In a 1972 Stanford study, researchers offered children a choice between an immediate small reward or a delayed but larger reward. The children had to decide between accepting one marshmallow right away or waiting fifteen minutes to receive two marshmallows. The test measured children’s ability to avoid impulsivity and think about long-term goals.
Though the test seemed simple, researchers found that children who waited for the larger, delayed reward were more likely to have higher SAT scores, higher levels of education, and a healthy BMI as adults.
The results of the Stanford marshmallow experiment showed that individuals prone to impulsive behavior might experience negative consequences in many areas of their life. In contrast, those who consider long-term consequences and rewards are more likely to be successful.
Impulsive behavior can be especially detrimental in the business world. Business leaders can negatively impact customers, clients, colleagues, and shareholders when they fail to consider the future implications of their decisions. A deliberate rather than impulsive leader can avoid wasteful spending, ineffective projects, and risky investments while creating an efficient and positive work environment.
In this article, learn how to develop strategies for avoiding impulsivity and replacing it with deliberate and effective leadership.
- Impulsive behavior involves acting on immediate impulses or desires without considering the long-term effects or potential risks.
- Impulsivity in leaders can cause financial problems, reputation damage, a negative workplace culture, or legal issues.
- Increased impulsivity could be caused by mental health conditions, stress, trauma, addiction, changes in the brain, or social and cultural factors.
- A healthy lifestyle, mindfulness, planning, resilience, self-awareness, therapy, and medical interventions can help you control impulsivity.
What Is Impulsive Behavior?
Impulsive behavior involves acting on immediate impulses or desires, often without considering the long-term effects or potential risks. There is typically minimal forethought or planning involved in impulsive decisions.
Some examples of impulsive behavior include:
- Firing an employee in a moment of anger
- Interrupting a conversation
- Abruptly starting or stopping projects
- Making purchases without considering a budget
- Pursuing risky investments or activities
- Choose short-term rewards at the expense of long-term success
While nearly everyone will act impulsively occasionally, when impulsive behavior becomes a habit, it can introduce risk in all areas of your life such as your finances and relationships.
Consequences of Impulsivity in Leaders
Numerous financial issues can arise when leaders fail to think long-term. Leaders who get excited about rapid growth might fail to protect themselves against financial risks. Some companies find themselves with a surplus of inventory, equipment, or employees, hurting their bottom line. An impulsive leader might also start projects only to abandon them later, wasting the money spent.
In 2023, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced the company would be laying off 15% of its workforce. He explained one of the reasons for this was the rapid growth experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. He explained the mistakes the company made while expanding, saying, “Within 24 months, Zoom grew 3x in size to manage this demand while enabling continued innovation . . . But we also made mistakes. We didn’t take as much time as we should have to thoroughly analyze our teams or assess if we were growing sustainably toward the highest priorities.”
Acting without considering the consequences can cause damage to your company’s reputation or your personal reputation. In 2013, when Senior Director of Communications at IAC Justine Sacco tweeted three harsh jokes before getting on an international flight, her name went viral within a few hours, and hundreds of thousands of people online criticized her. Her story shows how quickly a poorly planned comment can hurt a reputation.
Negative Workplace Culture
When leaders speak or act without thinking, they might take their negative emotions out on their colleagues and employees by speaking disrespectfully.
A 2022 study from MIT Sloan found that feeling disrespected at work had a more significant negative impact on an employee’s rating of corporate culture than any other topic. A separate study from the same year found that toxic culture was the largest driver of employee resignations. These studies show that leaders must carefully consider their words and actions to ensure their employees feel respected.
Leaders who are deliberate with their decisions are less likely to run into legal trouble. Impulsive leaders may hastily sign agreements without thorough research, leading to a violation of regulations or future breached contracts. Similarly, impulsive decision-making can lead to engaging in unlawful practices when a leader doesn’t understand all the regulations involved in their industry.
In 2022, several high-profile celebrities came under legal fire for their previous endorsements of the now-bankrupt and controversy-ridden cryptocurrency company FTX. The celebrities named in the lawsuit include Tom Brady, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry David, and Giselle Bundchen.
However, one celebrity escaped the lawsuit because she did her due diligence when asked to promote FTX. The company approached Taylor Swift in 2021 about a $100 million sponsorship. However, before agreeing, she asked, “Can you tell me that these are not unregistered securities?”
