morale high, motivating their employees and seeing the big picture instead of just the immediate results. They are not willing to sacrifice short-term success and fall short of expectations in order to reach long-term goals. Be warned: Employees do not really quit organizations, they quit their supervisors.
What if you are not naturally a “marshmallow resister?” Here are a few tips on how to implement self-discipline in your life.
Schedule tasks on your electronic or paper planner. Assign them according to importance, as follows: A) what is urgent and must be done today, B) important tasks that must be done, but not necessarily today, and C) optional tasks.
Learn how to take control of your weak moments. We all have them. For example, you may be easily susceptible to distractions, such as friends and coworkers stopping by your office for social calls. If you need to get something done, close the door and hang up a “busy” sign.
We all have to save money for a rainy day. Ideally, you should save 10%. Have your company deduct it automatically. If you do not touch the money, you will avoid the temptation to spend it or the possibility of “forgetting” to deposit it—in which case, it will end up in your wallet anyway. Otherwise, take it out of your paycheck at the bank and deposit it on the spot into an interest-bearing account.
Self-discipline can be taught, but it is easier said than done. People who truly want to acquire it can learn techniques to force themselves to be disciplined. Without this crucial quality, it will be very challenging to succeed in life and in business.
Joachim de Posada, PhD, is an international motivational speaker, radio and TV personality, author, and newspaper columnist who has spoken in more than 50 countries about leadership, team-building, sales and management. His new book, Keep Your Eye on the Marshmallow! (Berkley) is on sale on May 7, 2013.