Twenty years ago, McKinsey predicted that the success of organizations would primarily depend on their ability to identify, develop, and retain top talent. Those employees are responsible for most of their employer’s productivity, revenues, profits, etc., and are therefore also the key to outperforming their competitors.
Today, few companies would disagree. There is also ample scientific evidence that in any workgroup or team, a small but vital number of people have a disproportionately high impact on that unit’s performance and success.
The last two decades of academic research reveals that these indispensable individuals are far more similar across jobs, cultures, and industries than most people think. They have three major traits that set them apart. They tend to be smart and curious, which means they learn faster and better than others. They tend to have better people skills, so they are more effective in their interpersonal relations. They are more driven and hard-working than their peers, which explains their higher productivity rates.
But one critical dimension of talent appears to have been mostly forgotten and is surprisingly absent from companies’ competency frameworks and high-potential models. Its importance is such that it can amplify or extinguish any other aspect of talent, including the benefits of learning ability, people skills, and work ethic.
That trait is self-control, and it explains why some people are much better able to resist temptations and make short-term sacrifices to pursue more meaningful long-term goals, not just at work, but in any area of life. Without self-control, every other virtue, skill, or ability is rendered futile, as any significant accomplishment starts with the ability to manage yourself. As Plato said: “The first and best victory is to conquer self.”
Scientific research suggests there are five key reasons for the critical importance of self-control in the workplace.
It enables focus
We live in an age of information overload and ubiquitous digital distractions. And as Herbert Simon noted, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Academic research shows that individuals with higher levels of self-control are better able to ignore distractions, which enables them to concentrate more and achieve higher levels of performance.
It fuels learning
Curiosity is a sought-after trait by many top organizations, including Google and Amazon. But the type of curiosity they seek aligns with what psychologists call the bright side of curiosity. That means those people can be so deeply immersed in a subject that they are able to develop superior levels of expertise and skill that provide a competitive advantage to both the employee and the employer. Unleashing this positive aspect of curiosity and key knowledge driver requires shutting down its dark side. That is the short-term glut that pushes individuals to consume trivial content, as a short-term cure to boredom, and a lazy alternative to focus and concentration. The more self-control you have, the less time you will waste binging on random YouTube clips or looking at the Facebook photos of your neighbor’s cat having breakfast.
It promotes resilience
As Daniel Markovits highlights in his excellent new book, The Meritocracy Trap, we live in an age of unprecedented competition for jobs and career success, where even the most highly skilled and employable individuals are pushed into longer and more intense working hours. In this ever more complex and unpredictable world, nobody can succeed unless they are able to marshal the necessary levels of resilience and stress tolerance. People with higher levels of self-control are more likely to be in this category.
It boosts employee engagement and job satisfaction
As a recent meta-analysis shows, employees’ personality is as important a predictor of their level of engagement and job satisfaction as the actual job they are in. This means that one of the best ways to ensure that your workforce is engaged is to hire people with a predisposition to enjoy work and be enthusiastic about their careers. Self-control is one of the key traits that distinguish employees who are more engaged at work.
It avoids toxic leadership
Self-control is a strong predictor of ethical and prosocial behavior. When employees who lack self-control are promoted into management or leadership roles, they misbehave. Sadly, this happens all too often, which explains harassment and the prevalence of leaders who engage in other reckless, entitled, and antisocial behaviors at work. Incidentally, if we selected leaders on the basis of their self-control, the majority of them would be female.
When you look for talented people, focus not just on what they know or their likability. Pay attention to their ability to control their urges and keep their impulses in check. This evidence-based recommendation is in stark contrast with much of the popular self-help advice you will find online on just being yourself and bringing your authentic self to work.
Self-control is as underrated as authenticity is overrated. There’s no need to go against one’s values and principles, but the most productive and rewarding version of you will require a healthy degree of restraint and self-censorship, and that can only be achieved if you exercise self-control.