When the company could not reassure Swift that the securities were registered and legal, she backed out of the deal. According to attorney, Adam Moscowitz, Swift was one of very few celebrities to ask this question. She showed how a careful decision-making process provides legal protection down the road.
Causes of Impulsive Behavior
Some people are regularly more impulsive due to their genetics, upbringing, or habits. However, an increase in impulsive behaviors could indicate another issue. If you’ve noticed an increase in impulsivity in yourself or someone else, any of the following causes could be to blame:
- Mental health conditions: Several mental illnesses affect brain function, mood, and behavior, which can cause impulsivity. Individuals experiencing a personality disorder, bipolar disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression are at a higher risk for making impulsive decisions.
- Addiction: Addiction affects the brain’s reward system. This makes it difficult for individuals struggling with addiction to weigh the long-term consequences of engaging in a harmful activity because they are highly focused on short-term rewards.
- Trauma and stress: Trauma and stress activate a person’s fight or flight response, causing heightened emotional reactivity and making a person more likely to engage in risky behaviors as a coping mechanism.
- Changes in the brain: Decision-making occurs in the frontal and prefrontal cortex. When children and teenagers act impulsively, it is often because they access these parts of the brain differently than adults. Similarly, if a person experiences damage to these parts of the brain, they may struggle with impulse control.
Example of Impulsivity in Business Leadership
Tech mogul Elon Musk is an excellent example of a leader with many strengths but who also suffers setbacks due to impulsive behavior. Musk has said his impulsive tweets have gotten him into trouble. When Musk tweeted in 2018 that he planned to take Tesla private, the SEC fined him $20 million for misleading investors. In an interview with the BBC, he said, “Have I shot myself in the foot with tweets multiple times? Yes,” and, “I think I should not tweet after 3 a.m.”
Over the years, that impulsivity has caused Musk financial issues, legal problems, and reputation damage. One example of this was Musk’s 2022 offer to buy Twitter for $44 billion, a price well above its value. He later reconsidered the offer and tried to pull out, but a lawsuit forced him to move forward.
Musk made several rapid changes after officially taking over the company, causing many advertisers to pull out. According to a senior Twitter manager, revenue was down 40% after 500 advertisers pulled out. That year, Musk set a world record for the greatest loss of personal wealth in recorded history.
How to Control Impulsive Behavior
Whether stress, genetics, or bad habits have caused you to become more impulsive, there are strategies for improving impulse control. Becoming a deliberate and thoughtful leader requires practice and a commitment to change. Follow these six steps to reduce impulsivity:
1. Practice Self-Care
Taking care of yourself is important for reducing impulsive behavior because it helps you feel better and improve cognitive functioning. Decision-making is highly impacted by your physical health and brain health, so it’s essential to keep both your body and mind in good condition.
Here’s how to improve your self-care practices to keep yourself healthy:
- Establish a routine: A structured daily routine provides stability and reduces impulsivity. Plan your activities, meals, and rest periods in advance, and stick to the schedule as much as possible. This helps to minimize impulsive decisions driven by momentary urges or distractions.
- Implement good sleep habits: Prioritizing sufficient sleep is essential for impulse control and cognitive functioning. Aim for a consistent sleep schedule and create a sleep-friendly environment that promotes quality rest. The average adult needs 7 or more hours each night.
- Exercise regularly: Physical activity releases endorphins, reduces stress, and enhances overall well-being, all of which can contribute to decreased impulsivity.
- Eat a healthy diet: A balanced and nutritious diet supports brain health and can positively influence impulse control. Avoid excessive consumption of sugar, processed foods, and stimulants like caffeine, as they can contribute to impulsive behavior. Opt for whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for brain function.
2. Increase Mindfulness
Mindfulness reduces impulsive behavior by making you more aware of what’s happening in the present moment. When you practice mindfulness, you learn to notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judging them. This awareness helps you recognize impulsive urges when they arise. Instead of immediately acting on them, mindfulness lets you choose how to respond and helps you think about the consequences to make better decisions that align with your goals.
Here are some strategies to develop mindfulness:
- Mindful Breathing: Practice focused breathing exercises to bring attention to the present moment. Take slow, deep breaths, and consciously observe the sensation of each breath. This helps anchor your awareness in the present and reduces reactivity to impulsive urges.
- Body Scan: Body scanning is a method of systematically bringing attention to different parts of your body and noticing any sensations or tension. This practice cultivates body awareness and helps you recognize physical signs of stress or impulsivity, allowing you to respond more skillfully.
