Self-Control: The Surprising Path to Power

In a world where impulsive behavior by CEOs and powerful figures often dominates headlines, new research suggests that the true pathway to power lies in exhibiting self-control. A study conducted by researchers from the UC San Diego Rady School of Management and Texas A&M University reveals that individuals who demonstrate self-control are perceived as more powerful and better suited for leadership roles.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study involved seven experiments with roughly 3,500 participants, including students and working adults. Across these experiments, individuals who exhibited self-control – defined as behaving in alignment with their goals – were consistently viewed as more powerful and better equipped for high-power roles compared to those with low self-control.

“It did not matter whether the colleague seemed to deliberate before acting, or just acted without thinking,” said Pamela Smith, associate professor of management at the Rady School of Management and co-author of the study. “What mattered for participants’ judgments was whether the colleague acted in line with their goals. This pattern held across a variety of goals in our experiments, including saving money, being healthy and reading books.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that people are perceived as less powerful and less suited for powerful roles when they fail to meet ambitious goals, even if their performance is the same as their peers. In one experiment, undergraduate students interacted with individuals who set varying reading goals. Those who set ambitious goals but fell short were seen as less powerful, and participants were less interested in having them as group leaders for subsequent tasks.

“To motivate their employees, organizations often want employees to set stretch goals – goals that are challenging and hard-to-reach. However, we found that setting a stretch goal and not meeting it makes someone look less powerful than setting an easy goal and surpassing it,” said Rady School PhD student Shuang Wu, the first author of the paper.

The findings challenge the notion that impulsivity and disregard for rules are pathways to power, suggesting instead that self-control and goal-aligned behavior are more likely to garner respect and influence from peers.

The paper, “Self-Control Signals and Affords Power,” was also co-authored with Texas A&M University associate professor Rachel Smallman.

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