- Meditation: Set aside dedicated time for formal meditation practice. Start with short sessions and gradually increase the duration. Focus on observing your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment. Regular meditation trains the mind to become more aware and less reactive.
3. Build Resilience
Building resilience reduces impulsivity by equipping individuals with the ability to bounce back from challenges and setbacks. Resilient individuals can better manage stress, regulate emotions, and cope with difficult situations. This increased resilience promotes a more balanced and composed state of mind, reducing the likelihood of impulsive reactions driven by intense emotions or frustration.
Try these methods to increase resilience:
- Practice time management and prioritize tasks: Break down overwhelming tasks into smaller, manageable steps and prioritize them based on importance and urgency. Effective time management helps reduce stress by providing a sense of control and accomplishment.
- Foster a positive mindset: Develop a resilient mindset by cultivating optimism, focusing on strengths, and reframing challenges as opportunities for growth. Practice gratitude and positive self-talk to shift your perspective toward a more positive outlook.
- Set boundaries: Learn to say “no” when necessary and establish boundaries that protect your physical and emotional well-being. Prioritize activities that recharge and rejuvenate you, such as engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or practicing relaxation techniques.
- Seek support: Don’t hesitate to reach out for support when needed. Talk to trusted friends, family members, or professionals such as therapists or counselors who can provide guidance, perspective, and assistance during challenging times.
4. Develop a Clear Vision and Strategy
A clear vision and strategy can reduce impulsivity by providing a sense of direction, focus, and purpose. A visionary and strategic leader can make decisions aligned with their goals and minimize the influence of short-term emotions or distractions. With a clear vision, leaders can assess potential opportunities or challenges against their strategic objectives, rather than being swayed by short-term impulses.
Here’s how it works:
- Align your goals: A clear vision and strategy help align actions and decisions with long-term goals. The vision serves as a guiding principle that informs decision-making and helps individuals evaluate the potential consequences of impulsive actions.
- Create a decision framework: A well-defined strategy provides a decision-making framework that guides individuals in evaluating choices and making informed decisions. It outlines the priorities, values, and criteria against which decisions should be assessed. This framework can be referred to when big decisions arise so leaders don’t have to rely on gut feelings and impulses.
- Develop a long-term orientation: A clear vision and strategy foster a long-term orientation, emphasizing sustainable growth and success. This perspective encourages individuals to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, discouraging impulsive decisions that offer short-term benefits but may harm long-term objectives.
5. Surround Yourself With Trusted Advisors
Bold leaders who want to move forward with confidence but avoid rash decisions can surround themselves with people they trust who will help them catch mistakes, point out blind spots, and offer alternative perspectives in the decision-making process. Trusted advisors can also serve as a source of accountability, reminding you to reflect on your choices and consider the long-term impact. By relying on their wisdom and guidance, you can make more informed and rational decisions, reducing the likelihood of impulsive behavior.
Start building relationships with individuals with the following qualities, so you can have a circle of people you can count on:
- Expertise and knowledge
- Confidence and willingness to speak up
- Strategic thinking
6. Consult a Doctor About Medical Interventions
When impulsivity is caused by a mental health condition, addiction, brain injury, or trauma, treating these issues can help you avoid impulsivity. Work with a medical provider to determine if medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, or another treatment option will help you manage your diagnosis.
These interventions can help individuals develop greater awareness of their impulsive behavior and learn strategies for coping with triggers, breaking habits, and managing underlying issues that could be causing the impulsivity.
Avoid Impulsivity and Practice Strategic Leadership
Strategic leadership allows organizations to move forward confidently and deliberately without making hasty, impulsive decisions. Strategic leaders possess a clear vision, cultivate innovation, take decisive action, and drive excellence. Look for strategic role models to emulate as you grow as a leader.
Here are a few examples of top strategic leaders:
- Ray Dalio: Ray Dalio took a unique approach to finance by studying history to predict economic conditions, allowing him to successfully navigate booms and busts, including the 2008 downturn.
- Steve Jobs: Jobs revolutionized the world with his visionary leadership, introducing groundbreaking products like personal computers, smartphones, and iTunes.
- Bob Iger: As CEO of Disney, Iger identified areas for improvement and developed a vision. His strategy focused on investing in quality content, leveraging technology for better reach, and expanding into global markets. Disney’s success in the past decade, especially with Disney+, demonstrates the effectiveness of these priorities.
To learn more about strategic leadership and mental health in the workplace, check out these articles:
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